curiosity

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?

leading-curiosity-2x2-003.jpeg

 

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:

leading-curiosity-2x2-005-e1523570782138.jpeg

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

 

Picture1

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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It’s Bigger Than You

Shaun Tan The Red Tree Snail Shell

Artwork by Shaun Tan, from his book The Red Tree.

 

Whatever you’re working on now, it’s bigger than that.

Whatever your plans are for the next twelve months, it’s bigger than them.

Whatever your job title, your profession, your organisation, your industry.

It’s bigger than all of them.

The poet David Whyte says what you can plan is too small for you to live.

Your goals, your plans, your sense of belonging. It’s bigger than all of them.

So, what is it?

 

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Write It Down

 

Journal1 (1).jpg

One of my three notebooks.

 

Fresh ideas are powerful currency. New thinking can lead to renewed energy to tackle gnarly issues. Flashes of insight can spur new actions and new results. When you want to make change happen, your ideas are the starting point.

And, for most of us, life is super-busy. It flies by like your view from a rushing train. Ideas appear, and in the blink of an eye, they can quickly zoom out of view again, lost to us, as we fly ever onwards down the track.

The good thing is that we have this amazing technology available to us to help us capture those ideas as they emerge before they rush past and visit some other passenger further down the line. And that technology is cheap and easy to use. It’s called pen and paper.

If you write an idea down, the more likely you are able to do something with it.

There’s actually a bit of a debate about whether writing stuff down helps or not. Some research asserts that it helps us remember the important stuff. and it contributes strongly to our wellbeing. On the other hand, reaching as far back as Plato’s day, there’s a line of argument saying that note taking makes us lazy. I reckon it’s the wrong debate. Like all good practices, it’s about your intention behind the doing. Let’s look at that a bit more.

To my mind, there are two basic types of ‘writing down’. Taking notes, and creating ideas.

Taking notes (of a conversation, a lecture, or making a shopping list) is good for ‘storage’ purposes. It’s akin to taking a photo of an interesting slide you see at a conference, or grabbing an online article and adding it to Evernote. You’re grabbing the content, but you’re not really thinking too hard about it. You simply do it so you can retrieve it later. It gives your brain a break from having to remember everything and helps you stay organised.

The other purpose of writing down is to serve a creative process. Isaac Asimov said, “writing is simply thinking through my fingers.” The act of picking up a pen with the intention of “thinking through my fingers” forces your brain to work harder. You have to think about what you want to say or create. In that creative process, you bring into being something new.

My blogs are my creative ideas written down. I’ve had to think about what I want to say, and how I want to say it. The process of writing creates both the form and the substance of something new.

Leonardo Da Vinci is generally regarded as the epitome of what it means to be curious, and I suspect that was enhanced by his propensity to ‘write it down’. He carried a notebook with him everywhere and wrote down anything that moved him. For example, here’s one of one of his to-do lists that would put most of us to shame.

Here are a couple of ways I apply these ideas:

Notebooks: I carry three notebooks around with me: one for taking notes of client conversations, one for my daily to-do lists, and one for capturing and developing my own occasional flashes of brilliance and insight. I also have one in my car’s centre console, so when I’m listening to podcasts, I can write down ideas that grab me (when I’m stopped at the lights of course!) I’m always writing in some form or another.

Insights and Actions Log: In my workshops, I have participants use an ‘insights and actions’ log to capture relevant ideas as they arise. It’s simply an A4 piece of paper with a line drawn down the middle. The left-hand column is called ‘Insights’, and that’s for the ideas. The right-hand column is called ‘Actions’ and that’s for writing down what they are going to do with the ideas. Because an idea is more useful if you act on it in some way.

Ideas are everywhere. The trick is to capture them so you can use them.

Sound like a good idea? Great. Write it down.

 

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Lead With Questions

Last week, I was reminded of the awesome, and underutilised power of leading with questions.

