Applying Storytelling to Health Care Innovation

Applying Storytelling to Health Care Innovation

By the Innovations Exchange Team, based on an interview with Steve Denning, organizational storytelling expert and award-winning author

Innovations Exchange: Why is storytelling such a powerful communications tool?

Steve Denning: People think, plan, decide, and dream in stories, so storytelling comes naturally to human beings. This is how our brains are made. Storytelling is also the oldest form of communication—people have drawn and/or told stories to explain events and make sense of their world. Through the millennia, all great religions were founded on stories. All great political changes have happened because people believed in a new story. If you look closely at any business leader who has successfully initiated change, you will find a capable storyteller.

Why did you choose to focus on organizational storytelling?

When I was in charge of knowledge management at the World Bank, the idea of sharing knowledge systematically with internal and external audiences who need it wasn’t catching on. But, when I told stories, people listened and became excited so that’s when I realized stories could spark organizational change.

For example, in 1996, when organizational Web sites were just becoming popular, I told a true story to World Bank employees about a health worker in a remote poor village in Zambia who was able to find information he needed about treating malaria on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Web site. That story prompted World Bank employees to think about how they could share their knowledge more systematically with millions of people around the globe to help reduce poverty.

What types of organizational stories are effective?

I invented the concept of a “springboard story” to enable a leap of understanding by audiences of how an organization, community or complex system can change. A springboard story has an impact not by transferring large amounts of information but by rapidly bringing an audience to a new level of understanding of how change that occurred elsewhere could work in their own context.

What are the elements of a springboard story?

A springboard story should be based on actual events with a hero the audience can identify with and a happy ending that shows the successful implementation of the idea in another context. The story has to be plausible—ideally with a protagonist in a similar predicament to the organization—yet different enough to capture the audience’s attention. Extraneous details should be eliminated so the audience can quickly grasp the story’s essence and draw analogies to their work and expertise. The CDC story I used at the World Bank is an example of a springboard story.

How can health care organizations use storytelling to promote innovation?

They can use springboard stories about hospitals or health care organizations that created open and supportive environments for innovative ideas to emerge and be implemented. Stories can also be used to break down constraints and open up employees’ creative energies so they contribute more. Once management moves away from the traditional command-and-control model and empowers employees to identify problems and develop solutions, they will have radically different conversations.

How can health care professionals use storytelling to improve quality of care?

Health care professionals can use storytelling to identify and communicate improvements; establish a set of values in the organization that are conducive to making improvements; and understand their own roles as leaders to be credible communicators of health care improvements.

In your book, Secret Language of Leadership, you describe a new communication paradigm that focuses on grabbing the audience’s attention, eliciting desire, and reinforcing with reason. How does this differ from conventional wisdom?

The conventional wisdom is that you change people’s minds by giving them reasons for change, which works well with audiences that are likely to agree with you. But, this tends to drive cynical or hostile audiences deeper into opposition by activating their biases. The new communication paradigm focuses on stimulating the audience’s desire for change before presenting the reasons for change. Once the desire is there, you can reinforce it with solid analytical reasons for change.

What’s an example of this dynamic in health care?

The health care reform debate illustrates that reasoning won’t change people’s minds if you don’t first grab their attention and elicit their agreement that change is needed. Stories could have been used earlier to spark people’s imagination so they realized the value of the health care reform proposals. It wasn’t until the last 2 months of the health care debate that President Obama entered the fray and began telling stories that dramatically highlighted what the problem was and how the health bill would improve the situation. This changed the dynamic of the debate and ultimately led to the bill’s passage and enactment on March 23, 2010.

Can you describe what you mean by narrative intelligence?

It’s the ability to use narrative in real-life situations and understand how it works and why. Former president Ronald Reagan had a natural talent for storytelling and a feel for the audience. Unfortunately, organizations tend to reward left-brain abstract thinking more than right-brain thinking used in storytelling. Most people tell stories socially and can learn how to apply similar skills and talents to the workplace.

How can health care innovators communicate their ideas effectively to stakeholders?

Communication is more effective when the person trying to implement change believes in the innovation and commits to it. Being passionate about an innovation makes it memorable and energizes the audience to take action. Narrative can also be used to clarify the values of individuals and organizations, which may need to be changed.

How can innovators inspire audiences to adopt their innovations?

By passionately believing in their innovations, using narrative intelligence to craft stories that the audience can identify with, and stimulating their desire for change before presenting new ideas. My experience is that change happens rapidly and enthusiastically or not all. If innovators don’t get the desired response from the audience, they should try to find out why. It may be that the specifics of the story don’t resonate with the audience. In those situations, innovators need to find a new story that does resonate.

What communication factors contribute to long-term sustainability of innovations?

The innovator must communicate his or her story so that listeners envision themselves implementing the innovation in their health care organizations/settings. Once listeners become excited about the innovation, they will talk about it with their colleagues and become its champion. When an idea goes viral, it will take permanent root within the organizational culture.

When I left my position as director of knowledge management at the World Bank, I knew that hundreds of employees believed in the idea of knowledge management. Because employees owned the idea, I knew they would continue the work I started.

About Steve Denning

Steve Denning is the author of the award-winning books, The Secret Language of Leadership and The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling published by Jossey-Bass.

Mr. Denning served as the program director of knowledge management at the World Bank from 1996 to 2000 before becoming a consultant in knowledge management and organizational storytelling to organizations in the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia.

He has been honored as one of the world’s 10 most Admired Knowledge Leaders by Teleos and was ranked as one of the world’s Top Two Hundred Business Gurus by Davenport and Prusak, “What’s the Big Idea” (Harvard, 2003).

For more information about Mr. Denning and his work, visit his Web site

Disclosure Statement: Mr. Denning has not indicated whether he has financial interests or business/professional affiliations relevant to the work described in this article.

Suggested Readings

Denning, Stephen. The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations . Woburn, MA: Butterworth Heinemann; 2000.

Denning, Stephen. The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling . San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2005.

Denning, Stephen. The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action through Narrative . San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2007.

Simmons, Annette. The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling . Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing; 2001.

Publish Date: 03/31/10
Date Last Updated: 03/26/14

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