Lessons From A Coxswain

Several years ago when my daughter Annie became the coxswain for her high school boys’ rowing team I was over the moon psyched (happy, happy, joy, joy psyched). Here’s why: a) she got to do a very cool thing on the legendary Charles River and b) she got to yell instructions at a boat full of boys who had to do what she said.

If you are the mother of a daughter you know that it was b — yelling instructions at a boat full of boys that I was really proud of. This was true “girl power” in action.

crew team

But truth be told, I had no clue about what a coxswain’s job was or how the sport of team rowing worked. I didn’t know what commands she would be yelling or why. So Annie gave me a short lesson highlighted with examples of commands such as:

“Down on port/starboard” means that the boat is leaning and rowers on the side that is down must raise their hands, and the other side must lower their hands (good to know).

“Send it” when the boat is gliding this is the command to build speed.

“Way enough” is the command to stop rowing (if you read that one again you will see how it so makes sense….”way enough gentlemen.”)

Annie also explained to me that when they were in a race and she wanted her team to know where a rival’s boat was in relation to their boat, she would say, “they are at our two-seat” or “I am even with their coxswain.”

In crew the rowers have their heads down, focused on rhythmic, synchronized rowing and they can’t look around to see where they are, where they’re going or where the competition is. With word commands the coxswain becomes the crew’s eyes, keeping them on the course, providing context about where the team’s boat is compared to the competition and motivating the team towards the end goal — winning the race.

The coxswain helps the team to visualize the course, the race and the competition.

Which got me to thinking (oh no, not that again)…

Your team members, like the rowers, have their heads down pulling for all they’re worth trying to stay on course with healthcare data regulations and submission requirements. They’re so busy capturing and submitting data, and there is so much of it, they find it difficult to lift their heads up and report the stories buried in it all.

What I encounter most often is data displayed in a manner that conveys a sense of desperate dumping. It is as if the team lifted their heads up momentarily and capsized their boats, resulting in a whole lot of very loud and frantic thrashing which they loosely refer to as “reports.”

And while there’s no such thing as a ‘healthcare data coxswain’ (thank heavens), the value in providing clear, simple commands when sharing health data applies just as well:

1. “Context required.” For healthcare data and information to be useful it has to be in context. How big is an opportunity to improve? How far do you have to go to catch the competition? The fundamental question in analysis is “compared with what?” and to answer that question, context is required for all data reports.

2. “Increase the data decrease the ink.” Show the data and not the supporting structures. Eliminate heavy gridlines on tables and redundant and unnecessary labels and headings. Use subtle highlighting, italics and simple enclosures to highlight important data and step away (far, far away) from the box of 64 Crayola crayons. The data, not the ink, must be front and center.

3. “Show the story.” Use simple data visualization techniques to “show” the story in your healthcare data. When designed correctly, line graphs, bar charts and scatterplots (to name a few) have the power to show your stakeholders the story in your data “at a glance.”

Learning to navigate the rivers of healthcare data which threaten to breach the banks every moment of every day is no easy feat. But just like my daughter learned how to successfully navigate a boat full of boys down the Charles River with a few key commands, learning the best practices of data reporting will help your team to communicate the story in your healthcare data clearly and compellingly.

Now I am going to go find out what other commands my daughter got to yell at her team…and I am going to enjoy it immensely.

Leave a Reply