While I am an avid reader and try to keep up with the latest writing in my field, there are books I return to time and time again for inspiration and ideas, whether it be on how to increase my own performance or that of my organization. As I have recently taken on the leadership of Tampa General Hospital, I was inspired to return to one of my favorites, Everything I Know About Business I Learned from the Grateful Dead: The Ten Most InnovativeLessons from a Long, Strange Trip by Barry Barnes.

You might think it strange for a health care guy like me to be inspired by the philosophy of the Grateful Dead. But, what you may not realize is that the band were innovators when it came to engaging their fans (aka consumers). In fact – they were true pioneers of consumerism.

Much of the band’s success came from doing things in unconventional ways and always putting their fans first and at the center of everything. For example, they capped ticket prices so their fans had greater access to their music and rejected corporate sponsorships that had become all too common in live concert tours. In addition, the Dead distributed their content through multiple channels—again to increase access—and for a reasonable price, if not for free. They also let their fans record their shows—creating a network (in a pre-social media era) of fans sharing and trading music. Their philosophy was that their product was not the music, or the band, it was the audience. The Dead was about building a community of audience and band.

But again, what can the Dead’s relationship to their fans teach us about health care and business? As I said, the Dead were at the forefront of consumerism. Their approach to access and putting their fans first is at the heart of everything we do in the health care arena.  For me, the tactics deployed by the Dead and discussed in the book are directly applicable to our approach to consumerism. Specifically, here’s how the Dead’s approach can be leveraged:

  • Consumer Insights: Get to know your customers—who are they, what speaks to them, what do they want and need? Knowing who your customers are will help you make the right business decisions later on.
  • Access:Provide multiple access points and platforms for them (brick and mortar as well as online) to obtain services. We should be available no matter where they are in their consumer journey.
  • Convenience:Make services easy and accessible. This has become the norm in other
  • Transparency: Be transparent about prices, quality, outcomes, etc. This will allow for consumers to not only shop services, but to feel more comfortable entrusting their care in your organization’s hands.
  • Patient Satisfaction/Experience: Focus on providing a positive experience not just at the time of the service but before, during and after.
  • Loyalty:Build followers and create a “tribe” of consumers. Remember, it is more expensive to acquire a new customer than it is to retain a current one.

While these tactics, when deployed properly, can result in deeper engagement and consumer loyalty, there is one more tactic of the Dead’s that is critical in achieving success—strategic improvisation. Strategic improvisation is the ability to adapt to changing times or forces affecting your business. The Dead were constantly changing and adapting as their work and brand evolved. As health care leaders, our true ability to succeed will be a result of our willingness to embrace change and not only adjust, but to capitalize on the new realities of our business.

To some, the Dead were simply musicians and to others, they were a way of life. Regardless of where you fall, you cannot deny the Dead’s ability to build a brand and cultivate a massive legion of followers. If we could achieve half that level of loyalty and engagement, we would be well on our way. A million dead heads are proof of that.

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