Questions Leverage.001

A colleague and I spent two days together with a group of up-and-coming leaders. They’re an energised, talented group, hungry to learn and to make an impact on their organisation. A joy to work with.

As facilitators, my colleague and I had a bunch of ideas for what we could have done with them over those two days.We had a run plan. There were certain leadership topics we thought we’d cover with them, and we had the content and activities ready to go.

And, we chose to lead things off with some questions. Questions that we thought would stimulate thinking, connection, and insight. So in the morning session of the first day, we kicked off with this slide:

Workshop Framing QuestionsNow, we thought these might take us an hour to discuss. We spent over two. The conversation was rich, unhurried and thought-provoking. You could feel the engagement in the room. The organisation had been going through a tough few months, and we soon realised that the group had a strong need to make sense of what was going on. If we’d tried to rush it and stick to the run plan, I think we’d have lost the group. Anything we’d tried to teach or tell them would have washed over them. They weren’t ready to engage with new content just yet.

We followed that first slide with this one:

Workshop Framing Questions 2

 

These questions caused a shift in focus from ‘out there’ (environment) to ‘in here’ (self). There was a quieter, more reflective mood in the room, with the conversation unearthing what was most important for people to work on in their leadership. Leading up to lunch, the group were grounded, oriented to the future, and ready to do work together.

After lunch, we framed the rest of our time together with this slide:

Workshop Framing Questions 4

From that point, we were away. Everything we did came back to that question. We covered lots of territory, including leadership culture, leadership networks, deep listening, uncovering assumptions, and influence. My colleague and I taught some stuff, but mostly the leaders learned from each other. By the end of our time together, this diverse group had a) real ownership for leading a range of organisational issues, and b) developed deep connection and support across the group to make it happen. The catalyst was a handful of deliberate, thought-provoking questions.

So what’s this all about?

I’ve noticed that most leaders (and trainers, for that matter) generally still live in a world of ‘tell’. The need to have the answers, be the expert, show the way. Setting the agenda and driving through the “stuff”. That’s fine in some contexts, like when the answers are obvious, or you can rely on what worked in the past to work in the future. But of course, that’s increasingly unlikely when you’re expected to lead in a world where old blueprints need to be thrown out and new approaches invented. As I’ve written about before, we need a more curious approach.

In this context, there’s huge power in letting go of the need to tell, and instead shifting to asking questions. This requires a reframing of what it means to be a leader. A move away from being ego-centric. A move to towards other-centric (whether ‘other’ be another person, group or the system you’re in).

Here are some ideas about how you can lead with questions:

  1. Determine your intent. What is it that you want to occur during the conversation, and afterwards? I find it useful to break it down into “Think, Feel, Do”. What do you want people to think about? What do you want them to feel? What would you love to see them do?” Your answers to these questions will shape everything that follows.
  2. Frame your role. Imagine two roles: Teller and Asker. Given your intent, what percentage of your time do you think you need to spend in each? Hint: allow more time for asking than you’re comfortable with.
  3. Decide on the questions. These, of course, will depend on your intent. I find powerful questions have the following in common:
  • You can’t possibly know the answer beforehand (so you have to be the “naive inquirer”)
  • They’re not easy to answer
  • They raise awareness
  • The provide a focal point
  • They generate possibility
  • They generate responsibility and ownership
  • They tend to start with ‘What’, ‘How’ or ‘Why’

Notice how the examples above have some or all of these elements.

So, here’s a challenge for you: over the next week, pay attention to how often you choose to lead with questions versus “telling”. Perhaps get yourself a ‘spotter’ to give you feedback on how you’re doing. When you ask a question where in the past you’d probably jump to giving an answer, notice what happens as a result.

 

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How To Be Curious

The late novelist David Foster Wallace tells a wonderful story about ‘incuriosity’ in his commencement speech This Is Water:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

We can all be blind, at times, to the world around us. We might think we know how stuff works, what drives our people, that we’ve got the solution to the problems. But do we really?

