Give ‘Em A Reason To Be Curious

Laser Focus


“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men and women to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


Confession time. Once upon a time, I was a manager. In my first big management role, I was responsible for the NZ operations of a global recruitment company. At the relatively young age of 30, inexperienced and over-confident, I threw myself into the job. And with scant mentoring support in place to guide me, I soon burned out. Big time.

The next few months were a mess, as I tried to make sense of my future. Confidence through the floor, I knew I didn’t want to go back into management, but I didn’t know what I wanted. My wheels were spinning. Frustration reigned!

Looking for guidance, I began to have a few coffees with people. One particular fellow suggested I didn’t need a coffee, I needed a lightning bolt. Cutting through my restless confusion, he asked me a simple question: “How can you make it easier for other first-time managers to succeed?”  Boom! The flame that had died was re-ignited. That question was the catalyst I needed. It focused me on something that meant a huge deal to me personally. For the next ten years, I relentlessly pursued that question, building a highly successful business around it.

My story is an example of purpose igniting curiosity. When we take a big question and link it to a meaningful purpose, we get an energy boost that kicks us into focused, productive action.


Only if we know why we are doing something, can we master the great challenges of our time.

Jakob Futorjanski, co-founder and CEO of NeuroNation


You know it from your own experience, right? When your work is purposeful, you’re way more satisfied. When you work for a purpose-driven organisation, it doesn’t feel as much like hard work. When you’re pursuing a question that has deep meaning for you, you’re more likely to come up with elegantly simple solutions to complex problems.

Purpose empowers curiosity. When your curiosity is driven by a sense that ‘this is really important to me’, then you’re more likely to sustain and pursue it, even when the going gets tough. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who knows why can ensure any how.”

A couple of posts ago, we looked at the different pathways to unleashing curiosity. Here’s the idea:

Leading Curiosity 2x2.005Purpose is smack-bang in the middle. It’s your core ingredient to make curiosity come alive.

  • Purpose makes it safer to be curious because it dials up the energy to overcome fear. As I’ve written about before, when you cultivate a sense of conviction, you build the foundation for courageous action
  • Purpose helps curiosity become more focused by giving all that restless energy a direction to go (just like in my story)
  • Purpose enables curiosity to be more known because it lights up glimpses of potential through the fog.


How To Grow Curiosity With Purpose

Great leadership enables people to navigate uncertainty. People thrive in uncertainty when they pursue their questions through deliberate, purposeful experiments. One of the most important things you can do is to help people find and maintain a sense of purpose in their work that gives them a) a question to pursue, and b) a way to pursue it.

In my Change Makers programme, each participant has a core task to discern their ‘big question’. Their big question focuses their restless change-making energy towards something meaningful and motivating over the long-term. Some examples of participants’ big questions include:

  • How can we make workplaces more human?
  • What opportunities does the rise of AI present in my industry, and how can we tap them?
  • What if people took complete responsibility for the situations they found themselves in?
  • How can I contribute to developing the next generation of leaders?

You can see that they’re not small questions, right? The very scale of these questions taps curiosity and asks people to consider new possibilities.

A big question:

  • is meaningful and relevant to people’s real work
  • is hard to answer (you can’t just Google it)
  • engages the heart, not just the head (it generates excitement)
  • ignites curiosity (more questions come from the big question)
  • focuses attention
  • creates movement and action

So, frame a big question for your people to explore. Ask people what big questions they would love to tackle at work. And watch the energy rise.

To unleash curiosity, there is no better lever than purpose.


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Give ‘Em Permission To Play

Atari Breakout

In the last post, we found that organisations with the most electric cultures deliberately cultivate three elements that unleash curiosity:

  1. Permission: people feel they’re able to be openly curious
  2. Progress: people can put their curiosity into action, and see the results
  3. Purpose: people have a good sense of why curiosity matters around here.

Just like a fire needs oxygen, heat, and fuel to burn, curiosity needs all three of permission, progress and purpose to really light up. When you mix those together, you get engaged, empowered people who are excited to be at work. Which makes for a mighty fine place to be, wouldn’t you say?

