How one workplace story saved millions of infant lives

by Ted Burnham

Great ideas are rarely the product of a lone genius. More often ideas are sparked through connections between people who find unexpected value in each others’ stories.

The trouble is, we often don’t know how valuable our stories are until we share them with the right person. And in most organizations, employees don’t get enough of a chance to make those connections with colleagues in other teams, departments or locations.

But when the right person does recognize the value in your story, the resulting ideas can be impressive… and in rare cases, lifesaving.

Back in 1979, Dr. Saul Schanberg had a story like that.

We often don’t know how valuable our stories are until we share them with the right person.

Dr. Schanberg was a neuroscientist at Duke University, where he and his team studied the growth of newborn rats (“rat pups”). In one experiment, they needed to separate the pups from their mothers to control variables. But without their mothers the rat pups stopped growing, no matter how well the researchers fed them. The team couldn’t collect any useful data, and the experiment seemed to be a failure.

So Dr. Schanberg pivoted his work to try to answer a new question: Why was separating the rat pups from their mothers preventing them from growing in the first place? 

He and his colleagues spent hours observing rat pups with and without their mothers until they learned the answer: a mother rat licks her pups, like giving a firm massage, which stimulates their growth. Dr. Schanberg figured his research team could replicate the pressure… using art supplies.

Even the most mundane or even silly details can lead to ideas that have enormous impact.

Imagine: a team of scientists, each hunched over a baby rat, simulating a mother rat’s touch by dabbing at the pups all day long with wet paintbrushes. Weird, right?

But it worked! The pups started growing again. Firm massage was key to helping the infant rats thrive.

For Dr. Schanberg, that might have been it – just a bizarre little workplace story about how his team massaged rats with paintbrushes. Except shortly thereafter he attended a conference and happened to share this story with another medical researcher, Dr. Tiffany Field of the University of Miami.

Dr. Field was studying the effects of massage on premature human babies, but she wasn’t getting positive results. When she heard Dr. Schanberg’s story, she instantly made the connection to her own work.

For decades, doctors had assumed premature babies were fragile, so Dr. Field had only tested the effects of gentle touching. But Dr. Schanberg’s story suggested a new hypothesis: if rat pups needed a firm massage, maybe human preemies did too.

Dr. Field returned to her research and tried a stronger massage on the babies. Their growth rate improved by an astounding 46 percent.

Today, massage is a standard treatment for the hundreds of thousands of preemies born in the U.S. each year – one reason preterm survival rates have been climbing steadily for decades.

This innovation might never have happened if Dr. Schanberg hadn’t had the opportunity to share a simple story about his work with someone from a seemingly unrelated field.

Here’s an idea: Let your team discover the value in each other’s stories through the Avanoo StoryApp – free through the end of May. Join us for a virtual town hall or schedule a 1-on-1 demo to learn more.

Now imagine: How many stories are there in your organization that are just waiting for the right person to hear them – and nobody even knows it? How much stronger would your innovation culture be if employees had the chance to connect to share and hear stories about each other’s work, especially the work of other departments and locations? What unexpected and potentially life-saving connections might they discover?

That’s one reason we built the Avanoo StoryApp: to help employees connect across silos and spark ideas. Like Dr. Schanberg and Dr. Field, we know that even the most mundane or even silly details can lead to ideas that have enormous impact.

The more proactive you can be about drawing out those stories, the more opportunities you’ll have to generate the next great ideas that will move your organization forward. And that’s worth shouting from the rooftops about!


—Ted Burnham, Avanoo Lead Content Marketer

About Ted

Ted Burnham loves the power of words – to tell stories, explain big ideas, and help people connect. He is a writer, editor, multimedia producer, storyteller, and “professional combobulator”. Ted’s work has appeared on NPR, Popular Science, and elsewhere.

About Avanoo

Avanoo brings together the world’s oldest artform – storytelling – and the world’s newest technologies – AI, machine learning – to support teams in experiencing more connection, belonging, and performance. Our app makes it easy for employees to share and listen to each other’s stories wherever they are, and our insights dashboard makes it easy for leaders to understand where and how stories create lasting impact on their teams. Learn more:
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