learning

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

 

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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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Don’t Wait. Design Next Year Now.

In January, I posted Your Year By Design. The idea of deliberately designing how you’ll spend your time over the next 12 months. It’s something that really works for me because it gives me a sense that I’m creating the life I want, rather than life simply happening to me.

As I reflect on my year, it’s been a good one. And it’s also tinged with a sense of intentions-not-quite-realised. There were a few things on my list that I definitely intended to do (like finish my book, for example) but I got busy doing lots of other stuff I’d committed to instead. How did that happen?

Here’s what I learned: January is too late to design your year.

Design It Now.

Now’s time of year when, in the southern hemisphere at least, we’re looking forward to a summer break. For many, December is about cramming. Trying to get work deadlines met, going to end-of-year celebration parties, rushing to get the Christmas shopping done. Most people just want to ‘get to the finish line’ and then collapse in a heap!

January then becomes an ‘unhook and recover’ period. The usual pattern is to get to the end of the year, take a break, and then sometime in late January, start to lift your head up and think about the year ahead. By that time, the year is already moving, and before long, you’re halfway through and wondering where the time’s gone.

As the end of this year approached, I got a sense that next year was already beginning to be filled with commitments that I’d agreed to. My calendar was free, so, sure, why not? But I’d said ‘yes’ to stuff before I’d done the thinking about what I wanted my year to be about. If I kept on with that and waited until January to design my year, I’d be trying to fit the important stuff in around the existing stuff. That’s not going to work!

So, I pressed pause and did my year by design early. Here’s how it’s shaping up.

2018-digby.jpeg

As I head into the summer break, I’m feeling good about next year because I’ve already decided what it’s going to look like. I’ve deliberately given myself lots of time out to do the things that are most important to me. And now I know that I can respond with confidence to new opportunities that come up,  because I’ve already booked in the most important stuff.

Design your year now:

  1. Download the 2018 calendar
  2. Follow the steps in Your Year By Design
  3. Go into the break knowing you’re set up for a great year ahead 🙂

 

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Write It Down

 

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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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How To Keep Your Learning Alive

You know and I know that training courses aren’t where we do most of our learning. But how deliberate are we about ‘doing our learning’ the rest of the time?

Yesterday I wrapped up a leadership development programme that I’d been running over the past six months. Inevitably, participants want to know “how do we keep our learning alive now that the formal programme has finished?”

So, we brainstormed a bunch of ideas. Here’s what we came up with:

  1. Get a mentor: Find a mentor from outside of your day-to-day environment to provide you with perspective and guidance.
  2. Be a mentor: find someone who’s interested in learning about how you do what you do. You learn a lot by mentoring – it challenges you to unpack what you instinctively know, and think about it with fresh eyes.
  3. Get exposure to different people: Seek out people that think differently to you. They might be in-the-flesh, or maybe you’ll find them in magazines, podcasts, on TV. Don’t judge right or wrong, good or bad. Be curious as to how they see the world they way they do.
  4. Share what you’re learning: When you learn something new, the best way to embed it is to teach it. Find an audience, share your insights, ask for their perspectives too.
  5. Write: get a journal, write daily. This isn’t to share, it’s to help you get stuff out of your head and make better sense of it. Seeing your thinking helps you shift your thinking.
  6. Get a coach: different to a mentor, a coach provides you with thinking space to make sense of your world, understand yourself better, think through your choices and plan your next steps.
  7. Have a ‘Beginner’s Mind’ project: Find something where you’re a complete beginner, where you have no sense of how to do it. Here’s a great post on how to do that.
  8. Try doing things differently: Example: sick of the way your meetings are working? Find ways to mix it up. Rotate the chair. Stand up. Stay curious about what works, keep evolving.

Here’s the model I use to teach this stuff:

Ingredients of Learning

Action: when you do stuff, you create opportunities to ‘bump up against the world’. I find the best actions are the scary ones, the ones on the edge of your comfort zone. They invite and challenge you to do things differently. Trying new things, having a Beginner’s Mind project, sharing what you’re learning are all examples of ‘action’.

Connection: similarly, connection with other people provides great opportunity for growth. Mentors and coaches are very useful resources. And, my colleague Nick Petrie and I think the real ‘accelerant’ in this circle is to get some Colliding Perspectives – the people who challenge your view of the world and offer a different one to consider.

Insight: this is the practice of engaging with what’s in your head and making sense of it. It’s about stepping back from game, and noticing the mindset you’ve been playing with. Seeing your thinking that’s guiding your behaviour. Perhaps exploring the assumptions you’re holding, and how useful they are. Trying on some new assumptions for size. Working with a coach and using a journal are both powerful ways to step out of the game to some deeper insights.

Deliberately combine these in ways that work for you, and you will keep your learning alive.