Three Ps of Curiosity Venn Model.001

Let’s have a look at Permission:

Permission is ‘the act of officially allowing someone to do a particular thing’. It’s when someone else tells us what we can or can’t do.

I reckon we can sometimes fall into a state of mind called ‘learned permission seeking’. That’s when we tell ourselves we need permission to act, when in fact we don’t. We get this from childhood where we learn ‘break the rules => negative consequences’. In an experiment, Robert Fritz, author of The Path of Least Resistance, recorded conversations between young children and their parents. He found that 85% of the time the kids were being told what they couldn’t do. No wonder we get  ‘learned permission seeking’ going on well into adulthood!

One of the biggest barriers to curiosity thriving is a sense that it’s not safe to be curious around here. How to break that little self-imposed rule?

The first thing: remind yourself and your people that all rules are invented. Someone, somewhere, sometime, made them all up. Often, when we look in the mirror, we find the culprit. We’re all bound by rules that we made up ourselves. What’s OK to do, and what’s not. What’s possible, and what’s not. A common self-made rule I hear is I’ve got to get it perfect every time. While that might be a worthy aspiration, it can also severely limit the willingness to make mistakes and apply curiosity to finding new ways.

The second thing: we have the power to choose whether to follow the rules (or not). We can also not choose to follow them. Or, at the very least, we can test them.

The third thing: A huge role of leadership is to help people to see their self-imposed limits and realise their power. People have more permission to play than they think they do.

Here are three ways to give people permission to be more curious: Release, Reframe, and Role Model.


People often hold back on applying their curiosity because they believe they don’t have permission to experiment. You can unleash curiosity by simply releasing some of your peoples’ time to explore new ways of operating. Just as a fire needs space between the logs to burn, your people need space to explore new ideas. We’ve seen this before – think of Google’s famous 20% time.

It doesn’t have to be confined to just the sexy tech industries. One organisation I work with is a large, bureaucratic place that’s governed from top to bottom by rules and regulations. If you don’t follow the rules, people could literally die. It’s not a place where you’d expect curiosity to thrive, right? But every year they run a leadership programme that’s sponsored by the Chief Executive. He gives the participants explicit permission to look for, and experiment with, completely new ways of doing things that could solve some of the organisation’s most wicked challenges. This has resulted in a raft of innovations that have helped make their customers’ lives better. The opportunity to apply innate curiosity to a wicked problem ignites an infectious enthusiasm which carries on for people well beyond the programme.

It doesn’t need to be as big and formal as all that. Just give them some explicit permission and release a little space to try something new.


When you hear a someone limiting themselves with a self-made rule (e.g. It’s not OK to try something new around here), you can help them test the assumptions behind that, and reframe their thinking.  Ask what would happen if they did try something new, and how likely that would be to happen? Ask them for ‘disconfirming evidence’ (evidence that goes against their statement) and what that might tell them about what they’re assuming.  When they see that some of their assumptions might be worth testing a little, you’re helping them to reframe what’s possible. (Check out Tim Ferriss’ Fear Setting for a cool exercise on this).

Listen for limits. When you help people reframe them, you to give them more room to play.

(For another way to experience how our self-made rules can limit us, try this little exercise: the nine-dot grid.).

Role Model

The most powerful and simplest way to give permission for people to be curious is to role model curiosity.  Wonder openly. Host question bursts.  Admit you don’t have all the answers. When leaders do this they set the tone for others to follow, like this leader did when she said “I don’t know”.


Rate yourself 1-4 (1 = never, 4 = always). How often do you:

  • Share with your people what you’re wondering about?
  • Explicitly give people permission to ‘poke holes’ in your thinking?
  • Host conversations where the focus is on the questions, not the answers?
  • Simply say ‘I don’t know’ when you truly don’t know the answer?

Whatever your score, there’s always an opportunity to grow. By it’s very nature, curiosity challenges the status quo. Be a leader who welcomes that.


When you deliberately reframe, release and role model, you begin to create the conditions for curiosity to thrive. When people feel that it’s OK to be curious, they’ll listen more intently to that voice inside that asks ‘what if I…?’ and act on it. That’s what you want, right? Right.


