Article By

Roland Deiser
Roland Deiser
Roland Deiser is Chairman of the Center for the Future of Organization at the Drucker School of Management and Co-publisher of Developing Leaders Quarterly.

“An organization that nurtures curiosity provides you with a toolset that enables you to navigate through uncertainty and ambiguity”

Simon Brown – CLO, Novartis
Simon Brown - CLO Novartis
Simon Brown, CLO at Novartis

Roland Deiser: Simon, you co-authored the book, The Curious Advantage. What made you write this book?

Simon Brown: Well, in spring 2019, in the space of a couple of weeks, two people completely independently said to me ‘You should write a book about what you’re doing at Novartis.’ It was strange, because I never thought about writing a book, and I had no idea what it would take. Soon after I was having dinner with Paul Ashcroft and Garrick Jones and was picking their brains as they had written a book previously.  As they had been involved in the Novartis journey from very early on, we decided we would write a book together on Curiosity. They also had their own take on curiosity and were able to bring their own experiences and ideas. So we agreed we would do it as the three of us, which I think was a great move, because the social commitment of doing it together made us move more rapidly through the process.

RD: We know that when your CEO took on the role at Novartis, he wanted to transform the culture of the company by driving three core values across the organization: Inspired, curious, and unbossed. Why is curiosity among those three? There could be many others, such as agility, creativity, customer focus, and so on. Why curiosity?

I focused first and foremost on the curiosity dimension, as it has a clear relationship to a learning culture

SB: Well, the three values were building on Dan Pink’s research that identified autonomy, mastery and purpose as key drivers of what motivates us. Autonomy translated then into unbossed, purpose into inspired, and mastery into curiosity. In my role as Chief Learning Officer, I focused first and foremost on the curiosity dimension, as it has a clear relationship to a learning culture. But curiosity was also interesting to me because I saw it as a meta-skill that not only powers learning but reaches way beyond. When we started out, not many people were talking about it like that. Curiosity in a corporate setting was relatively new, and we felt it could become a major catalyst for cultural transformation. 

RD: So, how do you see the importance of curiosity beyond its traditional role as a driver for learning?

SB: I see curiosity as the greatest driver of value in the digital age, and this is the premise of the book. The world is getting more ambiguous, things are exponentially getting faster, we face uncharted territory. How do you navigate through such a world when textbook solutions are no longer valid? Being curious provides a way to navigate through that that uncertainty. Curiosity is about wondering, it is about coming up with ideas, questions, and then exploring those questions to test out what works, what doesn’t work, and then learning from the results. An organization that nurtures curiosity provides you with a toolset that enables you to navigate through uncertainty and ambiguity.

RD: So how do you then start out to create a culture of curiosity?

SB: Firstly it is worth being very clear that changing a company culture is hard, and takes a long time! Leader role modelling was absolutely key: leaders talking about curiosity, leaders sharing what they were learning, and creating and sharing playlists about the learning that they were doing. We used symbols and campaigns, such as a curiosity month, a whole month dedicated to being curious and we had a number of learning interventions that showed the importance we were placing on curiosity. We provided access to great new learning resources, such as to Coursera and LinkedIn Learning.  We started talking about an aspiration that people would invest 5% of their time to building new skills and knowledge, and being curious. So there were many different aspects – access to learning, leadership role modeling, campaigns and promotions related to learning and curiosity, and more. All these elements supported that culture change, but it is a journey we are still on.

RD: And did people pick up on that easily? Or was it kind of an uphill battle to promote curiosity?

SB: It’s interesting. I remember that initially people struggled with what we meant by curiosity. What actually does curiosity look like? What does it actually mean? What do I have to do differently? That that was when we stepped in with a lot of the campaigns and pieces I just talked about. And it worked. If we look at metrics, data tells a good story. In 2018, before we started the journey, we’d had 22.6 hours as our average amount of learning per person across the company. Fast forward three years to 2021, we were on 52.1 hours.

RD: What counts in this metric as learning?

People struggled with what we meant by curiosity. What does it look like? What does it mean? What do I have to do differently?

SB: It’s a mix. We have our major learning systems, but we also recognize that a lot of learning happens uncaptured by those systems, more informal learning. So we provided a mechanism for people to be able to track their learning through an app. If I was attending a conference, I could add that time in my learning hours. Or if I’m having a conversation with a colleague over lunch and they’re explaining what their part of the organization is and I’m learning about that, I can track that time as learning time.

RD: I see.  But I think there remains still a lot of learning that may not show up in your system. Each encounter with a customer – or any stakeholder for that matter – becomes a learning experience if done with a curious attitude. I guess my question is: Do you have elements in your learning architecture that institutionalize curiosity on an organizational level, through policies or other mechanisms?

Simon Brown

We try to institutionalize a culture of curiosity through various systemic elements. For example, we rolled out a program for all of our leaders to enable them to become an unbossed leader. We know that a leader can make or break curiosity within a team, and unbossed leadership plays a major role. That included creating psychological safety in teams, a safe space where people can ask questions, can experiment, can fail and then learn from those failures – this is how we achieve innovation. Scaling this across the organization was a systematic way to make sure to create an environment in which people could be curious.

