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.
Thankfully, her husband shot me an email to let me know what was going on.
Yousee, for the past year or so I’ve been looking into the tangible linkbetween stories and competitive advantage. A vast body of researchsupports the view that the “corporate values” that companies investmillions in crafting are actually less important than the stories theytell. All of this has to do with short-term-working memory, patternrecognition, and mirror neurons, which I won’t go into now. The findingis that 94% of your behavior is driven by unconscious forces and one ofthe most influential forces is the programming you acquired by thestories you grew up with.
Storiespermeate 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 uphillboth ways,” or “the boy who cried wolf” pop up and guide your actionsbefore you even become aware they are tugging your reigns.
Sowhen Aida’s husband heard about that Baptist Health of South Florida,the largest non-profit health organization in South Florida, had beenexecuting a systematic program to shape their storytelling, he knewimmediately 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’sorganization is growing. It will probably double in size in the next 24months. This has the potential to create a fracture in theorganization’s culture. All service businesses depend, ultimately, onthe behavior of their front-line personnel for survival. Starbucks hasproven itself good at managing this behavior. Most companies – thinkabout airlines, credit card companies, banks – are not.
Soto maintain her organization’s advantage, Patricia has launched anaggressive plan, heavily rooted in narratives. Here is what they aredoing.
1. Decide what makes you distinctive.Baptist Health started out by comparing the experience it deliverspatients with what those patients could get elsewhere. They created along 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. Foreach 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 aboutthe seven distinctions. While corporate-wide stories are helpful – whenI 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.
Ialmost hate to use the word “storytelling” here because the word evokesfor many ideas of entertainment and fluff. If you view stories thisway, replace the word with “strategic narratives” and consider that itis through the learning of “strategic narratives” that greatstrategists are born.
For example, the case method used by top business schools isa way to learn narratives about companies who succeeded or failed andwhat worked and did not work. The Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, toldstories. They had no written language and so memorized poems and songsthat embedded military directions – when you get to the big tree, climbthe mountain, stay to the left, etc. This is why military campaigns areoften given names that evoke stories stored in our subconscious. What does a “desert storm” do?
AsI 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
Askyourself the questions below to see how you can develop effectivenarratives that give your business a competitive advantage. And ifyou know of any companies using narratives strategically to shapeculture and strategy, please let me know. I’m desperately searching forthis 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?