Posted by: dstieglitz | May 31, 2013


“If a manager is willing to listen, he will find that the average employee is loaded with ideas. So the first step in innovation is listening. The second is letting your employees work in different ways.”   – Tom Peters

    Would you characterize yourself as a curious person? Most people do since opposite traits like close-mindedness and apathy are not flattering. Curiosity pushes people to learn, to explore and to create. You have been curious since the day you were born – although you had more time to be curious as a child than you do as an executive. Even still, great leaders are innately curious about how the world works – and that curiosity propels business, technological and social progress.

Replace Judgments with Curiosity. The manager of a billion-dollar program proudly proclaimed that open-mindedness and innovation were core values in his program. He encouraged his staff to be open and honest with him, with each other, and with strategic partners. One day he asked his coach: “My people aren’t suggesting as many ideas as they once did. Sometimes I feel they aren’t telling me the whole story. Why?” Uncomfortably the coach replied: “Remember last week’s workshop when you said the new approach that Ian suggested was the dumbest thing you’d ever heard.” The manager responded: “Yes. But you didn’t think it was a viable option either.” The coach continued: “True. As presented it was unworkable. But judgments stifle creativity. I was very curious why an experienced engineer like Ian would think it was a good idea. If we had asked questions, we might have discovered a golden nugget behind his idea.” Lack of curiosity had turned the manager’s conversations into soliloquies instead of the vigorous discussions of bold, new strategies that he wanted.

Same Old Stuff.  Similarly, lack of curiosity is contributing to the budget stalemate in Congress. Rather than examining fresh ideas, the same old politicians are redrawing the same old lines in the sand, and justifying them with the same old exaggerated claims. It’s time to ask new questions and be curious about other side’s perspectives. If growth in entitlements and spending must be contained as projections clearly show, and the government needs more revenue as most experts contend, and it is reasonable for high-income people to bear a larger tax burden as most Americans agree; then lots of possibilities are available. But instead of being curious about the options, crusaders on the left and right continue their silly contest to denigrate rather than understand each other. The potential for progress lies in reframing the debate by asking new questions and reinterpreting interests.

Listen to the Market. By no means does Congress have a monopoly on stubborn thinking.  Business executives can be equally oblivious to market shifts with disastrous results. It’s not that companies like Zerox, RIM, Nokia, Kodak, Circuit City, Blockbuster and Best Buy failed to see market shifts. In most cases their staff had developed next-generation devices and business models, but senior executives were reluctant to introduce concepts that competed with their current success. Unfortunately, their market share plummeted when others introduced those concepts. What is sobering is the degree to which these companies dominated their markets before their rapid and surprising decline. While Apple, Google and Amazon emerged as big winners, they are no less vulnerable to such a decline – and neither is your organization.

The Take-Away Lesson. In “Good to Great to Gone” Alan Wurtzel, Circuit City’s former CEO, tells how his company rose to stardom and subsequently went bankrupt. His core message is the danger successful organizations face when they get stuck in a comfort zone – when they slow innovation because what they are doing is working well. Rapidly evolving technology is a shared link among the companies listed above. It’s difficult to project the direction of new technology, and even harder to guess how people will adapt it in their lives. The key to success in today’s fast-changing business world is not finding a crystal ball. Rather it is pursuing multiple possibilities, testing potentially conflicting strategies, and embracing them when the time seems right. Over the next decade there are likely to be more Kodaks, RIMs and Circuit Cities. You can avoid that fate by being curious about why things are going differently than you expect.

Institutionalize Curiosity. To institutionalize curiosity in your organization, focus attention – yours and your team’s – on asking thoughtful questions. Practice curiosity in conversations until it becomes second nature for everyone. You will need to:

  • Replace judgmental statements with open-ended questions
  • Listen carefully to the perspectives imbedded in the answers
  • Tell your team what is expected and allow them to innovate
  • Embrace failure – be curious about why a good idea didn’t work
  • Be transparent about the logic and priorities behind your decisions.

When you are considering multiple alternatives, craft your questions to explore the strengths and weaknesses of each one – usually no single alternative offers the ideal solution. Question everyone in the room including the most junior people. Rather than accepting one idea and rejecting others, ask curious questions that reveal the thinking behind an approach, the data that supports that approach, and any gaps in the reasoning.

     Be Curious about Curiosity.  Great leaders are curious about curiosity itself. They explore ways to be more curious themselves and to promote curiosity in their organizations. Paradoxically, what you already know can become an obstacle to curiosity. The so-called experts make decisions instantly because unconsciously they assume they know everything they need to know. Effective leaders see the fallacy in that thinking and escape the knowing trap by habitually asking questions. That’s how they avoid having their organizations go from good to great to gone.


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