When you’re curious about a subject, learning about it doesn’t feel like a chore. Yet learners and organizations often fail to leverage this inborn human impulse to seek out and absorb new knowledge. Learning expert Stefaan van Hooydonk has made it his mission to change that. In this book summary, he offers a concise and lucid guide to building productive curiosity for professionals.
Business and Money, Comparative Economics, Manufacturing Industry, Comparative Economics
Curiosity is good for business. Learning expert Stefaan van Hooydonk offers a concise and lucid guide to building productive curiosity for professionals, in teams and in organizations. The business case for curiosity is well-known – but the author cites additional recent research, plus illustrative cases and anecdotes he draws from his experience as chief learning officer for Flipkart, Cognizant and other organizations. Although his zeal for his subject makes this a bit repetitious, van Hooydonk provides a clear, helpful overview and valuable recommendations.
- Learn to be more curious.
- An environment of change and instability calls for a curious mind-set.
- Curiosity benefits you and your organization.
- Curious leaders enjoy superior performance and nurture employee curiosity.
- Curious teams provide a safe environment for their members’ inquisitiveness.
- For companies, curiosity supports organizational resilience, innovation and improved listening.
- Corporate strategies that prioritize curiosity facilitate both innovative exploration and efficient implementation.
- Curiosity drives disruptive and evolutionary innovation.
- To enhance curiosity in your organization, follow 10 strategies.
Learn to be more curious.
Curious people thirst to know more. As a mind-set, curiosity includes a willingness to challenge the status quo, to explore and discover, and to learn. People often regard curiosity as a childlike quality, but studies show that children and adults have about the same levels of inquisitiveness. They differ only in children’s greater willingness to take risks and experience discomfort to pursue knowledge.
You spark your curiosity when you encounter something new and recognize it as such. You then make a quick assessment of your ability to learn more about it without exposing yourself to risk. If you can explore the question and feel safe doing so, acting upon your curiosity follows.
“I don’t have any talents; I am only passionately curious.” (Albert Einstein)
People feel curious about a subject when they already know something about it. A little knowledge stirs curiosity and learning more causes curiosity to grow. Once people feel confident that they’ve learned all they can about a subject, their curiosity wanes. Routine, monotony and stress also dampen curiosity.
Every person has natural curiosity. Some have more than others, and curiosity does seem to have a genetic component. You can learn to be more curious, especially if you are in a conducive environment.
An environment of change and instability calls for a curious mind-set.
In the relatively stable business environment of the past, organizations performed best by prioritizing operational efficiency. In such an environment, leaders valued continuity, certainty and predictability, and they excelled by exploiting known, existing advantages. In today’s environment of rapid change, organizations that cling to the status quo and to antiquated business models will stagnate.
“By replacing the fear of the unknown with curiosity, we open ourselves up to an infinite stream of possibility.” (philosopher Alan Watts)
A changing world calls for curiosity, agility, exploration and innovation. Organizations can benefit from this environment by granting workers empowerment and autonomy. Today, leaders must embrace open-mindedness and seek fresh opportunities. Planning and control cycles must give way to innovation pipelines. This approach requires curiosity, plus the agility and risk tolerance that it fosters.
Curiosity benefits you and your organization.
Individuals benefit from being curious because it increases their engagement, motivation and fulfillment. This enables them to advance more quickly in their careers, build better relationships, welcome new experiences and feel less fear in the face of change.
Curiosity increases people’s willingness to apply their intelligence and knowledge to improving themselves, their relationships and their endeavors. Curiosity helps people generate new combinations of ideas and find previously elusive solutions to problems. Curious professionals build deep and wide expertise, becoming “T-shaped” employees – fit to excel in work that poses cognitive challenges and requires rich knowledge.
When curious people lack important information, they have the humility to recognize that they need to find it. Because curiosity primes the brain to receive information, curious professionals learn more easily. They can tap into better memory function than incurious people.
“Curiosity means to try something new, to learn something new, to nudge the edge of your comfort zone and introduce variety.”
