Stories can be very powerful things. People learn by telling and listening to stories. A good story can enable us to empathize with others, to grasp difficult concepts, and to envision exciting new possibilities. Good stories inform, educate, inspire, and motivate us to transform our current circumstances into brighter futures. And good leaders often consciously strengthen their organizations’ cultures by tapping into meaningful narratives developed by influential people both inside and outside of their organizations.
Storytelling is a key aspect of my own work as a consultant. I help my clients formulate and share stories that honor their own and their organizations’ past experiences, that illuminate the challenges they’re struggling to overcome, and that help build their shared visions for future accomplishments. And some of my most effective work has involved connecting my clients with the compelling success stories of others who have overcome similar difficulties.
A pleasant surprise recently prompted me to reflect upon the central role that storytelling has played in my career: I discovered that I’d unknowingly contributed to the success of an organization whose own story is now becoming a part of the important national conversation about how to effectively control costs within the American health care system.
When I first read the NY Times article, “A Formula for Cutting Health Costs”, which profiles Southcentral Foundation, a health care system in Alaska that is a 2011 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award recipient, I shared it with a couple of Divurgent colleagues who are currently performing some Baldrige-related work as part of our Advisory Services and Clinical Transformation practices.
Shortly after passing along this instructive story to my current colleagues, however, it occurred to me that a former colleague of mine might have had a hand in creating the successes described in the article, so I shared the article with her as well, and asked if this organization is the same one she’d consulted with for a couple of years in the role of Interim VP of Strategic Planning and COO. When I received her text message saying “Yes, this is the organization I introduced the Baldrige Criteria to”, I was filled with pride for her, but also for myself. This is the woman who’d hired me at Centura Health several years ago, in large part so that I could teach her about Baldrige, and so that we could together socialize the Baldrige story with her Quality/PI Department and fellow Centura executives. Finding out now, from the NY Times, that my former Baldrige student had herself become a successful Baldrige teacher and leader was very gratifying to me.
When I subsequently shared this article and my story about it with a young up-and-coming nursing leader who works for my current client, her response was a perfect illustration of the power of stories to inspire positive change: “So, you’re saying that I could actually be a part of making something like this happen, even here in this little hospital at the edge of nowhere, and that someday people might be reading about us, too. How cool is that?!” Cool, indeed.
Stories are actually what the whole Baldrige Performance Excellence Program is all about. Currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Baldrige Program is intended to cultivate, recognize, and extend true world-class organizational performance excellence. Operating on a shoestring budget within the Commerce Department, as a part of the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), and no longer even taxpayer-funded, this little government program has spawned hundreds of national, state, local, and organizational copycat performance excellence awards programs around the world, and is estimated to have generated billions of dollars of value to our nation’s economy for a tiny fraction of the investment.
Perhaps most importantly, the small handful of organizations that receive the prestigious Baldrige Award each year are required to share their success stories with anyone who is interested in learning from them. And they’re happy to do so. Indeed, some of the most valuable benchmarking information available to any organization seeking to improve its capabilities and performance can be found easily and for free on the Baldrige website, here. Within the brief organizational profiles and the detailed application summaries that are posted on this site, anyone can find countless examples of ordinary people who have figured out innovative and effective ways to solve all of the problems our own organizations are grappling with and, in the process, to achieve extraordinary results. And the contact information available on this site makes it easy to connect with members of these outstanding organizations who are eager to share their success stories in the hope that they might help in our own efforts to build organizations that can also produce world-class outcomes.
I’ve known for a long time that my knowledge of and experience with the Baldrige framework are a big part of what makes me effective as an organizational performance improvement consultant. But I didn’t really appreciate until very recently – thanks largely to this unexpected encounter with my own Baldrige success story – how fundamentally my own work has been shaped and informed by the Baldrige Program’s emphasis on something as basic and seemingly simple, and yet as incredibly powerful, as storytelling.
David Hooper is a former Baldrige Examiner who’s also worked as an Examiner and consultant with several state and corporate Baldrige-oriented programs.