Thursday 3rd November, 2022
Curiosity RoundTable

As publishers of Developing Leaders Quarterly (DLQ), Roland Deiser and I are driven by the opportunity to catalyze new ideas and thinking around leadership and organizational behaviour. We look to do this primarily through the curated and edited pages of this publication, where our contributing thought-leaders’ ideas are presented after having been carefully crafted and distilled through the writing and publishing process.

Sometimes though it is important to shake-up that managed process with a less structured one – and so we also run online discussion panels with invited thought-leaders, where they can provoke each other’s thinking and responses in an unscripted and more immediate manner. We shall be running several of these live sessions each quarter, to dig deeper into themes explored in the previous issue, with contributing authors and also new voices.

We ran the first of these online RoundTables in early November 2022 to delve into the cover topic of issue 39: The Curious Organization. The panel was hosted by Roland, with two of the article contributors from the issue, Novartis CLO and author of The Curious Advantage, Simon Brown; and our regional editor, the strategy consultant Saar Ben-Attar. You can read their articles in the back issue here. Simon and Saar were also joined by two new guests – Francesca Gino, the high-flying Harvard Business School professor, who also works with their Mind, Brain, Behavior initiative, and author of Rebel Talent; and Perry Zurn an associate professor of philosophy at the American University in Washington DC, and co-author of Curious Minds.

It is much easier to spark curiosity outside the organization than to get people to be curious within their own organization

We were not disappointed – the conversation raced along. DLQ subscribers can listen to the full session online at developingleadersquarterly. com/events-2/ – but here are some of the key outtakes from the discussion.

The Curious Organization

Simon Brown’s curiosity around curiosity was triggered by the Novartis CEO, Vas Narasimhan, arriving at the business and challenging its culture by leveraging Dan Pink’s ‘autonomy, mastery, purpose’ approach, which Narasimhan evolved into his ‘inspired, curious and unbossed’ triptych and then asking ‘what does curiosity actually mean in an organizational context?’. It’s about questioning, exploring, going where others have not gone before, asking things people have not asked before. It’s about experimenting, seeing what works and what doesn’t. And then learning from it.

For Perry Zurn the critical element of curiosity that makes it really valuable as a tool, is not the capacity to acquire new information, but the ability to connect. It connects ideas, but it also connects people, especially within an organization.

Community is critical for curiosity, otherwise the benefits fail to scale. It also, as Francesca Gino, points out allows ideas to be viewed from different angles and perspectives, surfacing new information and knowledge in the process.

The panel all noted that curiosity is something we all start with as children, but it gradually gets eroded in most of us, by the structures of organization, either formal or informal. Francesca’s research suggests our curiosity peaks at age four or five years old. Saar Ben-Attar underscored this with his statement that curiosity is an act of collective leadership. It is much easier though to spark curiosity outside the organization than to get people to be curious within their own organization. A useful trick to is try and connect those elements, see how the external curiosity that exists easily can be brought to spark internal curiosity.

Leaders tend to underestimate how much they influence those around them. If leaders are asking questions, it quickly becomes acceptable to do that, and others follow

How do we institutionalize curiosity?

Spencer Harrison at INSEAD was quoted as pointing out that Google likes to learn from its new employees, those who have arrived from other organizations or cultures. Most often organizations like to ‘onboard’ new employees, to show them ‘how things are done here’, while that can oil the wheels for the new employee, it also dampens the value that they have and the new insights they can bring.

The culture issue cannot be underestimated, it is all-pervading. In Novartis, they measured differences in team capacities between teams with favourable and unfavourable ratings of their leader. The largest divergence was on curiosity. Those teams with favourable ratings were 22 points ahead on curiosity than unfavourable leader teams. If the leader is shutting things down, and controlling, the willingness to experiment and explore is hugely limited. Francesca Gino supports this, noting that leaders tend to underestimate how much they influence those around them. If leaders are asking questions, it quickly becomes acceptable to do that, and others follow.

