David Bowie vs. Alan Gilbert

alan-gilbert-conductingI recently watched Charlie Rose interview New York Philharmonic conductor Alan Gilbert (pictured at right).

During the interview, Gilbert described how he slowly and in small increments moved the Philharmonic musicians (and by extension their audiences) from a traditional view to a thoroughly new one of how concerts may be performed.

First, Gilbert had the musicians crumple up pieces of paper and throw them at him at the end of a concert. (I know: radical stuff! Call the concert police!)

Over the next ten (yes, ten) years, he made other small changes in the performances, and along the way earned enough trust from both musicians and audiences to permit occasional rowdy behavior, as when the musicians don wild, themed costumes and move freely around the stage while playing.

It was interesting to hear about these amusing wrinkles in standard concert behavior; but what struck me most vividly was Gilbert’s willingness to “meet [the musicians] where they were,” and the patience and skill it took to make that journey.

David-BowieBy contrast, we – his fans – had to meet singer, composer, musician, artist, and creative spirit David Bowie, who died earlier this year just days after releasing yet another ground-breaking, game-changing album, where he was.

Often described as a visionary chameleon, Bowie hit the ’70’s music scene with a look, sound, and attitude that caught most people by surprise. His physical appearance alone made the Beatles and the Stones look like schoolboys in short pants.

He didn’t just bend conventional ideas on gender, art, music, performance, costume, and genre; he took them on a Turkish Taffy roller coaster ride inside a house of mirrors. Unlike Alan Gilbert, he showed up living and performing his vision, and invited us to come along-or not. We had to meet Bowie where he was, not the other way around.

I would love to conduct my career in the spirit of David Bowie, but I’m a pragmatist (with a mortgage) working in an industry that moves at its own pace. As a result, I’m continually learning new ways to meet people where they are. I imagine most of you are, too.

In that spirit, I offer here three approaches I’ve found helpful when I work with groups that need me to meet them where they are:

  • Use Small Demonstrations of Data Visualization Best Practices.

    Identify existing reports and dashboards that may be improved by replacing a poor display device (like a pie chart) with a bar chart; or changing a three- (or more) part stacked bar chart to a small multiple display.

    By making such modest changes, you can begin to move people toward using and understanding the best practices of data visualization at a pace they find comfortable and easy to accept.

  • Focus on Areas with the Most Evident ROI.

    Identify spots where data is urgently and immediately needed to prevent the imposition of a penalty or to mitigate risk, and is not being well reported (i.e., data reports are onerous and hard to use).

    One example might be performance metrics tied to CMS Annual Payment Updates, or data analysis to identify and manage patient risk factors for outcomes such as morbidity or mortality. Such weak places are often great starting targets, because the return on investment can be easily quantified.

    People are under pressure to actively manage information and avoid ineffective or confusing results, and therefore more open to new ways of seeing, thinking, and analyzing.

  • Look for Blank Canvases.

    Seek the areas and groups where no dashboards or reports exist. If you’re lucky enough to find such a situation, you’ll get the chance to use the best practices of data visualization from the start, and to capture people’s support for those best practices right away.

Listening to Alan Gilbert describe small but powerful steps toward realizing his vision for the Philharmonic was good for me: it helped me remember that although I do believe in change, I sometimes need to retreat – as most of us do – to the reassuring fallback position “Change is good. You go first!” all while humming to Bowie playing softly in the background: “Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes, turn and face the strain, Ch-ch-Changes…”

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