Surrounded by ever-increasing complexity and uncertainty, there is one attribute which everyone, particularly leaders, needs to foster if they are to thrive – or even just survive.  

Curiosity.

I’m curious.  Why curiosity?

When the world is rapidly changing and becoming ever more complex, and pretty much every industry is being disrupted or transformed,  making assumptions that what we know is all we need to know is a big mistake.  Increasingly we need to find out what else is going on that maybe, just maybe, might be significant in the future. If the turkey was curious about why the farmer kept feeding him every day, rather than just knowing the food was going to turn up, he might have had time to establish an escape plan before Christmas!

Curiosity as a key leadership behaviourOften in our professional training we are trained to find out more and more about less and less.  Consider this.  What if what you know so much about gets disrupted by something from out of left field that we didn’t see coming (because we were so busy looking through our blinkers)?  Our deep (but narrow) insight becomes obsolete. Depth over breadth is increasingly unhelpful.

As well as giving us potential early warning of changes and disruption yet to come, habitual curiosity is a starting point for our own development and learning.  With the world’s knowledge now only a few clicks away for those who crave it, the curious get a head start when it comes to their own learning. With people following multiple career paths in a lifetime, this is key to the important skill of reinventing oneself and staying marketable.

On a one-to-one basis, interpersonal curiosity is the key to building meaningful and lasting relationships. The time-honoured dating advice has always been true – if you want someone to like you, ask them lots of questions about them and their life!  

Finally, most of us find life to be far more more interesting as you find out more about  its diverse twist and turns.

So how can we develop our curiosity?

First off, while some people are naturally curious individuals, it is important to realise that it is developable.  It is possible to get in the habit and state of mind where we ask why and search broadly for insights and information, across ever wider situations.

Some ideas to help develop your curiosity include:

  • Stick a post-it on your screen with “Don’t assume” in big friendly letters. The biggest killer to curiosity is assuming you know enough.
  • Make time to ask why something is like it is, and look at alternative explanations.  When exploring an idea, stop and plan out what other sources of insight there might be.  Force yourself to look as wide a possible in that search for information.
  • Vary your sources of information: what you read, what you watch, which website you visit and who you speak to.  Pay attention to the diversity of insights from people with differing backgrounds, ages, roles and professions. Explore the factors behind why someone has a different opinion.  Actually listen and think about what (and why) they say.  
  • Don’t judge, just listen.  Don’t  start thinking about what you are going to say next. Don’t take the first answer you get. Listen to the end, playback your understanding, then a ask follow up question (also an excellent coaching technique).
  • Cross generational curiosity (that is, getting insight from different generations who may have different perspective due to the specific conditions they grew up in) is helped by finding a reciprocal mentor – someone at least a whole generation older or younger than you.
  • Plan your Google search.  Google is great at giving you answers to the question you ask – but is it the right question? Increasingly, good schools are helping students develop this skill.
  • Ask people what they feel, not just what they think.  We often ask people what they think, but we know decisions and behaviours are actually driven by how people feel about something.    Simply asking people how they feel often uncovers a whole new raft of insight.
  • Value breadth over depth.  Find out something, and then look for something else maybe that is strikingly different  – you can always drill deeper later to the one that stands out.
  • Be curious about what seems ‘every day’ normal. Ask why is it like this? Most disruptive innovation starts like this.
  • Seek out naïve experts – that is someone who is an expert in their field, but knows little about your world or specific problem.  Often these insights are hugely powerful.
  • Be aware of biases and conditioning.  We all have them
  • Nurture serendipity – The brand new biomedical research institute, The Frances Crick Centre for medical research in London uses architecture to force cross-disciplinary researchers who will work there to physically meet each other, thus promoting serendipitous connections.  The building is designed so to go to the loo or make a coffee you have to meet others from different parts of the building.

How can we use curiosity develop others?

If curiosity is so important for everyone, how can we as leaders encourage and develop others?

  • Well first we can model and champion curiosity.  If we want more curiosity in our culture, remember that culture  is largely a result of how the leadership visibly behave.
  • Recognise and reward curiosity.  If you spot it, draw attention to it and say ‘great job’.
  • Create the opportunity to expose people  to ‘different’ perspectives, especially if there is a strategic theme. Some real examples of this: doctors spending time with airline pilots to learn about the safety culture and system, or Google and Unilever swapping staff so that a tech company could better understand marketing, an area it is increasingly dominating while a FMCG marketing company could get more insight on the digital world.

Finally, what about our children?

If curiosity is important now, it’s definitely going to be more important in the future and we should be doing all we can to nurture the habit and develop the skills in our children.  In Guy Claxton and  Bill Lucas’s  excellent book Educating Ruby, curiosity is top of their list of ‘7C’s’ that educators should focus on, together with Confidence, Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, Commitment and Craftsmanship.

Developing curiosity is one of 15 future leadership behaviours explored in the Masterclass “High performance leadership in a disrupted and changing world”.

If you’d like to inspire and enable your leaders to better engage their teams by embracing the future of work, then call Simon on 020 3488 0464 or email simon@simonwalker.org