Love, Time, Environment

As my daughter Annie’s tenth birthday approached, our friend Erik asked her what special gift she was hoping for. Without hesitation, Annie responded, “A crane.” We all turned and looked at her in astonishment. What would a ten-year-old girl want with a crane?

“I want a crane,” she calmly continued, “so I can lift up my piano and smash it to the ground.”

Stunned silence – followed by uproarious laughter – greeted her matter-of-fact but implacable pronouncement. In that moment, I saw my dream of vicariously becoming a concert pianist smashed (metaphorically) to smithereens.

This story has become legend among our family and friends because it says so much about Annie’s succinct style of expression, and creates an indelible image of how she really felt about learning to play the piano (as compared with my romantic fantasy about her learning to play).

But the anecdote has also stayed with me all these years because of the big life lesson it taught me. I believed that if I just gave her everything she needed – a beautiful instrument, lessons, encouragement – she would become a really great pianist.

What I failed to understand, however, was that the piano had not captured her imagination. She didn’t love it – clearly, she didn’t even like it – and she was never, ever going to move beyond playing a few simple (albeit charming) tunes.

Additionally, I came to realize that I didn’t really love the piano, either; as a result, my encouragement was cursory at best. I had no burning desire to create an environment that wholeheartedly nurtured and supported her learning to play, and love, the instrument. I had to face it: there was a real dearth of piano-playing passion in our lives.

I don’t regret having spent my time and money on any of it because I have faith (and evidence) that it raised Annie’s awareness and appreciation of music and beauty. But that’s pretty much the extent of my return on investment – except, of course, in the way that the piano episode has informed my professional work, particularly concerning the way people learn.

As you know, I have created curricula specific to health and healthcare professionals that teach the best practices of data visualization and the fundamentals of analysis and statistics.

Each time I conduct a workshop or training, I can pretty accurately predict which participants will love the material, and will continue to research and practice ways to improve their dashboards and reports, and which won’t.

Here are some clues to correctly identifying the successful ones:

  • The team lead, director, manager, or supervisor is in the course alongside the team, fully interested, engaged, and encouraging. Even if the leaders are unlikely ever to create a report or dashboard themselves, they are signaling their commitment to and support for the process.
  • I have the successful attendees’ full attention: phones out of sight; eyes on the examples I present; focused consideration of what they are seeing; articulate, involved communication with me about it; enthusiastic interest in the subject.
  • When it’s time to complete a group case study, they dig in and hang on. I see them opening books, talking to their colleagues, checking in with me, pro-actively putting pencil to paper to sketch out multiple strategies.
  • When I encourage them to think of a report they currently produce, and how they might improve it using what they have learned, they jump at the chance to re-imagine it, eagerly soliciting my feedback along the way.
  • After the course is over, they stay engaged and interested, sending me e-mails with reports or dashboards attached that they have re-designed and that have been, they tell me, effective and well received. And they continue to drop me notes on occasion, to ask advice or recommend a useful article.

Here’s the bottom line. Becoming good at something – creating powerful health and healthcare reports and dashboards, or just about anything in life – requires three things: [a] an interest in or love for the subject; [b] training bolstered by practice (10,000 hours of it, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers); and [c] a supportive and nurturing environment in which to develop and refine your knowledge and skill.

This last point is especially important for managers to understand. You can send me teams of people, and I can raise their awareness and with luck ignite the fire of their imaginations about the best practices of data visualization and healthcare analytics.

But if you don’t share in that interest, or neglect to arrange things so that those who do can encourage, inform, and cheer on their colleagues, no amount of training in isolation is going to improve your health and healthcare reports and dashboards. (I’m good, but I’m not that good.)

By the way: if you know anyone who might be interested in a brand-new, barely-been-played, threatened-within-an-inch-of-its-life piano, drop me a line, won’t you?

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