In the last post, we found that organisations with the most electric cultures deliberately cultivate three elements that unleash curiosity:
- Permission: people feel they’re able to be openly curious
- Progress: people can put their curiosity into action, and see the results
- 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?
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.).
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.
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