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Here comes the science bit—Concentrate!”

Stylist Chris McMillan was stoned when he created the Rachel haircut. It was a high-maintenance haircut. Jennifer Aniston hated it.

But none of this mattered because Aniston rapidly became famous for her hair (amongst many other things) and L’Oréal cleverly got her to do commercials for their Elvive shampoo:

Chris Aldhous and Peter Hodgson wrote Aniston’s script for this TV commercial (WATCH). Here’s what they said:

Here comes the science bit—Concentrate!” was probably one of the most famous lines we've ever written — although a lot of its success had to do with the fact that it came out of the mouth of Jennifer Aniston at the height of her Friends success.

That line — “Here comes the science bit — Concentrate!”—neatly encapsulates the problem we're up against when we try to get data embedded in NHS decision-making.

Here’s the problem.

Although there’s an acceptance in NHS management circles that data is important when it comes to engaging with the thorny issues, it’s only a grudging acceptance. Data is a box to be ticked; it’s not a box to be opened. So when data is introduced to the proceedings, it gets, if not quite sidelined, certainly compartmentalized. Data somehow fails to make it as a part of the mainstream argument. It’s over “there” somewhere: a far-off, necessary evil. The managers know they have to pay lip service to the data, but they don't really understand it.

Data is “the science bit”: a few seconds of mandatory-but-ultimately-irrelevant technical nonsense sandwiched between footage of Jennifer Aniston marvelling at her shiny, bouncy, flowing hair.

So my question is this: is it possible to turn “the science bit” into something that’s more than just a “bit”? Oh, and can we get managers to “concentrate” when they're confronted with it?

Well, it doesn't help that NHS number-crunchers are often physically distant from the rest of the organisation. The geeks frequently reside literally and stereotypically in an off-site basement. (By the way, there is a neat Venn diagram “definition” of geek here, which clearly makes the point that geekdom is associated with intelligence (tick!) and obsession (tick!) but not social ineptitude.) It’s hard to be part of the mainstream when you're geographically off the beaten track.

Moreover, as if physical remoteness from the action isn't enough, the data analysts rarely seem to feel any desire to pro-actively engage with the organisation’s issues, goals and objectives. It’s as if we analysts are content to play second fiddle, to remain as mere purveyors of “the science bit”. Like we've condemned ourselves to a self-imposed exile.

And on the rare occasions when we do engage with the organization, we're often guilty of using metrics or data displays that are too arcane for managers to grasp. We design graphs that look fine when we view them in the laboratory and we seek the views of our white-coated co-workers. But they fail the real world test. They fail the resonance test. So the managers fail to get the message. And they ignore the data. And we're stuck with just being “the science bit”.

When you read the scriptwriters’ account of the L’Oréal Elvive shampoo campaign, you come across this paragraph:

We knew we had to have the obligatory scientific message in the middle of the film, but rather than just cut and paste it in, we decided to write Jennifer’s script so that it acknowledged its existence in the middle of the film — and even dared to make fun of it. That one line transformed L’Oréal into a brand with the heart and humour to laugh at itself.

In other words, when Jennifer Aniston says “Concentrate!”, she knows and we know that nobody’s going to.

A couple of days ago, I had a brief Twitter exchange with one of my favourite NHS managers: “Here’s to more metrics that no one else gets”, he joked. “But my New Year’s Resolution”, I replied, was to “create metrics that everyone gets.” Which means visualizing data in ways that are clear, transparent, relevant and down-to-earth. Which means understanding the problems better. Which means we all need to get out more. We need to devote a bigger chunk of time to talking with managers and clinicians in 2015. Finding out more about the issues and problems that matter. And creating data displays that describe resonantly these issues and problems. We need to be able to say “Here comes the science bit — Concentrate!” with purpose and conviction.

And if we do that, the managers will take notice. And they’ll listen. And they'll concentrate.


Because we're worth it.

[2 January 2015]

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