A team of organisational development (OD) professionals was tasked with helping the senior leaders of their organisation to have better and more frequent ‘talent conversations’ with their people. The OD team, convinced of the value of this activity, spent months developing easy-to-use tools and frameworks to help the leaders. But they struggled to get any traction. It took another few months of trying to adapt the tools to make them even better, until someone asked: “wait a minute, do these leaders even want to have talent conversations?”

The answer was a resounding ‘no’. The OD team had assumed that the leaders were keen, but in fact, they were terrified. Not because they didn’t know how. But because they saw the conversations with these ambitious people as creating a threat to their own job security.

This is a case of not seeing the water you’re swimming in. When you’re so close to your own perceptions of how the world works, you can forget to ask the bigger questions that really matter. Knowledge overwhelms curiosity.

There’s a correlation between the amount of knowledge you think you have and the amount of curiosity you demonstrate. fMRI research suggests it looks like this:

curiousity-knowledge-model-1

When there’s a gap between what you think you know, and what you think could be known, you’re curious.

Let’s break it down a little more:

curiousity-knowledge-model-2

When you have no knowledge of something, there’s nothing to be curious about. Think of the young fish in the water. That’s ignorance.

When the old fish swims by, you start to get curious. What’s he talking about? That’s wonderance.

When you realise you’ve actually learned something new, when you ‘see the water’, you can apply that knowledge to your world. That’s confidence.

When you think you know everything, you think there’s nothing to be curious about. You know it all, right? That’s arrogance.

In a world that values answers, it’s tempting to rush towards the right-hand end. Ryan Holiday, the author of The Obstacle is the Way, says when your ego gets bigger than your ears, your curiosity starts to die.When people keep calling you superman, soon enough you start to believe you are.

The trick is to stay curious at all times. To stay in that place between wonderance and confidence. Know what you know, and be humble about it. In a world where yesterday’s solutions are less effective at solving today’s problems, those who can stay curious will help us create new ways forward.

Transportation expert Wanis Kabbaj is a good example. He’s been trying to solve the increasingly huge traffic problems that rapid urbanisation presents us with. He asked: “what if traffic flowed through our streets as smoothly and efficiently as blood flows through our veins?” By simply asking that question, and being in ‘wonderance’, he’s taken our thinking in a new direction that just might yield new solutions. Check out his TED talk on that here.

Fortunately, we aren’t fish. If we choose, we can see the water. We’re born with an innate sense of curiosity: that strong desire to know and learn. Unlike other living things, we’re wired to ask “why?”

Curiosity is one of the critical meta-skills for interesting times. When your tried-and-true methods don’t work like they used to, then it’s time to dial up your curiosity. If you want to reinvent how things happen in your world, your starting point is curiosity.

Here are six ways to upgrade your curiosity:

  1. Expand Your Mind: Read and listen outside of your usual bubble. Subscribe to podcasts that cover a wide range of subjects, like NPR’s TED Radio Hour. Go into a new agent and buy magazines that you wouldn’t usually read. Sign up to Blinkist to absorb 15-minute book summaries in written and audio format.
  2. Expand Your Experience: Get yourself out of your comfort zone. Walk a different way to work. Hang out with people who think differently to you. Visit a new country each year. Go test yourself.
  3. Ask Better Questions: Be like Wanis Kabbaj. Make your default questions “why?” and “what if?” Sound like your three-year-old self.
  4. Cultivate ‘Beginner’s Mind’: Learn something completely new. That could be a new language, a new skill, a new sport. I’ve written about that idea before.
  5. Notice others: (Discreetly) observe someone in a coffee shop or a meeting, and imagine what it might be like to be them.
  6. Notice yourself: Reflect daily on your experiences, and what you made of them. Even just five minutes of journaling a day can help hone your self-curiosity.

Curiosity is the driving force behind human development. More than ever, the world needs you to be curious. Where could that be true for you?

 

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Photo: Curious Cows