How to Recognize – and Avoid – Problem Blindness as a Leader

What’s at stake if teams do a poor job of solving problems? From a long list of potential answers, four stand out:

  • Lost time: Poor team problem solving simply burns more time. It may be more time in a meeting itself, because there were no collaboration guidelines. Perhaps it’s lost time outside of the meeting in hallway conversations, because ideas weren’t fully explored or vetted.
  • Dissipated energy: Poor team problem solving leaves questions unanswered and half-baked solutions in the atmosphere. We don’t know exactly where we stand or what we’ve decided. The thought of revisiting an unfinished conversation itself is an unwelcome burden.
  • Mediocre ideas: Poor team problem solving fortifies our weakest thinking. Innovation is something we read about but never experience. We cut-and-paste the ideas of others, because we don’t know how to generate our own. We traffic in good ideas and miss great ones.
  • Competing visions: Poor team problem solving invites an unhealthy drift toward independence. No one has the conscious thought that they have a competing vision. But in reality, there are differences to each person’s picture of their future. It’s impossible for this divergence not to happen if there is no dialogue.

So, how do you start to create the dynamic of collaborative problem solving?

SOLUTION #1: Avoid problem blindness

THE QUICK SUMMARY – Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen by Dan Heath

So often in life, we get stuck in a cycle of response. We put out fires. We deal with emergencies. We stay downstream, handling one problem after another, but we never make our way upstream to fix the systems that caused the problems. Cops chase robbers, doctors treat patients with chronic illnesses, and call-center reps address customer complaints. But many crimes, chronic illnesses, and customer complaints are preventable. So why do our efforts skew so heavily toward reaction rather than prevention?

Upstream probes the psychological forces that push us downstream—including “problem blindness,” which can leave us oblivious to serious problems in our midst. And Heath introduces us to the thinkers who have overcome these obstacles and scored massive victories by switching to an upstream mindset. One online travel website prevented twenty million customer service calls every year by making some simple tweaks to its booking system. A major urban school district cut its dropout rate in half after it figured out that it could predict which students would drop out—as early as the ninth grade. A European nation almost eliminated teenage alcohol and drug abuse by deliberately changing the nation’s culture. And one EMS system accelerated the emergency-response time of its ambulances by using data to predict where 911 calls would emerge—and forward-deploying its ambulances to stand by in those areas.

Upstream delivers practical solutions for preventing problems rather than reacting to them. How many problems in our lives and in society are we tolerating simply because we’ve forgotten that we can fix them?


Author Dan Heath believes that with some foresight, we can prevent problems before they happen, and even when we can’t stop them entirely, we can often blunt their impact.

Of course, there are barriers to this line of thinking, and the first of those barriers is profoundly simple: you can’t solve a problem you don’t see, or one that you perceive to be a regrettable but inevitable condition of life.

Problem blindness is the first barrier to upstream thinking. When we don’t see a problem, we can’t solve it. And that blindness can create passivity even in the face of enormous harm. To move upstream, we must first overcome problem blindness.

Problem blindness, also know as inattentional blindness, is a phenomenon in which our careful attention to one task leads us to miss important information that’s unrelated to that task.

Inattentional blindness leads to a lack of peripheral vision. When it’s coupled with time pressure, it can create a lack of curiosity. I’ve got to stay focused on what I’m doing. 

The escape from problem blindness begins with the shock of awareness that you’ve come to treat the abnormal as normal.

Next comes a search for community: Do other people feel this way? And with that recognition – that this phenomenon is a problem and we see it the same way – comes strength.

Something remarkable often happens next: People voluntarily hold themselves responsible for fixing problems they did not create. The upstream advocate concludes: I was not the one who created this problem. But I will be the one to fix it.

Dan Heath, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen


How can you, personally, move upstream? Consider your own problem blindness, Which problems have you come to accept as inevitable that are, in fact, nothing of the kind?

A hallmark of work by both author Dan Heath as well as his brother Chip is the excellent resources they provide. One of those is a book club guide.

Here are a few questions drawn from that guide, relating to the topic of problem blindness. Set aside some time to both reflect and act on them,

  1. Problem blindness is the belief that negative outcomes are natural or inevitable. Do you think your organization suffers from problem blindness? If so, in what areas?
  2. “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets” is a quote often used in leadership circles. Does this idea resonate with you? What examples do you see in your organization?
  3. When people reflect on our society 50 years from now, what areas do you think they will be shocked by, areas that we are suffering from problem blindness?

Excerpt taken from SUMS Remix 142-1, released April 2020

You can purchase prior issues of SUMS Remix – learn more here!


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