Ditch Bullet Points and Go Long

Posted on April 22, 2014

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Television content is not a topic in which I am typically well-versed.  Yet, a couple weekends ago I had time and access to the full season of HBO’s “True Detective”.  I stop short of the word addictive, but I found myself driven to see the first five episodes in rapid succession.  I was drawn to the characters, timeline of events, and the lack of plot resolution.

If the ubiquitously serialized “CSI” is Cliff’s Notes crime, “True Detective” is a movie, a novel.  In fact, I did some digging and found when Matthew McConaughey, who plays one of Detective’s two main characters, read the script for the show it was an eight-episode, 450-page compendium.  By comparison, he said most movie scripts are around 120 pages.

To me, “True Detective” was fresh because it had one key ingredient:  a complex narrative.  In other words, it told a story well.

So often I talk to busy healthcare administrators who are stressed and ‘just want the bullet points’, no time for details.  Yes, bullet points are succinct and easy to digest, but can they capture the most cogent ideas with all of the relevant info with which to make a strategic decision?

Healthcare, or as we now refocus—wellness—is a long-term achievement.  It is the sum of days and months and years of effort.  Likewise, design for the healthcare industry is not a quick fix.  Design is not so easily summed up in proposals with bullet points.  What is the story a hospital is trying to tell?  How does it connect with its community and how is that done?

Most hospitals avoid discussing planning for more than three years out.  Is it time to re-frame our timelines from the short-term of today to the long-term of ten, twenty or even fifty years out?

I had occasion to reacquaint myself with William McDonough’s The Hannover Principles recently.  Those concepts are classic now—long before LEED—and mostly ideas not so quickly summed up or achieved, ideas like balance, interconnection, constant improvement, regeneration, and stewardship, to name a few.  Sustainability, like healthcare, is based on the root “sustain”.  Sustain is in conflict with bullet point culture.

Bill (I can call him Bill because he was my Dean for the majority of my undergraduate studies) had a story he liked to tell that represented the essence of his sustainable design message, and I’ll try to summarize the gist.  In Europe, Germany I believe, there is a church built several hundred years ago.  Its structure includes beautiful, exposed, massive wooden beams.  The beams were in need of replacing, and the church was at a loss for finding trees large enough to make new beams.  However, in the planning of the original church, the architect had the church plant trees on its adjacent property so that in 2o0+ years when the beams needed replacing, the church would have both the material and, incredibly, trees mature enough to replace the original.  The adjacent forest, owned by the church for centuries, was actually a lumber yard in development for the past 250 years.  Sustainable, long-term, and a great story.

I am convinced there is a time to reduce complex ideas to pithy concepts that can be traded and acted upon.  However, there is also a time for the long form, to look long, far in the distance—backward or forward—to get the proper frame and perspective to make today’s decisions.  Story matters because it provides context and makes an emotional connection with people.  Healthcare is for people, and people need both abstract facts and the narrative that ties them all together.

Executive summaries are easy to come by; we can derive the bullet points.  But first we need the story.

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Posted in: Design Zeitgeist