What’s Going On Upstream?

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

Babies in the River:

I was chatting with a good friend and colleague this past week. We touched on several personal subjects and then gravitated to business topics. At one point, I was remarking about how some leaders find systems thinking to be so difficult. That triggered an oft-told story in his mind about the “River Babies.”

I’m guessing many of you have heard this parable before. The short version (here’s a link to the extended version) is that the folks from a poor village were in the fields tending the crops when someone noticed a baby floating down the nearby river. A villager jumped in to rescue the baby and saw more babies


coming down the river. All the villagers jumped in to help save babies.

Finally, one of the men got out of the river and started walking upstream. “Where are you going? We need every hand here to save the babies.” The villager replied, “I’m going upstream to find out how the babies are getting in the river in the first place.”

Soon the villagers were divided between those who wanted to keep saving babies and those who wanted to go upstream and find out how to stop them from getting in the river.

“Don’t you see,” cried some, “if we find out how they’re getting in the river, we can stop the problem, and no babies will drown? By going upstream, we can eliminate the cause of the problem!”

“But it’s too risky,” said the village elders. “It might fail. It’s not for us to change the system. And besides, how would we occupy ourselves if we no longer had this to do?”

Familiar in More Ways Than One

This parable plays out in our businesses regularly. As leaders, it is up to us to change the system. Continuous improvement requires leaders to be thinking at a systems level and not be solely focused on the task at hand. Determining the root cause of failures almost always requires changes to the environment and the processes in place.

I believe that healthy business culture is one in which everyone is looking to find out “how the babies are getting in the river in the first place.” And, as I’ve said so many times before, it is the leadership’s responsibility to manage the organization’s culture.


I find another essential leadership attribute is curiosity. If we are always curious about why things are the way they appear and how we have come to have the processes we have, we will undoubtedly uncover areas for improvement. If all employees have that same sense of curiosity about their tasks and responsibilities, continuous improvement will become the standard operating procedure.

Not Just Business

The “Babies in the River” parable applies to all manner of organizations and projects. This story is told many times in community organizing groups. I wish our government spent more time analyzing the root cause of social and economic issues. Our business, government, and economic systems are complex. When we make changes, we always find unintended consequences. While doing nothing is often not an acceptable approach, a careful analysis seems to be in short supply.

I’m happy that my friend reminded me of this parable. It is a useful reminder to make sure I’m not just putting a bandaid on a problem.