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The business case for curiosity

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Imagine a world where it is acknowledged that unknown unknowns are the primary triggers of economic and social change, where literally everything is recognized to be an “accident” (in the statistical sense of having a finite probability of occurring). In the unknown, it hard to be well-prepared for anything that happens, so familiarity is no longer something that we can rely upon.

Think of what this means for expertise, know-how, assumptions, and predictions; where humans and machines coexist on teams where work has a high-knowledge content, immersed in unprecedented volumes of data; and where organizational and contextual complexity can only become more complex. This description of what work in the future could look like: torrents of high-knowledge content, with complexity not only taken for granted, but accelerating.

Or is the future now: many leaders are experiencing such changes already being a part of the reality of today’s challenges. An organization which is not curious will become complacent, will not learn from mistakes, will be arrogant and will miss the corner of innovation in the light of new competition. How well-suited are our present organizations, or leadership styles, for such a situation?

What is curiosity?

Curiosity is the mindset to challenge the status quo, to discover, explore and learn. Curiosity is the engine that has shaped history for humankind: it made us move out of the savannah 70,000 years ago to roam the earth, it created the technology to explore the universe, it invented the self-driving car and it eradicated illnesses like smallpox. While curiosity is often associated with children as their natural way to explore and make sense of the world, curiosity is also the driver for success for adults and is the gel that creates positive connections between people.

Equally, curiosity is the spark which drives innovation for companies and as a result keeps them ahead of competition. Being curious means being open and receptive to novelty and actively seeking it out. It means welcoming facts that don’t fit my viewpoint and trying to grasp their implications. It means letting my mistakes trigger curiosity instead of embarrassment and ask ‘why was I wrong? What can I learn from it?

Why is curiosity important for organizations?

Curiosity is the driver for innovation, for never settling for status quo, for retaining a healthy level of organizational humility, for actively allowing divergent opinions to emerge. It also supports organizational learning through active openness to processes like for instance after-action-reviews. Especially a desire to learn from things that went south.

Not being burdened by rigid routines, start-ups are typically better at this. My research has found that start-ups are 4 times more ready to learn from mistakes when compared to grown-up organizations. My research has also found that, with the right focus, grown-up organizations can embrace curiosity and thrive and even outpace start-ups.

In times of change, staying still means going backwards. Those leadership teams who embrace curiosity will create thriving organizations: not only do they excel at inviting continuous improvement in their current operations, but they are also fearless in preparing themselves for the future.

Curiosity also sells. Curious professionals want to work for curious workplaces. The more organizations focus on nurturing a curious environment, the more they can attract and nurture the best talent. It is no wonder that there is a 90% growth in the use of the word ‘curiosity’ in online job ads over the last 12 months.

The implication of curiosity for leaders

Curiosity needs champions, The shadow the manager casts is an important driver for team curiosity. Research has shown that there is a linear relationship between the curiosity profile of the manager and the curiosity appetite of the team. When the manager displays a high propensity towards curiosity (articulated in e.g. role modelling curiosity, coming up with ideas, readiness to questioning the status quo, reading books, learning appetite, …), the team would respond with an equally high learning footprint.

The inverse is sadly also true: if a manager does not communicate in words or – more importantly – actions that learning is important, the team would refrain from consuming learning or volunteer for sharing their knowledge. Role modelling also consists of willingness to ask questions and actively listen for answers in meetings, and say, “I don’t know, so let’s find out” or “That’s one right answer, what’s another one?”, as well as asking for reverse feedback during our outside performance discussions i.e. ‘how well am i (the leader) doing?’

Why is curiosity hard for professionals and organizations?

Everyone is curious and born with a healthy dose of curiosity, but the object and degree of that curiosity is different depending on the person and the situation. When we go through life, some of this curiosity becomes dormant. Like humans, companies and organisations also can grow or diminish their capacity for curiosity. The main reasons why curiosity diminishes in youth and adult life is our schooling system, fear, routine, limiting beliefs, algorithms and an overall non-conducive environment. A lack of curiosity deprives individuals, organizations and societies from becoming a better version of themselves.

100 years of management thinking based on the precepts of Taylorism and its associated command and control leadership paradigm has laid a foundation which is often counterproductive for curiosity to flourish. This often creates a culture of conformity rather than curiosity. Now, with the right motivation and external support, we all possess the power to change and regain control of our natural capacity of curiosity. Covid-19 has imposed radical change on most of us. It is indeed the most curious among us who are thriving, regardless whether you are a person, an organization or a society. Remember that curiosity is something that we’re born with. We just need to find our way back.

Can curiosity be measured?

I love data. In keynotes, I even more love it when I can use the data of the very company I am addressing. In preparation for most of my keynotes, I invite the client company to take one of my diagnostics. This online diagnostic takes about 12 minutes to complete. Each participant gets an individualized report. During the keynote, I use the company’s own data to explain the concepts of curiosity.

I am the only who measures workplace curiosity and have been doing this for the last three years: I have measured the curiosity muscle of over 10000 professionals, analyzed over 100 teams and reviewed data of 30 plus organizations with my bespoke tools. Professionals and teams, I measure in terms of their curiosity about the world (intellectual curiosity), their interpersonal curiosity (empathic curiosity) as well as their intrapersonal curiosity (curiosity about self). Organizations are analyzed against nine dimensions which measure curiosity in terms of the organizational culture, processes, and practices.

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