Kevin Kelley describes in What Technology Wants how we possessed the same brain power that we have today at least 100,000 years ago, but it was not until 50,000 years ago that we went from being a primitive species using only rudimentary tools to true innovators. This explosion of innovation occurred almost overnight, concurrent with the arrival of language. Homo sapiens went from using sharp rocks at best, to the development of finely hewn knives, carved figurines, and hearths. Some might say that the use of tools led to the development of our language skills, but it’s more likely that the development of language – and more specifically, storytelling skills – was at the heart of the avalanche of inventions and discoveries that still continues 50,000 years later.

Why was storytelling so pivotal in assisting humans to consistently discover new solutions to life’s challenges? Kelly suggests that storytelling assisted our predecessors because it allowed tribesmen to convey to each other insights and inventions quickly, and to transfer knowledge easily. It proved to be the basis for most every innovation that followed—and each innovation became the foundation for new and more involved discoveries.

What is the significance of this phenomenon for healthcare organizations today? Hospitals that have a vehicle for their tribe (nurses, doctors, techs, pharmacists, etc.) to share what they have learned about creating a safer and more pleasant experience for patients will more likely succeed in the increasingly competitive environment that is certain to see winners and losers in the coming years. While we no longer can gather around the “central fire” in today’s modern work setting, it has become more imperative than ever to create for your team members moments to gather and tell their stories, to share insights as well as cautionary tales about near misses, and to collectively innovate on the job. Learning can no longer be relegated to a structured event a few times a year. It must be ongoing, all encompassing, and inviting. And the best way to do that is still the one that our ancestors first used some 50,000 years ago—storytelling.