Upstream Creative Thinking and Second Order Effects

How to solve impossible problems

The concept of “upstream thinking” has helped me to solve a wide range of problems when growing my YouTube channel, ranging from small issues to large showstoppers.

Upstream thinking involves taking an existing problem and going upstream to solve a different issue, which renders the original problem irrelevant.

Take this simple dilemma for example.

When I created a poll on my channel asking viewers which country they were from, I was stuck with YouTube’s functionality that only allowed me to provide a maximum of five answers. For a channel with viewers from 193 nations, this was a simple problem that needed fixing. YouTube changing their polling functionality was highly unlikely, so I need to go upstream and think creatively to solve the problem another way.

Polling question
Any YouTube poll is limited to 5 answers

The poll was an experiment to see if I could increase user engagement. One way to do that was to get the viewer to comment with their country of choice. By providing an “Other” option in the poll and prompting the viewer to state their location, this solved the user engagement problem. However, the beauty of this upstream solution was that it rendered the existing dilemma of “How to allow more than 5 answers” irrelevant.

Polling results
Prompting the viewer led to lots of comments

A bigger fish to fry

As my videos are about personal growth and self improvement, a much larger issue I had was how I was going to get big names with large followings in the personal development space to share my videos online, despite not having a marketing budget. Without the ability to throw money at it, once again upstream creative thinking was required to resolve this tricky situation.

Most of my videos come from ideas in great books and articles I’ve read, but I’m competing with the 300 hours of video being uploaded to YouTube every minute. Why would people share my work over anybody else's? Well, what do people share a lot of? They self-promote and share their own work. So they will be more likely to share my work if it also contains their work. As a result, when I read an article that I liked, I asked the author permission to narrate it and create an animation about it. The resulting video was then often shared by the original author to their audience.


The beauty of this is that their audience already enjoys the subject of the video. This has resulted in my work being shared on other writer’s social media channels, email lists and websites.

By solving the upstream problem of “Where am I getting my ideas for videos from?” I made the original problem of “How will I get my work shared?” disappear.

Second Order Effects

When solving a problem it is important to be aware of second order effects, even when you are not going upstream. The idea of the second order effect states that every action has a consequence, and each consequence can have a subsequent consequence.

Here is an example. If one of my videos has a low CTR (click-through rate), it means the number of people clicking on the video after seeing the title and thumbnail is low. To increase the CTR, changing the video thumbnail can help. By making the thumbnail different to your other thumbnails in some way, it will stand out. People may then be more likely to click on it. However, if it is too different and does not have a similar style or branding, a potential negative second order effect is possible.

List of videos
Making a thumbnail stand out can increase the chance of it being clicked on

Viewers who enjoyed the video may look for similar looking thumbnails to watch more of your content. If the new thumbnail does not have a similar style or branding, they will not recognise the other thumbnails as being content from your channel, resulting in less views on your channel overall.

Video watch page
Similar styled thumbnails are easy to spot​​​​

If you’re not aware of second order effects, solving one problem may unintentionally create another one that’s far worse.


Some problems are impossible to solve directly. See what you can solve by refining the problem. As a result, it may fix the original issue. However, be aware of any potential negative consequences that come about from solving the problem and make sure the drawbacks don’t outweigh the benefits.

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26 January, 2020 by Adam Holownia