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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?

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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:

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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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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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Ask Four Questions

 

Do you want feedback about you when you’re at your best? Are you wondering how you can make a difference to others in the most authentic way? Then read on.

Getting honest feedback helps you to grow your self-awareness, and better understand what you are all about.

Ask the following four questions to you get a sense of what people see as the best, most authentic ‘you’. Choose people who know you well, and you trust to give you honest, constructive feedback. Try to get feedback from at least five people.

  1. What’s the first thing you think of when you think of me?
  2. When have you seen me at my best?
  3. What do you think are my greatest strengths?
  4. What do you think are my greatest accomplishments?

I ask these questions to trusted colleagues, clients and friends every couple of years. I find the answers I get incredibly useful to calibrate my own self-perception and help me to make the most of my strengths.

You’ll notice that there are no questions about weaknesses or things you should do to improve. That’s not the point of this exercise. This is about identifying the best, most authentic you.

It’s useful to ask people to reply in an email, and then you can cut-and-paste the replies into a table. This may help you easily identify the patterns and themes across the answers.

You can use this template to help you capture and make sense of the answers you get.

Go well!

 

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Lead With Questions

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

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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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