August 31

Curiosity - re-thinking the role of Leadership

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Most of the breakthrough discoveries and remarkable inventions throughout history, from flints for starting a fire to self-driving cars, have something in common: They are the result of curiosity.

The impulse to seek new information and experiences and explore novel possibilities is a basic human attribute. New research points to three important insights about curiosity as it relates to business.

First, curiosity is much more important to an enterprise’s performance than was previously thought. That’s because cultivating it at all levels helps leaders and their employees adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures: When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more-creative solutions. In addition, curiosity allows leaders to gain more respect from their followers and inspires employees to develop more-trusting and more-collaborative relationships with colleagues.

Second, by making small changes to the design of their organisations and the ways they manage their employees, leaders can encourage curiosity—and improve their companies. This is true in every industry and for creative and routine work alike.

Third, although leaders might say they treasure inquisitive minds, in fact most stifle curiosity, fearing it will increase risk and inefficiency. In a recent survey of more than 3,000 employees from a wide range of firms and industries (Merck KGaA - 2015), only about 24% reported feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis, and about 70% said they face barriers to asking more questions at work.

In this article I aim to elaborate on the benefits of, and common barriers to, curiosity in the workplace and then offer five strategies that can help leaders reframe the role of Leadership.

The benefits of curiosity

New research reveals a wide range of benefits for organisations, leaders, and employees.

Fewer decision-making errors.

Research and experience shows that when our curiosity is triggered, we are less likely to fall prey to confirmation bias (looking for information that supports our beliefs rather than for evidence suggesting we are wrong) and to stereotyping people (making broad judgments, such as that women or minorities don’t make good leaders). Curiosity has these positive effects because it leads us to generate alternatives.

More innovation and positive changes in both creative and noncreative jobs.

Consider this example: In a field study INSEAD’s Spencer Harrison and colleagues asked artisans selling their goods through an e-commerce website several questions aimed at assessing the curiosity they experience at work. After that, the participants’ creativity was measured by the number of items they created and listed over a two-week period. A one-unit increase in curiosity (for instance, a score of 6 rather than 5 on a 7-point scale) was associated with 34% greater creativity. In a separate study, Harrison and his colleagues focused on call centres, where jobs tend to be highly structured and turnover is generally high. They asked incoming recruits at 10 organisations to complete a survey that, among other things, measured their curiosity before they began their new jobs. Four weeks in, the employees were surveyed about various aspects of their work. The results showed that the most curious employees sought the most information from coworkers, and the information helped them in their jobs—for instance, it boosted their creativity in addressing customers’ concerns.

My own experience, garnered over 30 years in multi-disciplinary roles, confirms that encouraging people to be curious generates workplace improvements.

When we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively. Studies have found that curiosity is associated with less defensive reactions to stress and less aggressive reactions to provocation. We also perform better when we’re curious. Studies in the USA found that natural curiosity was associated with better job performance, as evaluated by direct-line bosses.

Reduced group conflict.

My analysis of the available research finds that curiosity encourages members of a group to put themselves in one another’s shoes and take an interest in one another’s ideas rather than focus only on their own perspective. That causes them to work together more effectively and smoothly: Conflicts are less heated, and groups achieve better results.

Two Barriers to Curiosity

Despite the well-established benefits of curiosity, organisations often discourage it. This is not because leaders don’t see its value. On the contrary, both leaders and employees understand that curiosity creates positive outcomes for their companies. In the survey of more than 3,000 employees mentioned earlier, 92% credited curious people with bringing new ideas into teams and organisations and viewed curiosity as a catalyst for job satisfaction, motivation, innovation, and high performance. Yet executives’ actions often tell a different story. True, some organisations, including 3M and Facebook, give employees free time to pursue their interests, but they are rare. And even in such organisations, employees often have challenging short-term performance goals (such as meeting a quarterly sales target or launching a new product by a certain date) that consume the “free time” they could have spent exploring alternative approaches to their work or coming up with innovative ideas.

Two tendencies restrain leaders from encouraging curiosity:

They have the wrong mindset about exploration.

Leaders often think that letting employees follow their curiosity will lead to a costly mess. They believe that disagreements would arise and making and executing decisions would slow down, raising the cost of doing business. Research finds that although people list creativity as a goal, they frequently reject creative ideas when actually presented with them. That’s understandable: Exploration often involves questioning the status quo and doesn’t always produce useful information. But it also means not settling for the first possible solution—and so it often yields better remedies.

They seek efficiency to the detriment of exploration.

