Follow The Trickle

In leadership, when we begin to investigate the cause of a problem, many times we fail to dig deep enough. We tend to point at a cause that is only one layer, perhaps two, beneath the surface. But sometimes the well of causation is much deeper. We are busy and we know people are expecting a fix; which is part of our job. As leaders, we are fixers. So we often recommend a solution that seems obvious to most onlookers when it is offered.

But we should resist.

In his book, The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg describes the career of Paul O’Neill. Prior to being hired as the CEO of Alcoa (where he catalyzed in increase in company revenue from $1.5 billion to $23 billion by simply focusing on the keystone habit of making Aluminum smelting plants safer) O’Neill served as the deputy director of the United States Office of Management and Budget. One job with which he was tasked in this role was analyzing federal spending on health care so America’s high infant mortality rate at that time was of particular interest to him. When one would suggest an answer to this problem, however, O’Neill was not satisfied with the solution. Duhigg writes, “Whenever someone came into O’Neill’s office with some discovery, O’Neill would start interrogating them with new inquiries. He drove people crazy with his never-ending push to learn more, to understand what was really going on.”

In terms of high infant mortality rates, one would think that medical facilities or personnel would be to blame and, therefore, the solution would arise from that same arena. Simply upgrade the facilities or improve the education of medical personnel and there you have it. Problem solved. Not so fast though for Paul O’Neill.

Premature births was one of the biggest causes behind infant mortality. The premature births were caused by malnourishment of mothers prior to pregnancy. Malnourishment of mothers prior to pregnancy was caused by a lack of knowledge when it came to nutrition. As you can see, the government discovered a need for women to be educated about proper nutrition prior to becoming sexually active. However, O’Neill also discovered that high school faculty were not educated well enough on basic biology to be able to teach proper nutrition. Duhigg explains, “In the case of premature deaths, changing collegiate curriculums for teachers started a chain reaction that eventually trickled down to how girls were educated in rural areas, and whether they were sufficiently nourished when they became pregnant.” And voila, better education of future high school biology teachers is the solution to the high infant mortality rate. Who would have put those two together at the begging of the probe into America’s high infant mortality rate?

However, in the institutional church, we quite often jump to solutions without adequately exploring the trail of causation. For example, we assume that people in leadership simply need more education. Rather than digging deep to understand the root cause of the issue at hand (whatever it may be), we assume that if the leadership were better educated, then these types of problems could be avoided. So we have a lot of PhD’s (please note that I believe quality education is vital and it should always remain a high priority for all people) but yet the mainline church continues to lose traction.

This notion also plays out through other “easy” solutions such as updated technology (again, a good and useful tool), more contemporary music (also necessary in many contexts), a snazzier color of carpet, different flavors of ice cream, and so on. But perhaps, rather than simply piling on formal education, updating technology, or blindly jumping onboard with the current trends, the church would reap a greater benefit from more people who are willing to follow the trickle.

So did tweaking the collegiate curriculum work? Today the infant mortality rate in America is 68% lower than it was prior to O’Neill’s initiative.


How have you seen organizations choose the quick, or even presupposed, fix? What would it have looked like to, instead, “follow the trickle?”

3 thoughts on “Follow The Trickle

  1. I will steal a term I learned in working with Brody, namely that it is easy for us as leaders and institutions to fall into “tool seduction”. We believe that if we have the right tools (technology, education, etc. as you list above) everything else will fall into place. In reality, the process is rarely that linear and the tools are not easy buttons or magic tricks. The tools are not substitutes for hard work or relationships but should be instead seen as pathways in the economy of connections.


    • Tool seduction…I love it! I will have to borrow that as well. In my recent coaching, one phrase onto which I have latched is, “relationships drive, structure supports, and programs/events are tools.” I am planning on writing more on this in the near future, but as soon as you try to drive with anything other than relationships, your mission take a turn toward superficiality.

      “Pathways in the economy of connection” is a pretty sweet phrase as well. I might have to borrow that too.


      • I like the phrase from your coaching, that is a helpful map. It is so hard to keep the relationships at the center when the model of “if we build it, they will come” has had so much traction. An updated version is, “if we use the right tool, they will come.”


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