The Curious Case of Translating Curiosity into Action in Your Organization

I like curious leaders and managers, and I love curious employees.

There’s something invigorating about working with individuals curious about what makes things work or why things are done the way they are. And there’s something exhilarating in bringing a program or approach to life that is the direct output of a group’s collective curiosity.

In my article, Curiosity and the Leader, I make a case for curiosity as a critical leadership behavior and an essential component of a high-performance group. Curiosity leads to exploration, experimentation, and learning for individuals, groups, and the organization, yet too many managers construct walls and introduce impediments that suffocate curiosity out of the environment.

The Research on Curiosity in the Workplace Says…

Francesca Gino’s article, Why Curiosity Matters (possible paywall) in the September-October 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review adds some research context to my experience-based perspectives on curiosity. It turns out, according to the author’s research, that curiosity results in at least 4 big benefits:

  1. Fewer decision-making errors
  2. Increased innovation and change across creative and non-creative jobs (OK, what’s a non-creative job? My curious self-wants to know!)
  3. Reduced group conflict
  4. More open communication and better team performance

That’s a great listing of side effects from curiosity in a working environment! Of course, the question is: How do we get some of this in our process-driven environments when the toughest critical thinking question of the day is, possibly, What’s for lunch?

The Manager’s Role in Promoting Curiosity:

It’s our job as managers to encourage everyone to regularly ask four critical questions about everything in our workplace. These include:

  1. Why?
  2. How Might?
  3. What if?
  4. Why not?

All are powerful curiosity stimulators, however, the last one, Why not? is my personal favorite when it comes to crossing the chasm from idea to action. It’s the “I double dog dare you” question rarely uttered in too many of our organizations. Just hearing it is bound to raise the blood-pressure of caretaker managers everywhere.

The Questions are the Easy Part—What about Actions?

The questions and the explorations and the discoveries are all fascinating. Of course, what we as organizational leaders have our sights set on, is realizing changes that promote positive outcomes. These positive changes come from the hard work of channeling ideas and concepts into actions.

Sadly, many managers minimize their investment in time and personal capital in pursuit of supporting “new and different.” Time and priority pressures and cultural disincentives to experimentation and innovation are contributing factors to this creativity-into-outcomes deficit. Effectively, the pursuit of today’s business coupled with less than robust systems for processing on and extending new ideas into tangible changes are all sacrificed on the altar of expediency and awareness.

3 Ideas to Help Create Cultures Where Curiosity Translates into Actions

1. Breathe life into your firm’s value on experimentation

Just about every organization that has tackled the values refresh project in recent years has incorporated one describing: We value experimentation.

The words are beautiful and the thoughts noble. Mostly however, it’s a lie.

Messengers and failed experimenters are still being metaphorically shot.

New ideas regularly die on the altar of “We’ve always done it this way.

And there’s little tolerance for the time required to nurture a series of experiments in pursuit of the outcome. If Edison worked in many of today’s modern organizations, the light bulb idea would likely have been abandoned because it just wasn’t paying off in time to contribute to next quarter’s numbers.

Indeed, there’s no suspending the laws of physics or the reality that time is always in short supply. Time, after all, is our most valuable off balance sheet asset and organizations masterfully squander it.

In my own experience, the solution to this issue was inculcating a culture with the value of individual experimentation and constant rethinking of how they’ve done things.

Give people permission and the tools to experiment and innovate in the moment as they execute on today’s work and plan and pursue next quarter’s projects.

We made trying new and asking those afore-mentioned questions part of who we were and how we rolled. We talked and laughed about and learned from the initiatives that fell-short or bombed. There was no shame in the fail—just in not trying. New and next were part of the energy of the group and the results over time were staggeringly positive in all of the categories described in Gino’s article above.

Doing this at scale is a non-trivial task. It starts by building in experimentation into daily work as a core value. Get the words off the wall and into action!

2. Learn to Time Travel

And while we suggested above that we’re not suspending the laws of physics, learning to play in multiple time horizons is an organizational imperative and one that managers can apply to their team’s innovation and experimentation initiatives.

Much as Geoffrey Moore calls for in Zone to Win and Escape Velocity, organizations must maintain a portfolio of investments that are expected to contribute today, this year, in the next three years, and some time out there in the future.

Functional and unit managers can apply similar approaches by ensuring teams are actively experimenting and incrementally innovating around today’s work while incubating initiatives intended to pay off in near future planning periods.

The marketing team tweaking and tuning programs today can and should invest time, effort, and budget on thinking through how it can innovate using process change, structure, data, technology, social media and other tactics in upcoming periods.

One group I worked with met every other week for two hours to develop their vision for what they described as their next generation marketing system. After defining an approach that turned the current system upside down, they gained management support for investment in new technologies, new processes, and marketing organization redesign. Eighteen months later, their focus was on fine-tuning the new approach, until one day someone asked, “What do we do next? ” The rethinking process started all over again.

Time traveling is difficult when every-day is a four-alarm fire driven by top management’s need for results now. Organizational leaders and of course, working managers need to find ways to deliver now and free just enough time for thinking and creating to reduce the alarm threat level in future periods.

3. Promote Managers Who Thrive on the Right Behaviors

Put your money where your mouth is with people.

You want curious managers capable of suggesting to you it’s time to change and then having the courage of conviction to show you a better way—even though it’s different.

You want managers and employees who model the T-shape discussed in the H.R. world, where the vertical line is deep subject matter expertise and the horizontal reflective of the ability to work across the organization.

And, you want managers infusing their teams with the joy of creation.

Anything less than rampant curiosity backed by a relentless commitment to experimentation and ultimately implementation is going to fall short in this world.

Traditional forms of thinking, recruiting, training, and rewarding won’t get you there when it comes to finding, landing, and keeping curious managers. You have to go out there and look for them. Just don’t expect them to be easy to find or interested in joining you. These managers worth their weight in platinum, are too busy working with their teams to fine-tune today’s systems and approaches while working on inventing the future.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Curiosity is stardust for creation in our organizations. Top leaders own establishing curiosity and its cousin, experimentation, as genuine values and behaviors in organizations across multiple time horizons. And managers own bringing this to life with their teams daily.

And of course, I’m duty bound to ask, “Why not try it?”

Art's Signature

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

2 Comments

  1. Scott Simmerman August 27, 2018 at 11:42 am - Reply

    My stuff focuses on getting people to talk about Square Wheels, the things that work but do not work smoothly. And these things are EVERYWHERE and different people have different ones.

    Once that happens, there must be Round Wheels out there somewhere, right? The technical term is Cognitive Dissonance and the reality is that people are motivated along with very creative in solving problems if their managers would simply Dis-Un-Engage them.

    • Art Petty August 27, 2018 at 11:46 am - Reply

      Love the Square Wheels approach! Thanks for sharing, Scott!

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