In the early 1900s Henry Ford focused all his efforts on one goal: reducing production costs to create a car for the masses. By 1908 he had realised that vision with the introduction of the Model T. Demand grew so high that by 1921 the company was producing 56% of all passenger cars in the United States—a remarkable success made possible primarily by the firm’s efficiency-centred model of work. But in the late 1920s, as the US economy rose to new heights, consumers started wanting greater variety in their cars. While Ford remained fixated on improving the Model T, competitors such as General Motors started producing an array of models and soon captured the main share of the market. Owing to its single-minded focus on efficiency, Ford stopped experimenting and innovating and fell behind.

Five Ways to Bolster Curiosity

It takes thought and discipline to stop stifling curiosity and start fostering it. Here are five strategies leaders can employ.

  • Recruit for curiosity.

In 2004 an anonymous outdoor poster appeared on US Highway 101, in the heart of Silicon Valley, posing this puzzle: “{first 10-digit prime found in consecutive digits of e}.com.” The answer, 7427466391.com, led the curious online, where they found another equation to solve. The handful of people who did so were invited to submit a CV to Google. The company took this unusual approach to finding job candidates because it places a premium on curiosity. As Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO from 2001 to 2011, has said, “We run this company on questions, not answers.” IDEO, the design and consulting company, seeks to hire “T-shaped” employees: 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). IDEO recognises that most people perform at their best not because they’re specialists but because their deep skill is accompanied by an intellectual curiosity that leads them to ask questions, explore, and collaborate.

To assess curiosity, employers can also ask candidates about their interests outside of work. Reading books unrelated to one’s own field and exploring questions just for the sake of knowing the answers are indications of curiosity. It’s also important to remember that the questions candidates ask—not just the answers they provide—can signal curiosity. For instance, people who want to know about aspects of the organisation that aren’t directly related to the job at hand probably have more natural curiosity than people who ask only about the role they would perform.

  • Model inquisitiveness.

Leaders can encourage curiosity throughout their organisations by being inquisitive themselves. In 2000, when Greg Dyke had been named director general of the BBC but hadn’t yet assumed the position, he spent five months visiting the BBC’s major locations, assembling the staff at each stop. Employees expected a long presentation but instead got a simple question: “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for you?” Dyke would listen carefully and then ask, “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for our viewers and listeners?”

The BBC’s employees respected their new boss for taking the time to ask questions and listen. Dyke used their responses to inform his thinking about the changes needed to solve problems facing the BBC and to identify what to work on first. After officially taking the reins, he gave a speech to the staff that reflected what he had learned and showed employees that he had been truly interested in what they said.

By asking questions and genuinely listening to the responses, Dyke modelled the importance of those behaviours. He also highlighted the fact that when we are exploring new terrain, listening is as important as talking: It helps us fill gaps in our knowledge and identify other questions to investigate. Why do we refrain from asking questions? Because we fear we’ll be judged incompetent, indecisive, or unintelligent. Plus, time is precious, and we don’t want to bother people.

Experience and expertise exacerbate the problem: As people climb the organisational ladder, they think they have less to learn. Leaders also tend to believe they’re expected to talk and provide answers, not ask questions. Such fears and beliefs are misplaced, my recent research shows. When we demonstrate curiosity about others by asking questions, people like us more and view us as more competent, and the heightened trust makes our relationships more interesting and intimate. By asking questions, we promote more-meaningful connections and more-creative outcomes.

Another way leaders can model curiosity is by acknowledging when they don’t know the answer; that makes it clear that it’s OK to be guided by curiosity. New recruits at Pixar Animation Studios are often hesitant to question the status quo, given the company’s track record of hit movies and the brilliant work of those who have been there for years. To combat that tendency, Ed Catmull, the co-founder and president, makes a point of talking about times when Pixar made bad choices. Like all other organisations, he says, Pixar is not perfect, and it needs fresh eyes to spot opportunities for improvement. In this way Catmull gives new recruits license to question existing practices. Recognising the limits of our own knowledge and skills sends a powerful signal to others. Finally, leaders can model inquisitiveness by approaching the unknown with curiosity rather than judgment. As human beings, we all feel an urge to evaluate others—often not positively. We’re quick to judge their ideas, behaviours, and perspectives, even when those relate to things that haven’t been tried before.

  • Emphasise learning goals.

It’s natural to concentrate on results, especially in the face of tough challenges. But focusing on learning is generally more beneficial to us and our organisations, as some landmark studies show. For example, when U.S. Air Force personnel were given a demanding goal for the number of planes to be landed in a set time frame, their performance decreased.

A body of research demonstrates that framing work around learning goals (developing competence, acquiring skills, mastering new situations, and so on) rather than performance goals (hitting targets, proving our competence, impressing others) boosts motivation. And when motivated by learning goals, we acquire more-diverse skills, do better at work, get higher grades in college, do better on problem-solving tasks, and receive higher ratings after training. Unfortunately, organisations often prioritise performance goals.

