Speaker Spotlight: Dan Heath
by Josh Corman

THE 2022 ISPA CONFERENCE WILL BRING THE ISPA COMMUNITY TOGETHER in person for the first time since 2019, but that’s not the only reason that this year’s event is shaping up to be one of the most memorable ever. An impressive lineup of Power Session speakers and the wide range of educational opportunities on tap for 2022 mean that each day will be packed with inspiration and practical takeaways sure to reinvigorate attendees as our industry continues to recover from the events of the past two years.

In coming issues of Pulse, we’ll introduce our Power Session speakers and give them a chance to share more about themselves and their work in advance of the big event in May. First up: Dan Heath, entrepreneurial expert, bestselling author, renowned speaker and Senior Fellow at Duke University’s CASE Center.

Pulse: What does your work at Duke University’s CASE center look like in practice?

DAN HEATH: I’m a “Senior Fellow” at CASE, which is basically a glorified volunteer position. Over the years, I’ve been involved with lots of programs and events that share the same spirit, which is to encourage and support MBA students who are interested in using their talents to create positive social impact.

P: Why does the “social good” aspect of entrepreneurship interest you?

H: When I grew up, there was “charity”—like soup kitchens and such—and there was “business.” There was a bright line between the two. If you were in business, then you were supposed to pursue profits ruthlessly and ignore anything and anyone else. But there’s a new breed of entrepreneurs who are blending charity and business. VisionSpring, for instance, has developed a for-profit model for selling eyeglasses very cheaply in the developing world. So is it a business? Yes. But its actual mission is to help people see. The point of making money is mainly to lessen their dependence on donors and to reach more people who need the glasses. So money is a means to an end rather than The End. I find that blended model very intriguing and hopeful.

P: Your most recent book, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, distinguishes between “upstream” and “downstream” thinking. What distinguishes the two?

H: There’s a parable (often attributed to Irving Zola) that captures the distinction: You and a friend are having a picnic by the side of a river. Suddenly you hear a shout from the direction of the water—a child is drowning. Without thinking, you both dive in, grab the child, and swim to shore. Before you can recover, you hear another child cry for help. You and your friend jump back in the river to rescue her as well. Then another struggling child drifts into sight . . . and another . . . and another. The two of you can barely keep up. Suddenly, you see your friend wading out of the water, seeming to leave you alone. “Where are you going?” you demand. Your friend answers, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.” That’s what I’m getting at in this book. So often we get stuck in a cycle of reaction. We’re constantly putting out fires and responding to emergencies, and that cycle becomes self-perpetuating, because every minute spent reacting to a problem is a minute not spent preventing it. We can spend our whole lives in that mode of reaction unless we consciously shift our focus upstream.

P: Do you have a favorite example of a switch from a downstream to upstream thinking that yielded especially impressive results?

H: I was struck by the story of Interface, a public company. They made carpet out of nylon (a petroleum product), which meant that were making products out of fossil fuels using the energy supplied by fossil fuels—a double whammy of environmental degradation. But the CEO Ray Anderson, late in his career, had this searing realization: How will I be remembered? What if my legacy is that I made a lot of money polluting the earth? And so he changes everything. He demands that Interface change its business to produce zero environmental impact. Zero! People thought he was nuts. But to a large extent, he succeeded. Ray Anderson’s epiphany changed an industry. It shows us what’s possible with a simple shift in mindset.

P: “Problem Blindness” is a concept you discuss at length in Upstream. Why does problem blindness happen in the first place, and what shifts in thinking are key to overcoming it?

H: Problem blindness says that we can’t fix a problem if we can’t see it. Sometimes a problem is so ubiquitous that we stop perceiving it as a “problem.” It just seems like an inevitable part of life. Think of sexual harassment in the workplace in the 60s and 70s. It was so widespread that women were often encouraged to just roll with it! Often the first step, in moving upstream, is to overcome problem blindness by opening our eyes and reminding ourselves: Hey, we have agency here. We don’t have to accept this state of affairs as “natural.”

P: Spa leaders are currently wearing many hats as they navigate through talent shortages and often find themselves “tunneling” to keep things moving forward. What are some ways that spa leaders can change their thought process and stop “tunneling?”

H: Tunneling (a term from the book ) refers to a lack of bandwidth to solve problems. In a tunnel, you try to make your way forward. If you hit a problem, you just want to work around it in and get it behind you so you can keep moving. You don’t have the time or energy to ask, “Why did that problem happen? Could I solve it at a systemic level?” You just keep going. Tunneling is very familiar, I suspect, to most of us. But it’s a terrible trap. Because when you work around problems, two things happen: One, you allow yourself to keep moving forward, in the moment; and two, you doom yourself to encountering that problem again the next month and the next year.

In the book, I argue that it may be impossible to “solve” tunneling entirely. But even brief escapes from the tunnel can give us hope. Let’s say there’s some recurring problem your staffers face—an irritant. Maybe they consistently run out of towels, or maybe there are temperature issues, or maybe there are cancellations that don’t get communicated in a timely manner. The question I’d have for you, as the leader, would be: Is there a forum where you encourage your staffers to surface these recurring problems and then assign resources and accountability to find a solution? If not, your people may continue tunneling forever. And you might not even know about it!

P: If you could give the business owners and leaders who make up the core of the ISPA community one piece of advice to consider between now and Conference in May, what would it be?
H: Consider that the only way to guarantee that your business runs more smoothly next year than this year is to escape the cycle of firefighting and reorganize your work around fire prevention. That’s upstream thinking.

Fun Facts

What are your favorite hobbies?
I have daughters who are five and three. There’s no such thing as a hobby.

How would you spend your ideal day off?
In a hammock in Fiji, reading a book.

What do you do to relax and reduce stress?
Walk. It never fails.

What is your favorite book?
I love anything by Haruki Murakami.

What is your favorite song?
“Don’t Let Me Down” by the Beatles. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.