Much of the culture setting is actually very low-key, day-today behaviours. Francesca had researched a specialist US Airforce spy plane pilots group, and saw how the change in behaviour of one influencer in the group, not the leader, triggered a greater curiosity across the group. It only requires one person to start this.

The Enabling Leader

This is all part of the shift away from the concept of the leader as someone who has all the answers, to the leader as someone who can bring the best out of a team. In a complex world the former is impossible, while the latter becomes ever more valuable. Creating a safe environment for asking questions is the skill needed. Start with ‘I wonder if….?’ type questions, as these require input from those around you. And push the boundaries. Don’t ask ‘ how do we get 3% growth?’ ask ‘how do we get 300%?’. That creates the space for people to free-think.

The problem is that in organizations the act of exploring is often seen as time-wasting – that much of the exploration will unearth little – but you have to do that to find the gold

Or as a leader say ‘I’m here to learn, I don’t know what the answer is – let’s find it together’. The problem is that in organizations the act of exploring is often seen as time-wasting, as much by the individual themselves as those around them. We need to shift that mindset to a longer-term one, which understands the benefits such learning can bring, and that much of the exploration will unearth little, but you have to do that to find the gold. It is those micro-moments where we dampen curiosity by saying ‘we can’t do that’ rather than ‘it seems out of reach, but how can we do manage that?’.

An approach Saar uses is to ask clients ‘how they got here?’, when ‘here’ is their current situation. Too often we do not explore these things, but when the question is asked of a team, you get as many different narratives as team members, and it is by unpacking those and understanding them that great insight is gained. And that curiosity to explore further is fertilized, and new connections are made. Perry Zurn builds on this idea, that too often we think of curiosity as searching out the new, but there is great richness in finding greater understanding from the past too. ‘There are lots of ideas that are super-old, that would help us today’, he explains. This is where community and ecosystems can be so valuable, in showing us ways to do things better, which they are already doing, rather than trying to be innovative and new always.

Making Leaders Curious in Practice

All this is well and good – but the fly in the ointment, is that new ideas are also an impediment. If you know how you want to do something, or have been doing adequately one way for a long-time, it is inconvenient and often tiresome to explore new ways to do it. How do we open up leader’s minds to this, Francesca asks. Simon believes data is part of the solution. Gartner research indicates only around 25% of today’s skills will be relevant in three years’ time – we must keep learning to keep relevant. Data also shows that organizations with curiosity cultures perform better, Spencer Harrison shows a correlation between curiosity and long-term performance. It is vital to champion this data to build the culture as an critical business imperative rather than just a nice-to-have.

We must keep learning to keep relevant – organizations with curiosity cultures perform better

Curiosity may not be the word to use though – it may be better achieved if dressed-up as innovation or operational excellence or growth mindset even. And senior leadership needs to champion this all the time, reinforcing how important it is, and rewarding others for doing it.

Oops, I dropped the Lemon Tart

Roland wondered if we need to get more friction into the process to generate the innovation we seek and if that friction lies at the edges of the organization, rather than the safer spaces internally. For Saar the edges are fruitful places to explore, but leaders are often fearful of taking people to explore there, as it seems riskier – in more full sight of others. But in his experience, people are willing to do this and enjoy it. Leaders need to be embrace this risk more. Often the risk can be in doing nothing – especially in fast-moving environments where everyone is seeking new processes. Understanding context can only come from exploring the boundaries, and this combined with an open mindset, often catalyzed by crises, as Francesca retells in the ‘oops, I dropped the lemon tart’ story. (You’ll have to listen to the recording or buy her book for that one!). The lesson being around creating permission for people to embrace change and innovate has to be given, and seen to be given, for the culture to be sufficiently safe to live it.

There is always much more in a conversation than we can capture in a few pages, but we hope this brings a flavour of what the RoundTable surfaced and catalyzed. In the final 40 minutes of the 90-minute session, the conversation roamed further and dug deeper – with the addition of Markus Rettich who runs the senior leadership development programs for top management at Daimler, joining the panel from the audience.

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