Leaders can help employees adopt a learning mindset by communicating the importance of learning and by rewarding people not only for their performance but for the learning needed to get there.

Leaders can also stress the value of learning by reacting positively to ideas that may be mediocre in themselves but could be springboards to better ones. Writers and directors at Pixar are trained in a technique called “plussing,” which involves building on ideas without using judgmental language. Instead of rejecting a sketch, for example, a director might find a starting point by saying, “I like Woody’s eyes, and what if we…?” Someone else might jump in with another “plus.” This technique allows people to remain curious, listen actively, respect the ideas of others, and contribute their own. By promoting a process that allows all sorts of ideas to be explored, leaders send a clear message that learning is a key goal even if it doesn’t always lead to success.

  • Let employees explore and broaden their interests.

Organisations can foster curiosity by giving employees time and resources to explore their interests. One of my favourite examples involves Italy’s first typewriter factory, Olivetti, founded in 1908 in the foothills of the Italian Alps. In the 1930s some employees caught a coworker leaving the factory with a bag full of iron pieces and machinery. They accused him of stealing and asked the company to fire him. The worker told the CEO, Adriano Olivetti, that he was taking the parts home to work on a new machine over the weekend because he didn’t have time while performing his regular job. Instead of firing him, Olivetti gave him time to create the machine and charged him with overseeing its production.

The result was Divisumma, the first electronic calculator. Divisumma sold well worldwide in the 1950s and 1960s, and Olivetti promoted the worker to technical director. Unlike leaders who would have shown him the door, Olivetti gave him the space to explore his curiosity, with remarkable results. Leaders might provide opportunities for employees to travel to unfamiliar locales. When we have chances to expand our interests, research has found, we not only remain curious but also become more confident about what we can accomplish and more successful at work. Employees can “travel” to other roles and areas of the organisation to gain a broader perspective. At Pixar, employees across the organisation can provide “notes”—questions and advice—that help directors consider all sorts of possibilities for the movies they are working on.

Deliberate thinking about workspaces can broaden networks and encourage the cross-pollination of ideas. In the 1990s, when Pixar was designing a new home for itself in Emeryville, across the bay from San Francisco, the initial plans called for a separate building for each department. But then-owner Steve Jobs had concerns about isolating the various departments and decided to build a single structure with a large atrium in the centre, containing employee mailboxes, a café, a gift shop, and screening rooms. Forcing employees to interact, he reasoned, would expose them to one another’s work and ideas.

Leaders can also boost employees’ curiosity by carefully designing their teams. Consider Massimo Bottura, the owner of Osteria Francescana, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena, Italy, that was rated the Best Restaurant in the World in 2016 and 2018. His sous chefs are Davide di Fabio, from Italy, and Kondo Takahiko, from Japan. The two differ not only in their origins but also in their strengths: Di Fabio is more comfortable with improvisation, while Takahiko is obsessed with precision. Such “collisions” make the kitchen more innovative, Bottura believes, and inspire curiosity in other workers.

  • Have “Why?” “What if…?” and “How might we…?” days.

The inspiration for the Polaroid instant camera was a three-year-old’s question. Inventor Edwin Land’s daughter was impatient to see a photo her father had just snapped. When he explained that the film had to be processed, she wondered aloud, “Why do we have to wait for the picture?” Leaders can help draw out our innate curiosity. One company in which I worked we asked all employees for “What if…?” and “How might we…?” questions about the company’s goals and plans. They came up with all sorts of things, which were discussed and evaluated. Some of the questions led employees to suggest ideas for how to work more effectively.

To encourage curiosity, leaders should also teach employees how to ask good questions. Bob Langer, Institute Professor at MIT, has said he wants to “help people make the transition from giving good answers to asking good questions” (see “The Edison of Medicine,” HBR, March–April 2017). He also tells his students that they could change the world, thus boosting the curiosity they need to tackle challenging problems.

Organising “Why?” days, when employees are encouraged to ask that question if facing a challenge, can go a long way toward fostering curiosity. Similarly, under Toyota’s 5 Whys approach, employees are asked to investigate problems by asking Why? After coming up with an answer, they are to ask why that’s the case, and so on until they have asked the question five times. This mindset can help employees innovate by challenging existing perspectives.

Conclusion

In most organisations, leaders and employees alike receive the implicit message that asking questions is an unwanted challenge to authority. They are trained to focus on their work without looking closely at the process or their overall goals. But maintaining a sense of wonder is crucial to creativity and innovation. The most effective leaders look for ways to nurture their employees’ curiosity to fuel learning and discovery.

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