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How to Cultivate Curiosity in Your Organization

Curiosity isn't just for children. It's time to harness this crucial skill in the workplace.

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

When was the last time you learned something meaningful at work? Or the last time you kicked off a meeting with an open-ended question? Or when you verbalized a burning question that you’ve kept to yourself?

In a world defined by ambiguity, personal and organizational curiosity is a primary driver of adaptation, reinvention and even survival. New technologies, economic and political upheaval and the growing realities of climate change mean there are far more unknowns than knowns. Leaders who foster a culture of restless inquiry throughout their organizations benefit from faster discovery of new market opportunities, more prolific idea generation and more productive engagement across departments and geographies.

The incentive to ask generative, strategic questions should not be bounded in the highest leadership levels. Instead, leaders can take concrete steps to ensure that curiosity drives decision-making at every level of your organization. Questions open up discovery and promote engagement by employees from bottom to top. By asking why things went right or wrong, curiosity gives us a new perspective and helps us learn faster. And curiosity also helps us connect with others on a deeper level, leaning in to differences of outlook or opinion. Curiosity doesn’t have to be a privilege, but it does need to be supported by the culture. Here are eight ways that leaders can cultivate curiosity and get those creative inquiry skills flowing, posed as a series of provocative questions:

  • How might you pose an organizing question of the week or month? These generative questions can be sourced from your employees or driven from an outside prompt.  These regular focal questions will likely stimulate different types of conversation and learning, often neglected when employees are in a mode of focused execution.
  • How might you incentivize questions? A major barrier to asking questions is that employees don’t want to give the impression that they don’t know the answer. As a leader, it will be important to create an environment where inquiry is rewarded rather than punished.
  • What if you included curiosity as a measure recognized in talent reviews? Too often, employee evaluations revolve around only quantified targets to known objectives, like key performance indicators (KPIs). But these don’t tell you if your talent is really thinking creatively, individually or with others. Supervisors should also evaluate measures of discovery, inquiry and experimentation.
  • What if all leaders modeled curiosity publicly - in meetings or on a Curiosity Wall? Encourage employees to share ideas in public, not just behind closed doors. A Curiosity Wall can create a public forum for lively, constructive dialog in a democratized and open way.
  • How might you give space and time for people to learn about others beyond their job function or title? Corporate silos are the enemy of growth and creativity. Encourage employees to cross departmental boundaries through welcoming and collaborative activities. You’ll never know which unassuming member of the accounting or human relations team might turn out to have the next big transformative idea!
  • How might you invite outsiders to come in for speeches or informal lunch and learns? Outside voices and perspectives will spur a learning mindset and protect against the tendency toward embracing the known idea or group-think.
  • How might you promote a monthly or quarterly book club? In addition to creating valuable opportunities for socialization, a book club makes sure that employees are exposed to the latest ideas and cutting-edge trends. Through dedicated communities of practice and learning forums, cross functional groups can explore how the ideas might be applied to day-to-day business.
  • How might you promote field trips or learning journeys? You don’t learn about the world around you by spending all of your hours in the office. Some of the best ideas are sparked in the most unlikely places, made stronger through relationships forged in shared discovery.

These practices will not only help you, as a leader, be more open and attuned to change, but will also help your company drive forward-looking thinking through dynamic engagement and active learning. As “questionologist” Warren Berger writes in his important book, “A More Beautiful Question,” “Don’t be put off by learning how much you don’t know…Questioners learn to love the great unknown – it’s the land of opportunity, in terns of creativity and innovation.”

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