Business should foster curious minds

BY Jayashantha Jayawardhana

I was always curious as a child. My questions were endless: ‘How do birds fly?’; ‘Why did my voice echo when I shouted down a well?’; ‘How did the full moon follow me everywhere?’ and so on.

Perhaps most children – especially toddlers – are naturally curious. But as we get older sadly, most of us seem to shed our curiosity… or outgrow it.

In her article titled The Business Case for Curiosity published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), Harvard Business School professor and behavioural scientist Dr. Francesca Gino writes: “Most of the breakthrough discoveries and remarkable inventions throughout history, from flints for starting a fire to self-driving cars, have something in common.”

“They are the result of curiosity. The impulse to seek new information and experiences, and explore novel possibilities is a basic human attribute,” she explains.

Gino goes on to build a compelling case for curiosity in business and reveals three telling research insights about curiosity as it relates to business.

Firstly, curiosity is very important to an enterprise’s performance. This is because in the face of stormy market conditions and external pressures, curious people – instead of feeling overwhelmed – tend to get inquisitive and come up with more creative solutions.

Secondly, by introducing small improvements to the design of their organisations and the ways they manage their employees, leaders can spur curiosity and enhance their businesses. This is true in every industry, and for both creative and routine work.

Thirdly, even if leaders say they value inquisitive minds, most of them stifle curiosity lest it should increase risks and inefficiency.

The benefits of curiosity involve fewer decision-making errors; because when our curiosity is triggered, we are much less prone to confirmation bias. This form of bias involves seeking information that shores up our beliefs rather than evidence, which suggests otherwise.

Others include more innovation and positive changes in both creative and non-creative jobs, reduces group conflict, increases open communication and improves performance.

Gino then identifies two common barriers to curiosity. One is that contrary to what they say in public, most business leaders try to curb exploration, thinking or even fearing that it would lead to a costly mess.

True, exploration will (more often than not) disrupt the status quo. But it also means not settling for the first possible solution.

The other barrier is that business leaders are obsessed with efficiency to the detriment of exploration. The single-minded focus on efficiency stifles curiosity, and thereby experimentation and innovation.

So how do we bolster curiosity? Gino suggests a few strategies that will help leaders desist stifling curiosity and start fostering it. Here are some of these…

RECRUITMENT Recruit people for their curiosity. Gino writes: “In 2004, an anonymous billboard appeared on Highway 101 in the heart of Silicon Valley, posing this puzzle: “{first 10-digit prime found in consecutive digits of e}.com.”

“The answer – 7427466391. com – led the curious online where they found another equation to solve. A handful of people who did so were invited to submit their résumés to Google.”

Google took this atypical approach to finding applicants because they placed a premium on curiosity.

INQUISITIVENESS Leaders can foster curiosity throughout their organisations by being inquisitive themselves.

Greg Dyke was named Director-General of the BBC in 2000. Before he assumed duties, Dyke spent five months visiting the British Broadcasting Corporation’s major locations, assembling people at each place, and asking for their suggestions on how things could be improved for both themselves and their worldwide audience. He went on to act on those suggestions and succeeded in drumming up people’s support in their implementation.

EXPLORATION Let employees explore and broaden their interests. Organisations can inculcate curiosity by giving employees time and resources to explore their interests. In the 1930s, some employees at Olivetti – a typewriter factory in the Italian Alps – caught a coworker leaving the factory with a bag full of iron pieces and machinery. They accused him of stealing and wanted him dismissed.

The worker told CEO Adriano Olivetti that he was taking the parts home to work on a new machine over the weekend since he didn’t have time while doing his regular job. Instead of dismissing him, Olivetti gave him time and resources to create the machine, and entrusted him with overseeing its production.

Divisumma, the first electronic calculator, was the result. It sold like hot cakes globally in the 1950s and ’60s, and Olivetti promoted the worker to the post of Technical Director.