How We Handle Business Problems With Upstream Thinking


I read the book Upstream by Dan Heath which highlighted the process of working on problems. I couldn’t help but draw parallels to several business situations we’ve all faced. In fact, I think we often stumble into upstream thinking while working on problems. But incorporating it in a deliberate and consistent way can significantly reduce the overheads for your firm. Upstream thinking is simply about identifying root causes and preventing problems. Regardless of the role we play in any organization (or at home!), the principles of upstream thinking can be very effective. 

I want to share a few examples of areas where Upstream thinking can be applied. These are examples of how we manage our business at Varasi and our customer projects.


  • Hiring – There are four pillars that make your professional life meaningful. You have to be excited about the purpose that drives your firm, the quality of work, the people you work with and of course the compensation. We spend a painful amount of time working on these pillars so that we don’t have to manage typical HR issues around retention and employee engagement.
  • Feedback system – We don’t have annual appraisals. We don’t believe in waiting for the end of the year and talking about what happened 12 months back. Constructive feedback has to be timely and should lead to corrective action before the issues become unmanageable.
  • Retention – There is a lot of effort spent by companies in trying to retain people. We believe in rehiring people. Every year, we assess if we want to rehire our employees. If we do, then we do exactly what we would do if we were hiring someone new. This eliminates the need for spending cycles on retention.

Customer Projects

  • Principal involvement – We ensure that we have very senior people from our firm involved with projects at early stages. There are many aspects of the customer’s business and needs that cannot be explicitly conveyed by the customer. Early engagement by senior management ensures that the engagement is set up right and drastically improves the probability of customer delight.
  • Involving users early – So many projects end up in surprises over customer expectations that are revealed at later stages in a project. One of the techniques we use is to share prototypes and work-in-progress systems with the super users. This helps us uncover these gaps earlier during the project.
  • Encouraging change – Change is a feared word in typical software solutions projects. There is tension between the users and the implementation team when it comes to handling changes. The conversation is uncomfortable because change is resisted. We flip this on its head. We embrace and even encourage change. We deliberately create opportunities for users to change their minds. Our motto is to get the changes to come in early. We all know that the earlier the changes come the easier it is to accommodate them, so we design our processes to facilitate that.


  • Finding customer compatibility – It is extremely important for a professional services firm to find customers who are great to work with and also value your contribution. The value we are adding and how our customers treat us is extremely important to us. Often these signals can be picked up during your sales cycle. Customer-partner incompatibilities could lead to unsatisfied customers and even HR issues at professional services firms. 

These are just a few examples where we apply upstream thinking. Remember Upstream is not a destination. It is a direction. You can address Upstream problems at different points. You can read more about upstream thinking in the book Upstream by Dan Heath.

Anil Nair