Why the future of your business depends on curiosity

As published on Switch & Shift on January 27, 2014. In an economy of individuals with everyone in the world close to all the information in the world, organizations can no longer just copy-paste their strategy and plans from the year before. There is no way back. The open world is here to stay and expected to further accelerate. The future will be less about money, power or size, but more about agility, networking and sharing. In order to survive, businesses need to grow to a permanent state of curiosity, making it a core strategic competence.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it saved my ass,” Michael J. Fox

Barriers to Curiosity

While every human being is curious by nature, organizations are not. Most management practices are failing and working against driving organizational curiosity: hierarchical and silo structures prevent bottom-up or transversal creativity, closed mindsets block fresh thoughts from the outside world, and funnel thinking limits the survival of out-of-the-box ideas. Companies can only be curious because they are composed of individuals who are curious. But the problem with individuals is that they are all victims of their own human limitations. We suffer from an illusion of knowledge bias, thinking we know more than we actually do. We suffer from false consensus bias, starting from our own vision of the world, believing that everybody thinks like us and would make the same choices. We suffer from observational selection bias making us find new evidence to support our own false beliefs. We suffer from agnosticism bias, not knowing what we don’t know, focusing too much on things we already do know.
The future will be less about money, power or size, but more about agility, networking and sharing. In order to survive, businesses need to grow to a permanent state of curiosity, making it a core strategic competence.

Building a framework stimulating curiosity

In order to compensate for an individual’s own limitations, companies need to set up processes, practices and daily rituals nurturing an ongoing sense of curiosity. Here is a simple framework that might inspire you to do just that, combining in-the-box and out-of-the-box thinking with taking a portrait and landscape view on what you see.
1. Don’t stop asking
Keep on asking the “why, why, why” behind what you observe. Remember the publicity stunt that was recently undertaken by Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian prime minister? He decided to go undercover as a taxi driver in Oslo, picking up authentic stories from citizens about what really matters to them. While it can be easily interpreted as a bottom up listening culture, it is not about deep listening. Deep listening requires continuously asking why, while not being satisfied with a superficial answer too easily. Think about Dyson. The entire vacuum cleaner business kept on assuming that people did not want to see the dirt or dust collected in their dust bag. But Dyson kept asking more and came to the exact opposite conclusion. The success behind Dyson is not just that it offers a vacuum cleaner without a dust bag; more important is that it has a transparent container to collect the dirt allowing consumers to see the effect of their efforts. Actually, the success behind Dyson is curiosity.
2. Change Perspective
If you change your perspective, you see more. Volkswagen launched its Beetle on the US market in the fifties. This small, strange looking car arrived at a time when US streets were flooded with huge cars. Volkswagen told Americans to think small, but their insight wasn’t small at all. There was no real need for a smaller car at that time, but there was a sizable group of people who needed to be different. By taking a different perspective to the concept of a small car, the Volkswagen Beetle helped US consumers to stand out of the American crowd.
A great way to change perspective is to invite various stakeholders to your business’ challenges. Stiven Kerestegian, Senior Manager Open Innovation at LEGO, put it nicely: “99.99% of the world’s smartest people don’t work for us.Foldit is an online puzzle game with players collaborating worldwide to fold protein molecules in three dimensions. Whereas scientists have spent 15 years trying to unlock the structure of an AIDS-related protein, Foldit players were able to solve the puzzle in just 10 days.
3. Break The Pattern
We usually feel uncomfortable when we find inconsistent results, but instead we should embrace inconsistency as a way to drive inspiration. KFC was looking to introduce new products that would appeal to women. All research showed that it was a great idea to launch a chicken salad, but the results after launch were not impressive at all. The inconsistency between research and reality led to a newly uncovered insight. Although people said they liked the new product, in fact the moment they walked into a KFC fast food chain store, they were okay with the idea of committing a ‘sin’ and having a guilty pleasure.
Early 2000, LEGO was in deep trouble, facing huge losses and having lost connection with the consumer. Their newly appointed CMO wanted everybody to reconnect with their inner child, breaking the pattern of being an adult: employees are encouraged to bring their children to work, you can find hotspots with games everywhere in the LEGO offices, and employees are sitting in oversized chairs to remind them how it feels to be a child.
4. Be Interested in Anything and Anyone
You can only tap into serendipity when you are open and take the time to explore anything, even if there does not seem to be an obvious link to your product, service or business. Companies such as 3M and Google have long been praised for granting employees a 15% resp. 20% time off perk, allowing them to work on side projects, thereby producing things that would normally never emerge. It is a clear example of cultivating interest in anything and anyone, leave the beaten tracks for a more daring route, moving away from compliance and paving the way for self-direction.
We usually feel uncomfortable when we find inconsistent results, but instead we should embrace inconsistency as a way to drive inspiration.

The magic only starts at the end of your comfort zone

A curious company culture starts with you making a change and creating daily rituals. Here are 5 questions you should ask yourself to find out how curious you really are:

  • When was the last time you did something for the first time?
  • When did you last use your own product or service?
  • When did you last talk to a customer and actually listen deeply?
  • When did you last start a meeting with a story of a customer?
  • When did you last learn from someone distant from your own role and responsibility?

I am interested in hearing what your daily rituals are to drive (organizational) curiosity!

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