Curiosity’s opposite, conformity, leads people to cling to the known, avoid making mistakes and try to fit in with the crowd. The desire for stability and certainty – which comes from each individual’s culture, society and internal wiring – drives conformity. This prevents people from trying new things, posing questions and exploring. Curiosity is an antidote to stifling conformity.
Curious leaders enjoy superior performance and nurture employee curiosity.
Curiosity helps leaders make rational, intentional decisions, adapt more easily to uncertainty and consider fresh strategies. They can communicate mindfully, with full attention. Curious leaders’ willingness to listen extends to feedback about their own performance. They exhibit confident humility and feel comfortable asking for help and not having all the answers.
Curious leaders are role models. A team leader’s commitment to learning boosts this quality in his or her team members. When the boss demonstrates curiosity, employees see that the corporate culture encourages their curiosity as well. Leaders must take specific actions to show people that the company welcomes both their questions and their desire to expand their knowledge and capabilities.
“Although leaders say they treasure inquisitive minds, in fact, most stifle curiosity, fearing it will increase risk and inefficiency.” (organizational psychologist Francesca Gino)
Many leaders fall prey to outdated mind-sets that prevent them from embracing curiosity. These include the idea that curiosity bogs down efficiency and inhibits focus. Or they may think that curious employees will be unruly and difficult to manage. They may prefer centralized decision-making and hew to the belief that leaders should know everything and always project strength. When autocratic leaders discourage their staff members from questioning their decisions or proposing alternatives, they stifle curiosity. Leaders who prefer proven solutions also inhibit employees’ curiosity. They generally allow their staff members little time to investigate creative alternatives – to the organization’s detriment.
Curious teams provide a safe environment for their members’ inquisitiveness.
Curiosity boosts a team’s productivity, collaboration and communication. Curious teams enjoy lower conflict and a more respectful atmosphere. Members of curious teams experience greater engagement, satisfaction and commitment. Curious teams tend to make good decisions because they minimize groupthink.
Leading a curious team means more than assembling team members who express curiosity. It means creating a team that has the culture, climate, processes and practices to create an environment conducive to curiosity. In the environment of a curious team, members feel safe, appreciated, cared for, and free to speak up and explore.
“Curiosity and innovation go hand in hand, with curiosity being in the driver’s seat.”
Studies of curiosity, organizational performance and team performance identify nine dimensions of curious teams: The manager’s style and relationship with the team, the team’s learning culture, its diversity, its practices and processes, its culture with respect to openness, the psychological safety it fosters, the role models it provides, its clarity of vision and its orientation to innovation. Executives should drive curiosity at the team level, where employees will experience its benefits most intently.
For companies, curiosity supports organizational resilience, innovation and improved listening.
Curiosity can enhance organizations’ ability to see around corners. It can improve their capacity to listen to their customers, employees and markets. It also can boost their competitiveness, productivity and engagement. Curious organizations tend to enjoy positive customer brand perceptions.
The companies that managed best during the pandemic found innovative ways to cope with crises and shifting situations. Having the qualities of curious organizations helped, in that they were open to change, practiced humility and retained a sense of wonder regarding future possibilities. Curiosity facilitates organizational learning, feedback and the ability to learn from mistakes. In curious organizations, people feel safe voicing divergent views and challenging the status quo. Curious organizations tend to attract top talent and then provide an environment in which talented people can thrive.
“Curiosity is growth mind-set in action.” (curiosity researcher Alison Horstmeyer)
Curious organizations do two things that incurious organizations don’t or can’t do: They build an environment that favors curiosity, and they foster a curious mind-set among their employees, leaders and teams. They feature diversity among people and in thought and experience. Start-ups tend to display curiosity in abundance, but organizations of any size can build a culture that fosters curiosity. Most already have that foundation.
Corporate strategies that prioritize curiosity facilitate both innovative exploration and efficient implementation.