Pic: Atari Breakout (Google Easter Egg)


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Unleashing Curiosity

In my last post, we looked at three levels of curious cultures, from ”anaemic’ to electric’. Now let’s begin to have a look at what it takes to move towards, and sustain, a truly electric culture of curiosity.

I reckon a key tension that people face at work is the tension between the need to deliver and the need to discover. The need to deliver on promises and obligations, and the need to discover new ways of doing things. Both are important, yet they can pull us in opposing directions.leading-curiosity-2x2-002.jpeg

Faced with this dilemma, most people will reduce the tension by choosing to operate at the ‘deliver’ end. That’s where tangible results live, and what you’ll be most recognised and rewarded for.  Meet your KPI’s, and you’ll be OK.  You’ll be safe. And you’ll probably be bored senseless after awhile.

Others like being right down at the ‘discover’ end, where it’s all about ideas and nothing about implementation. You might find these folks in the hallowed halls of academia, or perhaps they’re that frustrating ‘ideas person’ you work with that never seems to deliver on anything.

Usually, we find ourselves somewhere in between. Well, you can only walk a tightrope when there’s some tension in it. So you might as well learn to work with the tension. Let’s have a play with that idea:

First, what if we bent that line ninety degrees? And then threw a few labels in?



And then, we mapped the essence of the barriers into those boxes?

Leading Curiosity 2x2.004

In other words:

  • If there’s too much emphasis on deliver, it makes it unsafe to discover
  • If there’s too much focus on discover, people can get unfocused, and less productive than they need to be.
  • If people aren’t delivering OR discovering, it’s a big ‘unknown‘, because we have no idea what they’re capable of.
  • And in the top right, let’s call that unleashed, because when you combine delivery and discovery directed towards productive curiosity, you’re unleashing something mighty powerful.


With a map like this, we’d be able to break the challenge down more easily, right? We’d be able to map our people across this matrix. We’d begin to have a better idea of how we could help our people unleash their curiosity.


“Fear is always triggered by creativity because creativity asks you to enter into the realms of uncertain outcome.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

What does it take?

I’ve found that organisations with the most electric cultures, where curiosity is truly unleashed, deliberately focus on creating these three conditions:
  1. Permission: people feel they’re able to be openly curious
  2. Progress: people can put their curiosity into action, and see different results
  3. Purpose: people have a sense of why curiosity matters around here.

Just like a fire needs oxygen, heat, and fuel to burn, so too does curiosity need all three of these elements to light up.

If you mapped those three P’s to our matrix, it’d look something like this. Each P drives people towards unleashing their curiosity:


In essence:

  • When curiosity is unsafe, make it safer for people by giving them explicit permission.
  • When curiosity is unfocused, make it easier for people to apply their curiosity towards productive outcomes by helping them take action on it
  • And at all times with all people, give curiosity purpose by helping people to understand why it’s so important.

A quick self-check:

  • Which parts of the matrix do your people fall into?
  • Which of the three P’s of Permission, Progress and Purpose do you think you’re strongest at as a leader?
  • Which one of the three P’s could you dial up a little more?

In the next post, we’ll dive into each of the three P’s and look at what you can do to bring them to life.


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How Curious is Your Culture?

curious dog


In my last post, we looked at the barriers to curiosity thriving at work. Now, let’s have a look at what a ‘curious culture’ looks, sounds and feels like.

When I look around and find organisations that have what I reckon are curious cultures, the one thing I notice is the energy in the place. You can absolutely feel it. It might not be written down in company policy, but it’s definitely in the air.

One successful tech company I work with has got it in spades. Whenever I visit them, if I just sit and observe for a while, this is what I’ll notice people doing:

  • Debating ideas in the hallway
  • Asking plenty of questions
  • Sharing what they’ve learned from the last project, or from a conference they’ve been to
  • Taking new ideas and testing them out there and then
  • Working beyond ‘finish time’ because they’re onto something.

