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. Life in the village was good until a villager noticed a baby floating down the river one day. The villager quickly swam out to save the baby from drowning. The next day this same villager saw 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.
Several days passed until 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?
The real lesson here is the difference between dealing with an issue and preventing the problem. 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. In the Starfish Parable, the message is overly simplified – a boy 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 and the need to react appropriately to save lives.
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 and fix the issues’ root causes. In other words, look upstream.
References and Resources
The Parable of the River: Bedtime reading for the education reform (A.K.A. “repair”) community from Fordham Institute; Type: Article
- The Starfish Parable and the River Parable are relevant stories about making a difference.
- The River Parable, however, emphasizes the need to prevent the issues rather than react to the problem.
- Leveraging both parables, Leaders should not only possess the ability to react to problems but also work towards preventing them.