Leading organizations such as Microsoft, Novartis, 3M and Google – among many more – have adopted curiosity as a component of their strategy. In an unstable business environment, organizations must balance exploitation – that is efficient implementation – with exploration, including experimentation and innovation. While using exploitation and exploration in parallel is challenging, executives with a curious mind-set can enhance and benefit from both strategic approaches.
“The mental models that got us this far will not be the ones taking us into the future.”
Kodak’s downfall illustrates how an incurious organization can fail to recognize and respond to market changes, with devastating results. Microsoft’s story demonstrates the effects of both curiosity and incuriosity: In 2000, Steve Ballmer took the reins of an entrepreneurial organization that was enjoying phenomenal success. He imposed an aggressive, conformist leadership style, and Microsoft’s market value plummeted. When Satya Nadella became CEO in 2014, he focused on culture and fostering curiosity and a growth mind-set. Nadella generated a phenomenal turnaround.
Curiosity drives disruptive and evolutionary innovation.
Innovation in any area – business model, culture, product or process – depends on challenging the status quo and asking fresh questions. Companies can take two distinct approaches to innovation, by looking outside the core business or within it. Innovation that arises from an aspect of the organization outside the core generally disrupts. Innovation that emerges from the business’s core usually yields evolutionary change, though that can be disruptive. Both depend on curiosity. Narrow curiosity, which is about an existing area of expertise, results in incremental innovation. Broad curiosity, which is about new areas, can yield radical innovations.
“All life is an experiment.” (philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson)
An organization’s drive to innovate depends on three variables: The first is whether the organization is hierarchical, family-based, market-facing or ad hoc (as in start-ups), and whether it will encourage or discourage curiosity. Hierarchical and family-based companies tend to reward conformity. The second is whether leaders tend to ask open-ended or closed questions, since that can affect the impetus to innovate. According to Yury Boshyk, founder of Global Executive Learning and Business Driven Action Learning, leaders at McDonnell Douglas transformed the company’s approach to innovation by asking open-ended questions, which yielded more insightful answers. And, the third is whether the culture fosters a propensity for innovation, which is likely unless leaders choose to swim against that current.
To enhance curiosity in your organization, follow 10 strategies.
High performers have a natural aptitude for curiosity. People whose performance lags want to be curious, but they may find their capacity for curiosity is diminished under the pressure of stress, routine, overconfidence, or a lack of role models and a curiosity-positive culture. The following strategies can enhance curiosity for individuals, teams and organizations.
- Take curiosity seriously – Mark out time to develop it. If you lead a team or organization, make curiosity an agenda item.
- Make curiosity a project – Determine the baseline state of curiosity in your team or organization, define goals and a plan, assess resources, and set a deadline for measurable improvement.
- Build self-awareness – Notice your level of curiosity and how it fluctuates in different situations. Probe your beliefs, values and drivers with regard to curiosity. Reduce your stress. Develop awareness of your leadership style and practices with regard to curiosity.
- Bring transparency to your curiosity – Measure the three dimensions of curiosity: Intellectual curiosity about the world, social/empathic curiosity about other people and intrapersonal curiosity about yourself. Analyze your metrics and track them over time.
- Establish small habits – Use Stanford University design lab founder B.J. Fogg’s technique for creating habits. Choose an anchor moment, a new behavior and an immediate celebration to make curiosity habitual.
- Incorporate curiosity into your life and help others do so – Welcome serendipity and surprise. Introduce other people to productive curiosity.
- Keep learning – Increasing knowledge strengthens curiosity. Expose yourself to ideas that challenge your convictions and expand your thinking.
- Ask questions about the mundane, trivial or obvious – This practice strengthens your curiosity and leads you to challenge the status quo.
- Apply curiosity to your relationships – Curiosity about the people in your life will improve your relationships and expose you to new points of view.
- Appreciate the value of failure – Failures and mistakes offer golden opportunities to learn. Drop the word “mistakes” from your vocabulary. Call them surprises instead.
About the author
Stefaan van Hooydonk, the former chief learning officer for Cognizant, Flipkart and other leading companies, founded the Global Curiosity Institute. He is also the Dean and cofounder of the Earth Academy.