What I don’t see is people:

  • Sitting submissively in meetings while the leader holds the talking stick
  • Bandying around new ideas at the coffee machine, but no-where else
  • Holding back on sharing new learning and ideas
  • Clocking 9 to 5.

Have you ever worked in a place where it’s more of the latter and less of the former? Not particularly live-giving, right? One of my earliest jobs was when I worked in a bakery during the school holidays. My job was simply and solely to cook up massive quantities of pie meat. I wanted to learn how they made all the different pastries and cakes, but I was told in no uncertain terms that my job was to stay in my corner and do what I was told. Curiosity smothered, I kept my head down and counted the hours. The bakery was a well-oiled production machine. If everyone did their jobs, it was a good day’s work.

I call workplace cultures like this ‘anaemic‘. The dictionary defines this as “lacking in colour, spirit or vitality.” That’s certainly what it felt like. Anaemic cultures are not necessarily bad, but they’re no place for curiosity to thrive. In an ever-changing world, well-oiled machines aren’t enough to enable adaptation and innovation. We need room for curiosity to emerge and breathe.

“You can’t see the whole sky through a bamboo tube”

Japanese proverb


One of the most common questions I hear from leaders is “How do I get my people to be more innovative?” Most leaders end up with teams that have pockets of innovation, but the overall centre of gravity is still weighted towards maintaining the status quo. They end up with islands of brilliance in a sea of ‘meh’.

Here, curiosity is erratic. It struggles to get a permanent toehold. Ideas surface, and that’s what they stay: just ideas, unexplored, unapplied and often abandoned. People tell stories about when ‘so and so’ did ‘such and such’ and changed the game. But these stories are told because they’re the exceptions, not the rule. The primary reason is due to the barriers to curiosity we’ve looked at before.

Rather than isolated islands of brilliance, you want a whole archipelago, joined up with bridges. Here, with every employee’s curiosity engaged, you get a culture that shines brightly. It’s electric. It’s the feeling of the static in the air just before a thunderstorm. Humming, buzzing, charged.

In electric cultures, ideas don’t just emerge, they’re actively applied. People and teams engage in a constant cycle of ideation, testing, learning, and sharing. The difference between erratic and electric cultures is this: electric cultures have curiosity and learning at their core.

Here’s a map that tracks the three stages of curious cultures:Leading Curiosity Value Model.001

Where does your team or organisation sit on this curve?

The critical shift is to help your people move from a ‘reactive‘ mindset to a ‘creative‘ one. A reactive mindset focuses on maintaining the status quo. Anything that upsets stability is a problem to deal with, and make go away, so we can get back to ‘normal’. Curiosity has no room to breathe here.

On the other hand, a creative mindset focuses not on making problems go away, but on creating outcomes rooted in a sense of higher vision and purpose. To do that, curiosity has to take front and centre stage.

When you’re past the tipping point on this journey, you’re on a virtuous cycle. Research shows that people (and by extension, cultures) with higher levels of curiosity:

  • learn more, and learn better
  • innovate faster
  • continue to invest in learning (driving more curiosity)
  • are more ‘distress tolerant’ i.e. they’re more tolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty

No wonder more and more companies are hiring for curiosity. Check out Bank of New Zealand’s career’s video. Want to play? Better bring your best curiosity game.

Wherever you sit on the curve, it’s likely that there’s an opportunity to shift your culture further towards the right. What might it take to make this shift?

In my next post, I’ll share some ideas for making that happen.


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Cultivating Curiosity



How do you cultivate more curiosity at work?