RD: One way to look at curiosity is that it’s a driver for reaching out beyond your horizon and making new connections. Are you curious beyond your area of expertise, i.e. do you want to learn about and connect with other industries, other functions, other businesses? Or does your curiosity remain within the silo of your professional knowledge domain? Do you address this angle of curiosity in any way?

SB: In our book, we have the Seven Cs model for curiosity, and one of the dimensions is community. We argue that being curious is best not done alone; you need to find a community. There are many different roles within a community of people who can be curious with you and travel on that journey. There are people who can unlock information for you – sort of gatekeepers to new information and new communities and new areas. There are people who have the wisdom of having done it before, and they can share that wisdom in whatever it is that you’re curious about. So there’s a whole portfolio of different roles that can help in being curious. Identifying those and finding who’s going to be helpful on that journey is a key part. Applying this insight in a corporate context means that curiosity works against being siloed in one’s own areas.

7 Cs of Curious Advantage

RD: Can you talk a bit more about the Seven Cs that drive curiosity?

SB: Sure.  So, the seven are context, community, curation, creativity, construction, criticality and confidence. Context means to explore broadly, to move beyond your boundaries. The broader the context you expose yourself to, the more likely you will find ideas that stimulate you to explore further. Community – we just talked about this. It’s about connecting with a diverse group that provides access to rich resources. Diversity is important here. Then – Curation, which is about making choices. We must intentionally curate our curiosity to synthesize and focus our thinking, our ideas, and the information we are gathering. Next is Creativity, which is about doing something deliberately in a different way, asking new questions and exploring ne ideas. How can we connect something that seems unrelated? Thinking about different worlds often creates a spark that starts a new cycle of curiosity. Then there is Construction, which means you must go beyond thinking and try things out on the real world. Curiosity is not just wondering. It is putting your wonder into action. Whether it’s making new connections, building something physical, writing a document, or just figuring out how something works. After construction comes Criticality.  Criticality is about applying a critical lens to the results of our construction, to our experiments.  We also must be critical against ourselves by questioning our own biases. And finally, Confidence – something that grows if we are curious. The two actually grow with each other. If we approach something new with a curious mindset, being open to trying, failing and improving – we build our confidence, which in turn encourages us to be even more curious. By following these seven C you can target one’s curiosity, rather than being aimless and sort of drifting around. We cover this in our book in a lot more detail and share examples how we use that within a company to foster a culture of curiosity.

RD: Understanding your context, engaging in a diverse community, exploring previously unconnected things, and putting curiosity into action – that makes me think if your focus on curiosity impacts your relationship to external stakeholders. Do customers, external research labs, the start-up community or others, do they see you different than before? What did you observe?

Applying this insight in a corporate context means that curiosity works against being siloed….

SB: Curiosity can clearly help in performance related to customers. Research at INSEAD around curiosity and sales and found that greater curiosity leads to increased sales. There’s also research that shows a positive correlation between the curiosity of the CEO and leadership teams, and the long-term success of organizations. From a Novartis perspective, we have seen examples of people being curious leading to better outcomes for our patients. So yes, it clearly makes a difference.

RD: Did you see an impact on employer branding?

SB: Absolutely. We measure why people want to join our company. We had over 2 million job applications over the last few years, and number one reason people mentioned was the opportunity to learn and develop. So that external visibility around curiosity had a big impact.

RD: You are now three years into driving curiosity as a strategic initiative. During this time, you established awareness, conducted interventions, created certain routines. What comes next?

Frank Gehry building - Novartis campus
Frank Gehry builiding – Novartis campus

SB: Continuing on the journey of curiosity and linking that curiosity through to innovation and experimentation, to skill building and to continuous learning – making sure that people continue to have great opportunities to learn.  Separately, my co-authors and I have been working with Hult Ashridge Business School on a diagnostic to measure curiosity for organizations, look out for more coming soon on that!

RD: You are not the only organization that talks about the importance of curiosity, but Novartis has managed to create a brand around that value. What makes you different?

Community is about connecting with a diverse group that provides access to rich resources. Diversity is important here.

SB: I think we were very deliberate to put culture very high on our agenda. Many organizations don’t have that that same level of focus around culture; there may be some values, but it’s not necessarily a key priority to shift their culture in such a visible way. We also have been transparent around the journey that we’re on and people noticed. I think there’s a lot of interest in a large organization going through such a significant culture change, and the lessons learned from it, with what works and what doesn’t.

RD: I guess your book also helped in this respect

SB: Yes, I would like to think so. It was certainly part of my intent to share through the book the great work that has been done across the teams at Novartis around curiosity, and so others can benefit from what we have learnt.

Simon Brown is Chief Learning Officer at Novartis and co-author, with Paul Ashcroft and Garrick Jones, of The Curious Advantage and host of the Curious Advantage podcast.

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