The River Parable

The River Parable

Two years ago, I wrote about the Starfish Parable. Since then, I’ve read several articles critiquing the message shared in that story. You’ll often find another parable with a stronger message about systemic change in those critiques.

The River Parable

Once upon a time, there was a small village on the edge of a river. The people there were good, and life in the village was good. One day a villager noticed a baby floating down the river. The villager quickly swam out to save the baby from drowning. The next day this same villager noticed two babies in the river. He called for help, and both babies were rescued from the swift waters. And the following day, four babies were caught in the turbulent current. And then eight, then more, and then still more! The villagers organized themselves quickly, setting up watchtowers and training teams of swimmers who could resist the swift waters and rescue babies.

One day the villagers noticed a young man running northward along the bank. They shouted, “Where are you going? We need you to help with the rescue.” He responded, “I am going upstream to stop whoever is throwing these kids into the river!”

What Does it all Mean?

In my opinion, the difference between dealing with an issue and preventing the issue is the real lesson here. People in a reactive state pull babies out of rivers. Leaders pull babies out of rivers AND stop people from throwing them in.

This is where the Starfish Parable stops short – no one looks into the root cause of the issue. There is only a boy who finds a starfish in the sand and throws it back in the water. Over and over again. In short, the River Parable goes further because it acknowledges the root of the issue.

When implementing software or change or both – you are often required to think with both mindsets. Implementation requires the ability to react – to address issues that come up because the work does matter. On the other hand, implementation leaders must continually review the root cause of the issues and fix them. In other words, look upstream.

References and Resources

Critique of the Starfish Parable

Looking Upstream for Solutions

Fordham Institute

Supporting Music

Radiohead – Daydreaming

The Smashing Pumpkins – Rhinoceros

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