Remember that old saying, “curiosity killed the cat?” Is the opposite true in business? Is lack of curiosity killing the vat of creativity and therefore breakthrough innovations?
Business curiosity, defined as “a penchant for seeking new experiences, knowledge, and feedback and an openness to to change,” leads to breakthrough innovations, it increases organizational adaptability, performance, motivation, engagement, and collaboration, and ultimately leads to better decision making. So, why do 70% of us feel like we face barriers in asking more questions at work?
Well, despite knowing 92% of employees credit curious people “with brining new ideas into teams and organizations” and view “curiosity as a catalyst for job satisfaction, motivation, innovation, and high performance,” companies often inadvertently discourage it. Two key barriers tend to get in the way, having the wrong mindset about exploration and seeking efficiency over exploration.
Leaders often feel that allowing employees to follow their curiosity will lead to costly chaos that increases the complexity of managing the organization. In addition, exploration “often involves questioning the status quo,” which we have learned throughout life to avoid. “Questioning is an innate behavior that’s actively subverted and shut down” (Hal Gregersen, Better Brainstorming). In school, we are trained that having the right answer leads to better grades, but “in life, you’re judged by how good your questions are,” so let your inner voice be heard (Robert Langer, Edison of Medicine). Change this mindset about exploration to let your employees curiously explore and watch the results that ensue.
The second barrier, seeking efficiency over exploration, is a common mistake that dates back to the Industrial Revolution. Where, “in the early 1900s Henry Ford focused all his efforts on one goal: reducing production costs to create a car for the masses.” This intentional focus led Ford to own 56% share of the passenger vehicle market in the 1920s. But, their single-minded focus on efficiency ultimately set them behind as the competition started to produce variety to meet the needs of many. Remember to balance efficiency with curiosity and exploration in the quest to find what’s next to maximize your market position. You can’t be singly focused on efficiency or you will quickly lose market share and relevance among your consumers.
How can you bolster business curiosity in your organization?
Francesca Gino recommends five key ways to bolster curiosity in her article, “The Business Case for Curiosity.”
Emphasize Learning Goals
Research shows that framing work around learning goals (developing a competence acquiring a skill, etc.), rather than around performance goals (hitting targets), boosts motivation. Pixar executes this idea through what they call “plussing,” reacting positively to mediocre ideas that could be springboards to better ones. For example, a director might say “I like Woody’s eyes, and what if we…” and then someone else might jump in with another “plus.”
“What is the one thing I should do to make things better for you?” This is the one question Greg Dyke asked when he took over as Director General for BBC. No long presentations revealing a master plan; instead, just one simple question followed by active listening. Research shows that when we demonstrate curiosity about others by asking questions, people like us more and view us as more competent. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge when you don’t know an answer, let your team freely question existing practices, and explore the unknown with curiosity instead of judgement and you will be well on your way to modeling inquisitiveness.
Host “Why?” … “What if?” … and “How might we?” Days
Being inquisitive can inspire breakthrough innovations, in fact, Polaroid’s inventor, Edwin Land, was inspired by a simple question his 3-year old daughter asked, “why do we have to wait for the picture?” Land subsequently agreed, reinventing photography and make instant pictures a reality. Encourage your employees to tackle challenges through questions. Not sure where to start? Checkout “Better Brainstorming” by Hal Gregersen in the March-April 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review for an innovative approach to increasing brainstorming through “question bursts.”
Let Employees Explore and Broaden Their Interests
Gail Jackson, VP of HR for UTC, said “it’s better to train and have them leave than not to train and have them stay.” Unfortunately, Gail and her organization are the minority as 56% of organizations fail to provide employees opportunities for cross-training to develop skills not directly related to workers’ jobs. You will be surprised at the results when you focus on developing your people.
Hire for Curiosity
The final way to bolster business curiosity is to hire for it! Sounds so simple, but, does your hiring process include screening for “T-shaped people?” Probably not, mine didn’t until now.
IDEO, the design and consulting company, defines “T-shaped’ as people with deep skills that allow them to contribute to the creative process (the vertical stroke of the T) and a predisposition for collaboration across disciplines, a quality requiring empathy and curiosity (the horizontal stroke of the T). Empathy allows employees to listen thoughtfully and see problems or decisions from another person’s perspective, while curiosity extends to interest in other people’s disciplines, so much so that one may start to practice them. When depth in a skill meets intellectual curiosity (asking questions, exploring, and collaborating), your employees will be unstoppable!
You didn’t think I’d leave you hanging on how to screen for “T-shaped people” did you? Listen for how they describe past projects they worked on, T-shaped people will focus on how they succeeded with the help of others. To determine curiosity levels, ask candidates about interests outside work. Someone who expresses interest in reading about a field outside their own would exemplify curiosity. You can screen for curiosity through surveys or listen to the questions candidates ask you, those that ask about things unrelated to the specific job they are interviewing for are much more likely to exhibit curiosity.
Did curiosity really kill the cat?
No, but we were all raised to believe that it did. Change this mindset and remember that asking questions leads to better results. Strong leaders are hungry for teammates that challenge the status quo, that ask questions to stretch their thinking, and that offer alternatives which change the direction of the organization. Maintaining this sense of wonder is “crucial to creativity and innovation.”
Gino, F. (2018). The Business Case for Curiosity. Harvard Business Review, 96(5), 48-57.
Fernandez-Araoz, Roscoe, Aramaki (2018). From Curious to Competent. Harvard Business Review, 96(5), 61.
Gregersen, H. (2018). Better Brainstorming. Harvard Business Review, 96(4), pg.