Stories as Maps for Exploring New Territories in the Universe of Patient Safety and Satisfaction

Contributed by Richard Stone

In his seminal book Sense Making in Organizations, Karl Weick tells a fascinating story about a lieutenant in World War I who sends out a patrol into the French Alps to scout out the positions of the German troops. The small patrol took no provisions, because this was intended to be just a short search and they planned on returning to camp by nightfall. But about two hours into their trek it began to snow—so hard that it was soon a white out and the soldiers could barely see their hands in front of their faces. They were in trouble. Their leader led them to a small overhang in the side of a mountain where they settled in, hoping that the snowfall would break by late afternoon. But it continued to snow through the day, into the night, and for the remainder of the next day. It was one of those blizzards that comes around only every 500 years or so. By the end of the second day the team had gone through all their provisions and were growing hungry. Huddled together under that cliff to share their dissipating warmth, their hope for survival was growing bleaker by the moment. On the morning of the third day the snow was beginning to let up, but without any clear landmarks that hadn’t been obliterated by the 50 inch snowfall, they were lost and mentally preparing to die in the wilderness. One of the soldiers decided to rummage through his pack hoping to find some morsel of food that he might have overseen. There, folded at the bottom was an old map of the Alps. When he announced that he had found a map everyone’s spirits were buoyed. They made a decision to head out in the hopes of reconnecting with their regiment. Continually referring to the map for clues as to where they were, they slowly made their way through the drifts. Finally at nightfall one of them saw the glow of a light in the distance. They had found their way home. After the reunion and as his men warmed themselves by a fire and ate like they had never eaten before, their commander was curious about how they had escaped a frozen fate. He asked to see the map they had used. Examining it by his lantern, he looked closer to discover that this was in fact not a map of the Alps, but a map of the Pyrenees!

While there are questions about the veracity of this story, the question still arises in the context of the story how they used an incorrect map to navigate their way home? Weick suggests that the map served as a catalyst for action, getting them moving and re-committing to set out and make sense of their journey along the way.

Such a conclusion is a strange conundrum. Certainly without the map they would never have set out to discover a new way home. It was indispensable.

As your teams set out into strange territory to remake healthcare and make it a safer and more satisfying experience, stories can act just like a map, acting as a catalyst that gets us thinking and making sense of our current circumstances, examining our assumptions about reality, revising those beliefs that are erroneous, getting us to see again what has become habitual, and making adaptations that can help us get to a new destination.