As curiosity trends toward becoming a highly valued commodity, I’ve been curious about what it takes to be more than a word on a wall in the organisational values chart. So, with my curious hat on, I set about seeking some answers:

  • A few weeks ago, I polled my brains trust (aka my LinkedIn network) and asked them “what do you think the main barriers are to curiosity at work?”
  • A couple of weeks ago, I ran a workshop on leading curiosity with about 50 leaders from a diverse range of organisations where we explored what it takes to create more curious cultures.
  • And of course, I read my brains out trying to get a sense of what it takes to make curiosity happen at work, and why it matters.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  1. Curiosity is the driving force behind creativity and innovation. If we want learning, and if we want to create change, we need to start by cultivating a sense of curiosity about a possible different and better future. That’s why it matters. The Merck Group has done some really useful research into what happens when you cultivate curiosity. In essence, the more curiosity, the more ideas, and the more chance of breakthroughs happening.
  2. Curiosity is what happens when there’s a perceived gap between what we think we know and what we think we could know. As humans, we naturally want to fill that gap. So to grow curiosity, we need to create that gap in the first place. In other words, pique interest, then encourage exploration.
  3. There are some big barriers to making curiosity happen.  Let’s have a look at what my crew on LinkedIn said. I’ve summarised the comments into four categories:


Barriers to Curiosity v2


Quite the list, right? Plenty of barriers to kill curiosity in its tracks.

Research by the Right Question Institute suggests that curiosity peaks in early childhood and then declines as we enter the formal school system. A young child asks 300 questions a day. By adulthood, the number is down to virtually none.

With this list, you can see why. If your organisation’s current culture has any of these elements in spades, you’ll be hard-pressed to cultivate a thriving culture of curiosity anytime soon.

So, how to cultivate curiosity? What does it take? I’ve dug up and shaped up a few ideas that will help answer those questions. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be exploring what it takes to cultivate a culture of curiosity, and sharing my thoughts here.

Interest piqued? Curious about what else people said? You can check out the LinkedIn conversation here. Feel free to add your thoughts!


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What Are Your Daily Anchors?

I broke my arm recently (making it near impossible to write), so I’m creating a series of videos on how to stay resilient when adversity strikes.

My first video explains how I plan to stay resilient


A week on, check out how I’m tracking and what I’m learning along the way


This week I’ve discovered my top 3 daily anchors


Download my Daily Anchors Checklist










This weeks learning is all about building distress tolerance to help ensure learning and curiosity thrive.


My latest insight is noticing the power in single-tasking over multitasking


Since getting my cast off I’ve realised how rules & limits can hold you back


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What’s Your Word For The Year?

Word Cloud for Word of the Year

One day over lunch this summer, I got to talking with some friends about our intentions for the year ahead. Our conversation turned to the idea of having a word for the year: something that would reflect a theme we chose to have running through each of our lives over the next 12 months.

We went around the table and asked each other what our word for the year would be. Responses were wide and varied, and each prompted deeper conversation and refection.

I love the idea of having a word for the year. Mine is ‘consolidation’. Yep, it’s not sexy, but it’s meaningful to me. That’s because I’m a person who loves the next bright, shiny thing, and I’m notorious for starting things and not finishing them. That’s a constant source of frustration for me, and as I reflected on what I wanted this coming year to be about for me, that word kept coming up. So I grabbed it, and it’s stuck with me.


I reckon there are two simple criteria for a word for the year to be effective:

  1. Meaningful: it’s got to mean something to you. Meaningful things can promise to take away pain or to give you gain. See above for my example. If it’s meaningful, you’re also likely to remember it.
  2. Focusing: when you’re faced with a decision, your word should help you focus on what’s most important. For example, if I’m tempted to explore a brand new market for my business this year, I’m less likely to say ‘yes’ to that because this year is about consolidating my work in my existing markets. Focus is essential for getting what we want (check out Daniel Goleman’s work on this).


How do you come up with your own word for the year? I suspect, deep down, most of us have an inkling of what it is. It might be that as you’ve been reading this, it’s already popped out. If so, grab it and own it. If it’s not there yet, I suggest you reflect on these questions and write some notes as you do so.

  • If I could have, do or be one thing this year, what would that be?
  • What would it look like if I got out of my own way a bit more? What will it take to do that?
  • What do I keep telling myself I need more of to be successful?

Your answers to these questions will most likely point to your word for the year. You might end up with a few. I had ‘spaciousness’, ‘simplicity’ and ‘magnification’ as close contenders. If you’ve come up with more than one, leave it for a day or two and notice which word keeps rising to the surface. That’s your word.

Finally, write it big and bold and stick it somewhere you’ll see it every day.


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