Thursday, September 2, 2010

Stories are good business too: Upcoming Business Innovation Factory Summit

***Keep an eye on this blog for upcoming book give-aways!***

For the last 10 years, in my work at the Narrative Medicine Program at Columbia University, I've been preaching that stories aren't just good medicine, they are central to the medical relationship and integral to healing. When doctors had nothing else in their black bags, no antibiotics, no fancy imaging studies, they had the ability to listen and be with patients. Indeed, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas suggested that the call of the suffering other is a primordial call - that being present for another's suffering defines our very humanity.

The work that the Narrative Medicine Program and similar groups are doing across the country: seeking to ensure that medicine honors the role of stories and practitioners are expert story-elicit-ers, story-listeners, and story-interpreters, is therefore both forward thinking and rooted in age-old healing traditions. We are innovators and we are, in a sense, traditionalists. Don't forget the story, we cry!

All well and good. And yet, as someone with little to no experience in the world of business, I was flabbergasted to learn of the import that The Business Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence, RI places upon story. Story is the heart of their yearly Innovation Summits - a way for innovators in health care, education, and business to share best practices, illustrate systems change, and think across disciplines and silos.

As I prepare for my upcoming presentation at the Business Innovation Factory Summit on September 15th, I decide to begin with a Bengali folktale -- something that resonates with both my love of children's stories and my own cultural traditions of oral storytelling. Here, I get to bring together my own seemingly disparate worlds - children's literature, writing, medicine, narrative, health care - but also worlds I never imagined entering - those of business, corporations, people involved in selling things. (!)

As part of my presentation preparation, I recently listened to CEO Tony Hsieh speak at a past BIF Summit. His talk was about his corporation's company culture - placing the customer first - and how their hiring and firing practices support this company culture first above all else. He described how all employees - even higher level executives - are required to go through two weeks of call center training.

Then, about mid-way through his talk, Hsieh told a moving story about humanity, witnessing, and healing. He described how a customer had placed an order with for her husband, only to have her husband be tragically killed in a car accident before the items ever got delivered. The call center representative walked the grieving widow through the return process, and then, sent flowers to the man's funeral as a symbol of the company's sorrow at the customer's loss. The Zappos employee had no company protocol to guide her in such a situation, but she also had the liberty to make the decision on her own without a supervisor's approval.

Apparently, the widow was so touched, she talked about at the funeral, and now not only is the woman a loyal customer, many of those at the funeral are as well.

Here is a case of how doing the right thing - in the words of Narrative Medicine, standing witness to someone's suffering - also fed the company's bottom line. A case of stories being good business as well as good medicine.

{for the record, I have nothing to do with the company nor have I actually ever bought anything from them!}


  1. And don't forget -- stories are how we learn. I use them in the world of business for technical training. The foundation of effective teaching is a good story. :)

    Hope your engagement at the BIF is a big success! Good luck!

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