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Four Steps to Turn Stories into Competitive Advantages

Aida Barragan spent one of her first days on the job telling stories. In a big room, with other new recruits, in a session led by the CEO of Outpatient Services for Baptist Health of South Florida, Aida drafted, discussed, and practiced delivering real and fictional stories about her new company.

Aida Barragan spent one of her first days on the job telling stories. In a big room, with other new recruits, in a session led by the CEO of Outpatient Services for Baptist Health of South Florida, Aida drafted, discussed, and practiced delivering real and fictional stories about her new company.

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Thankfully, her husband shot me an email to let me know what was going on.

You
see, for the past year or so I’ve been looking into the tangible link
between stories and competitive advantage. A vast body of research
supports the view that the “corporate values” that companies invest
millions in crafting are actually less important than the stories they
tell. All of this has to do with short-term-working memory, pattern
recognition, and mirror neurons, which I won’t go into now. The finding
is that 94% of your behavior is driven by unconscious forces and one of
the most influential forces is the programming you acquired by the
stories you grew up with.

Stories
permeate your subconscious. You are telling yourself stories all day,
when you cross the street, when you step into a meeting with your boss.
Stories about “Trojan horses,” or “cherry trees,” or “walking uphill
both ways,” or “the boy who cried wolf” pop up and guide your actions
before you even become aware they are tugging your reigns.

So
when Aida’s husband heard about that Baptist Health of South Florida,
the largest non-profit health organization in South Florida, had been
executing a systematic program to shape their storytelling, he knew
immediately that this was an example of what I have been searching for.
He was right and I had to learn more.

Last week I had a chance to interview Patricia Rosello, CEO of Outpatient Services, about the program she came up with. I wish I had time and space to dig into all the details, but I will summarize what her organization is doing to turn storytelling into a strategic tool for building a sustainable competitive advantage.

Patricia’s
organization is growing. It will probably double in size in the next 24
months. This has the potential to create a fracture in the
organization’s culture. All service businesses depend, ultimately, on
the behavior of their front-line personnel for survival. Starbucks has
proven itself good at managing this behavior. Most companies – think
about airlines, credit card companies, banks – are not.

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So
to maintain her organization’s advantage, Patricia has launched an
aggressive plan, heavily rooted in narratives. Here is what they are
doing.

1.    Decide what makes you distinctive.
Baptist Health started out by comparing the experience it delivers
patients with what those patients could get elsewhere. They created a
long list of differences and whittled it down to what really mattered.
Everyone says they are
“compassionate,” so being compassionate, while important, does not differentiate
you. Take that off this list. At the end of this process, they had identified seven key characteristics that made Baptist Health of South Florida unique.

2.    Create stories about your distinctive points. For
each characteristic that makes you unique, that you want to reinforce,
ask your people to make up a story that illustrates the point.
Patricia’s team decided to create a “day of culture” – a full,
seven-hour day held for all new recruits, attended by Patricia herself,
during which new hires learned about and created personal stories about
the seven distinctions. While corporate-wide stories are helpful – when
I was at McKinsey we learned numerous stories about the Firm’s
creator, Marvin Bower – personal stories create more resonance. This is why you want to encourage people to create their own stories.

3.    Practice the art of storytelling. They launched a program to train their people to become more effective storytellers so that when they told their stories, people listened.

4.    Spread the stories. They are now launching an ambitious program to systematically share these stories. In September they will ask all of their staff – from across 27 locations – to come together. They will set up video booths and invite staff to share the stories of where they saw their values and distinctive behaviors coming to life.

I
almost hate to use the word “storytelling” here because the word evokes
for many ideas of entertainment and fluff. If you view stories this
way, replace the word with “strategic narratives” and consider that it
is through the learning of “strategic narratives” that great
strategists are born.

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For example, the case method used by top business schools is
a way to learn narratives about companies who succeeded or failed and
what worked and did not work. The Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, told
stories. They had no written language and so memorized poems and songs
that embedded military directions – when you get to the big tree, climb
the mountain, stay to the left, etc. This is why military campaigns are
often given names that evoke stories
stored in our subconscious. What does a “desert storm” do?

As
I continue my research into this area, I’ll share interesting findings.
From Baptist Health I think we can learn to do four things:

1.    Decide what makes you distinctive

2.    Create stories for each

3.    Practice telling them effectively

4.    Propagate them broadly

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Ask
yourself the questions below to see how you can develop effective
narratives that give your business a competitive advantage. And i
f
you know of any companies using narratives strategically to shape
culture and strategy, please let me know. I’m desperately searching for
this rare breed of forward thinking corporation.

1.    What makes our company, people or products unique?

2.    How do my employees express this uniqueness?

3.    What is the best way to spread our distinctive new message?

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About the author

Author of Outthink the Competition business strategy keynote speaker and CEO of Outthinker, a strategic innovation firm, Kaihan Krippendorff teaches executives, managers and business owners how to seize opportunities others ignore, unlock innovation, and build strategic thinking skills. Companies such as Microsoft, Citigroup, and Johnson & Johnson have successfully implemented Kaihan’s approach because their executive leadership sees the value of his innovative technique. Kaihan has delivered business strategy keynote speeches for organizations such as Motorola, Schering‐Plough, Colgate‐Palmolive, Fortune Magazine, Harvard Business Review, the Society of Human Resource Managers, the Entrepreneurs Organization, and The Asia Society

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