 

P.S. My theme for the year is “Be curious, be connected, be courageous.” Can you see how those three things fit the model?

P.P.S. If you’re curious about more of the thinking and research behind this model, check out the CCL whitepaper ‘Vertical Development Part 2’ by Nick Petrie (with input from yours truly). I think this paper provides some very practical approaches to accelerating development both for individuals, and organisations.

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Spiral Leaves picture by Sulabyrinth as seen on pragmaticmom.com

 

 

Avoid The Flat Line

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What’s better: when good stuff happens to you, or bad? Mull on that for a bit as you read on.

I’ve just spent three days on an emotional rollercoaster. I was attending a workshop with Thought Leaders Business School to help me sharpen my thinking for how I run my business. Hugely beneficial. But not always fun. I reckon I experienced the full range of human emotions, from elation to anger, and everything in between.

Here’s a cross-section:

  • The morning of the first day (full of swagger): “yeah, I’m energised and engaged. This is good”.
  • Lunchtime on the second day: “this is doing my head in. I hate this. This is bad”.
  • The end of the last day: “I’m focused and calm. This is good.”

What’s interesting about this is not so much the range of emotions, but the judgement I was putting on them.

For instance, at lunchtime on the second day, I was like a fly in a jar, bouncing around trying to get rid of the frustration and anger I was feeling. I wanted to run away to somewhere that gave me back that ‘good’ feeling I had on the morning of the first day.

I’m glad I didn’t. Instead, I checked in with a mentor, who helped me to stand back and see that what I was experiencing was pretty much normal. I began to realise that my angst was a signal that I was at my learning edge. I was being challenged to examine some of my beliefs about what I was about. And a part of me didn’t want to do that. My mentor encouraged me to sit with the feeling, be curious, and let go of everything needing to be OK.

And of course, that made all the difference. If I didn’t stick with it, I doubt I’d have grown from the experience, or got to the focused and calm mindset I had on the third day.

Back to the initial question. A trick, of course. Loaded with judgemental words. Better, good, bad. It’s not about what’s better. It’s how you use the experience.

Our western culture has a meme, and it goes like this: move towards ‘good’, move away from ‘bad’. I say “No”. Life will throw you ups and downs. That’s what makes it interesting. Flat line = death.

Those highs and lows are where the opportunities lie to show what you’re about. How you use those experiences, how you grow from them, is what makes you, you.

Savour the peaks, embrace the troughs. And avoid the flat line at all costs.

 

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Are You Trying Too Hard? (Part Two)

 

Version 2

I recently wrote about the idea that when you stop striving, you maximise performance and enjoyment.

If you missed that post, I was training for a mountain bike race (done now, loved it) and I’d been tracking my times. I noticed that when I relaxed more, my times got better.

Since then, I diligently continued my training and kept on collecting data on my times. As a result, some more interesting ideas about optimising performance came to light.

Here’s a visual analysis of my times on one of the trail segments over the past couple of months. The grey dots represent each time I went for a ride. The higher the dot, the faster the time.

Tumeke Analysis 2

There are three patterns jumping out here:

The Practice Effect:

Early on in my training, it was all about getting my fundamentals right: fitness, skills and confidence. Checkout the line sloping upwards. Over those weeks, each time I went out, I was consistently hitting lower and lower times. Fitness, skill and confidence were all on the rise, translating into better performance. On the segment shown in the graph, my personal best time is down to 2:31, with plenty of other recent times around there. Back in early February 2016 my personal best was 3:51. The foundation of that improvement is simply down to time on the bike.

Lesson: There’s nothing like practice to get you to where you want to be.

The Social Effect:

Later in my training, I regularly teamed up and rode with a couple of friends who were doing the race with me. We’re all about the same level of fitness and skill, and we’re all fairly competitive types. Whenever we rode together, all of our times tended be faster than when we rode alone. And we had a good time doing it. The red circles show those sessions. By riding with others, I’ve got even faster, and stayed there.

Lesson: Team up with other motivated people, and you’ll go even further than you thought you could.

The Coiled Spring Effect:

There were some days where I had a particularly big day at work (e.g. running an intense workshop), and there were other times where I didn’t ride for four or five days. In either case, I’d get to the trail with a bunch of pent-up energy. And then I’d bust out a great time. Just like a coiled spring. Boom! The green circles are those sessions. They really stand out from the ones around them, showing me, at the time, what I was capable of.

Lesson: Let your down times fuel your up times.

All useful lessons for many areas in life, right?

One last observation. My training had a purpose: to be fit and fast enough for the race. Now it’s done, I’m noticing my motivation for riding is flagging just a little. I still love getting out there, but I’m left wondering whether I need a new goal to keep me motivated as I head into the colder winter months? That’s one for another post…stay tuned.

 

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Photo: Digby Scott