Bernie Malinoff is President of www.element-54.com, a strategic research firm which guides client decision making through consumer insights
“Why is the sky blue?” “Why are we doing things this way?” “Is talent natural or nurtured?”
If you’ve ever asked yourself at least one of these or other similar questions, then you must be at least somewhat curious by nature. And that’s a very good thing.
What does it mean to be curious? We think of curiosity as seeking to understand through questioning. Why is curiosity important? Without curiosity, there would be no innovation. One must challenge the status quo or want to deeply understand why things are the way they are to create something that’s new and meaningful.
Children are great at questioning, often asking the adults in their lives an exhausting number of questions. Do you ever wonder why this stops happening as children grow up? As children become adults and begin their careers, they quickly learn that curiosity is not always welcome.
Clayton Christensen, who was a Harvard Business School professor and developed the theory of disruptive innovation, observed that, unfortunately, in many organizations, questioning can be at odds with career growth. Imagine if you are relatively new to an organization, or you are in a meeting where several individuals are more senior to you, and you start to challenge what others are saying with the simple question of: “Why?” How would that question be perceived? Do you not trust what the other person is saying? Did you just ask something that you should have known and now look like you didn’t do your homework?
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Today, more than ever, information is easily available, anytime, on virtually any subject. Curiosity and the ability to ask questions when others won’t is what differentiates leaders from followers. And it’s these leaders who will be the ones to drive innovation. So, how can you help foster a culture of curiosity?
Be curious yourself.
If you don’t wonder “why,” then why should your team? Or, even worse, those who do care may be afraid to ask “why” if things in your organization are rarely questioned.
Recognize that some degree of curiosity is innate, but it can also be learned. So don’t worry if you don’t feel like curiosity is in your DNA. Just being aware of this concept and starting to ask “why” whenever it’s not obvious can yield significant results.
Assume a beginner’s mindset. Ask your team, stakeholders and clients questions without worrying about coming off as incompetent. Another approach is to try the 5 Whys technique, which is credited to Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries. Ask “why?” five times — once to each of the answers to your initial question, and then stop after five — to reveal any faulty assumptions or biases in your initial question and help you get to the root cause of any problem. For example:
Q1: Why are customers canceling their services?
A: “Because they aren’t happy with our service.”
Q2: Why aren’t they happy with our service?
A: “Because it didn’t meet their needs.”
Q3: Why didn’t the service meet their needs?
A: “Because they didn’t choose the right solution.”
Q4: Why didn’t they choose the right solution?
A: “Because there isn’t enough guidance on the website.”
Q5: Why isn’t there enough guidance on the website?
A: “Because we haven’t outlined what each service is best suited to address.”
After the fifth “why” in this simple example, we can now brainstorm ideas on how to clearly align services against customer needs.
Make time for ‘inefficiencies.’
Curiosity isn’t efficient. If everything is questioned, it takes time to process the answers. Allocate time for team members to explore their areas of interest even if outside of their daily responsibilities. This could be as simple as time blocking an hour each week in everyone’s schedule. And then be ruthless about protecting this sacred time as much as possible.
Schedule regular highly interactive team sessions (during Covid times or if your workforce is largely remote, videoconferencing works, too), where team members will share their ideas with a cross-functional audience, brainstorm, build on each other’s ideas and find applications in their roles or to the organization overall.
Hire for curiosity.
There are many workstyle, behavioral and personality assessment tools available for complementing the candidate screening process. If you have an assessment tool for hiring, check to see if curiosity is covered in some way. If it’s not or you don’t currently use any tool, then consider asking questions and/or creating scenarios to evaluate the degree of curiosity of the candidate.
Questions may include:
• What’s your perspective on the expression “Curiosity killed the cat”?
• Do you think of yourself as a curious person? Why or why not? (While this may seem like a leading question, how a candidate answers it should still be enlightening.)
• What are you most curious about (in life, about X, etc.)?
A scenario could be something like: Imagine it’s your first day on the job at a company that sells weight loss supplements. You’ve been tasked to develop an ad campaign for the product. Your boss has told you that the biggest barrier to sales is that customers think the supplements don’t work. She asks if you have any questions before you start. What are some of the questions (beyond budget or timing) you would ask her? You could replace this scenario with one that is more specific to your industry. The goal is to see if the candidate challenges why customers think the supplements don’t work or any other preconceived notions about the category.
The Key Takeaway
Curiosity is a character trait and a learned skill that can be a competitive advantage to your business. Try using one or more of the approaches outlined in this article to nurture curiosity in yourself and to spark innovation in your organization. Model it, make time for it and hire for it.
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Author: Bernie Malinoff, Forbes Councils Member