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The business case for curiosity

Every week I listen to several podcasts to satisfy my own sense of curiosity. This week’s super podcast was all about ‘The business case for curiosity’ from ‘HBR IDEACAST’, which got me thinking about my own experience of curiosity in and out of work.  

Harvard Business School’s Professor Francesca Gino has conducted fascinating research into the power of curiosity in the workplace. Many of the most curious among us shy away from their natural bias to ask why, due to fears of being labelled as ‘out of line’ or ‘asking too many questions’. As someone who has spent her entire career out of line, asking way too many questions and never being satisfied with the first answer, I was intrigued to find out more about Professor Gino’s work.

Instead of breeding inefficiency in the workplace, her study concluded that curiosity drives performance. This innate characteristic boosts engagement, collaboration and inspires alternative points-of-view and novel solutions. Curiosity reduces conflict, as people who question colleagues are more likely to empathise with them, and helps people manage uncertainty. It also leads to fewer decision-making errors, as we are less likely to fall prey to confirmation bias or stereotyping.

Her research made clear that curiosity feeds creativity and is fundamental mindset for true design thinkers.

We are all born with an innate curiosity. Anyone who’s ever looked after a child will know this! Kids ask questions all the time.

‘Why is the sky blue?’

‘Why do I have to eat carrots?’

‘Do identical twin zebras have identical stripe patterns?’

This one I had to Google! The answer is no. In the same way that identical twin humans do not have the same fingerprints.  

However, this precious trait peaks at five years old and then starts to rapidly decline.

If we do not want to lose the childishly brilliant streak for questioning the way things are and we want to foster curiosity in the workplace, Professor Gino has a few simple suggestions.

  1. Model inquisitiveness.  Ask questions, spend a day on the shop floor, sit in the canteen and talk.
  2. Emphasise learning as well as delivery goals. Instead of viewing curiosity as a costly mess, reward employees for learning in parallel to delivering their goals.
  3. Let employees explore and broaden their interests.
  4. Host ‘what if?’ and ‘how might we?’ days.
  5. Experience every aspect of the organisation. 3M is notorious for fostering curiosity by encouraging staff to work in different functions throughout their career. This is how a useless glue became the adhesive of choice for their Post-It Note product!

Outside of work, some of the most curious and creative people do a variety of activities in their spare time. It’s these outside influences that keep their curious natures happy. Those I meet who ask the most questions are not the most annoying people in the room, but more often the most creative.  They are thinking, hypothesising, designing and prototyping ideas, before most of us have even left the meeting room.

Maybe it’s time we all asked a few more questions.

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