The Business Case for Curiosity.

January 10, 2022

The Business Case for Curiosity.

May 29, 2023

At Airbnb, I was a Socrates-wannabe. I liked asking questions. Most of the time, this worked. It helped us to see our blind spots, both personally and organizationally. But occasionally, I would get a response like this one from a mid-level manager: "Okay, Mr. Modern Elder, enough with the curiosity! Let's get shit done!"

While I understood his point, I also knew that genuine curiosity (frustrating as it may be to organizations) also leads to getting things done faster and more efficiently. Today, the evidence is everywhere.

This Harvard Business Review article demonstrates how corporate curiosity creates a more dynamically adaptable organization. And then, there is this podcast with Stanford Design School Executive Director Sarah Stein Greenberg, sent graciously to me by an MEA alum. Sarah's podcast amplifies the idea that curiosity is the fuel for creativity and innovation. Here's an excerpt from some of her research:

"For one study, I recruited about 200 employees working in various companies and industries. Twice a week for four weeks, half of them received a text message at the start of their workday that read, "What is one topic or activity you are curious about today? What is one thing you usually take for granted that you want to ask about? Please make sure you ask a few 'Why questions' as you engage in your work throughout the day. Please set aside a few minutes to identify how you'll approach your work today with these questions in mind." Those employees who asked these questions didn't just accomplish more over the course of a few months but they felt more satisfied and engaged with their work."

Sarah also says that taking time to contemplate is a critical ingredient for curiosity, even suggesting we take a sabbatical. As she says, "reflection is kind of the under-appreciated partner of action. In a lot of cases, when people think about creativity, they think about brainstorming and exuberance and that spark of inspiration. But reflection is like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and those two things are inextricably linked: action and reflection. So yeah, I'm a big proponent of those quiet moments, where you're trying to make sense or really think about what the implications of your creative work might be."

Who knows, maybe we'll see Sara at one of MEA's Sabbatical Sessions, where we can help her put into practice what she believes.

Of course, with all the evidence supporting the need for curiosity, the question inevitably arises: Why don't we spend more time being curious in the workplace? I'd suggest there are four reasons, which I've listed below, along with a possible solution for each:

1. Not enough time. From a business perspective, curiosity is inefficient. It opens up too many possibilities, which encourages going down rabbit holes. Solution: Set aside specific time for curiosity. What if once a month, you and your team allocated half a workday to get curious about a vexing problem that requires some unconventional thinking or inspiration?

2. The fear of looking and sounding stupid. Curiosity asks us to adopt a beginners' mind and open up to the idea that we don't have all the answers. Put another way, curiosity asks us to leave our ego at the door, which is intimidating for many, especially in a competitive world that champions know-it-alls and experts. Solution: Socialize curiosity in meetings and small group settings. Maybe appoint someone as the Chief Curiosity Officer for each meeting with the intention that this person is the curiosity catalyst for the rest of the group. Best to select a different person each time, so everyone gets to exercise their curiosity muscle.

3. Lack of awareness regarding the value of corporate curiosity. While creativity and innovation get all the attention, most leadership development programs don't acknowledge that curiosity is the elixir for these two qualities. Solution: Educate your team on the tangible benefits of curiosity (how curiosity created iconic brands, whether it's Phil Knight creating Nike or Reed Hastings starting Netflix). The article and podcast in this blog could be the starting point for educating your team.

4. Conference rooms don't create curiosity. Curiosity requires a different mindset, and, let's face it, conference rooms and cubicles don't always bring out the best of our curious minds. Solution: Leave your office behind once in a while. Get out into nature as a team. Take a field trip to a zoo. Rent a cool Airbnb for an offsite. Brian Eno coined the word "scenius" to describe places where genius is baked into the scene or place. Find your "scenius."

Final note: curiosity might kill the cat, but it also might just catapult your company.

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