Curiosity Fuels Inclusion, Collaboration and Innovation

Curiosity. It’s something that intrigues me. Every year I tend to have a focus word, a word that I want to be more present in my life, something I want to lean into and be more intentional about. Last year the word was generosity. I wanted to be more generous with my time, talents, and money, especially giving to people and causes that mean so much to me. I had read that generosity leads to an increase in happiness, peace, empathy and feelings of connectedness with others. I wanted more of that in my life. This year, it’s curiosity. As a lifelong learner, it makes sense that I’d get around to this deeply held value of following where my interests lead me.

I have a picture of myself that I go to often. It’s an old black and white picture that was taken when I was just four years old. I look into the eyes of that young girl and I know she was curious. She was open-minded. She was an explorer and an experimenter. She was interested in people, in things, and she saw more possibilities than limitations. This four-year-old girl was not any different from other four-year-old children because you see, four-year-olds are innately curious. Over time, the curiosity wanes or more sadly it is discouraged in the quest for conformity, rudimentary and formulaic learning, unimaginative and rote memorization of facts and methods, expertise, and assimilation. Saja Chodosh, a strategist with Emotive Brand, wrote the article Why Curiosity Fuels Business Innovation, and in it she states that studies show that curiosity peaks at around age four or five and steadily declines thereafter. Chodosh says, “As people grow up, they become more self-conscious, feel more fearful about asking questions, and are increasingly inclined to display confidence and expertise over curiosity and inquisitiveness.” The questioner can be considered an annoyance. There are real consequences for the chiseling away of curiosity in human development that shows up in our classrooms, workplaces, and in our lives generally. I decided to write about curiosity because I’m hopeful that being curious is becoming more welcoming again and is showing up in organizations. Specifically, I believe curiosity fuels inclusion, collaboration, and innovation – three things all organizations are trying to foster because they now believe they are the troika of competitive advantage. An organization’s ability to attract, engage and retain diverse talent, leverage different perspectives, and foster a culture where the free flow of ideas lead to innovation are all connected to how much the organization celebrates curiosity.

What is Curiosity? It is defined simply as the desire to know something, inquisitiveness. Curiosity is having an open mind. It is having intellectual humility where we can admit that what we believe and the assumptions we hold may actually be wrong or at least incomplete. Curiosity is comfort with inquiry because as in Appreciative Inquiry, we learn that questions are fateful. We move in the direction of our inquiry. And curiosity leads to empathy, which is understanding of, compassion for and identification with others who may be different from us in thoughts, backgrounds, and experiences.

Curiosity fuels inclusion.

Beverly Kaye, the Founder of Career Systems International, and coauthor of the bestselling book, Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go, wrote an article entitled, Curiosity is Crucial to Inclusion. In the article Kaye stated, “There’s a connection between curiosity and inclusion. It opens the door to different points of view, facilitates insights and understanding, invites involvement and inspires greater engagement.” She also called curiosity the gateway competency, meaning it is an essential managerial skill. Kaye said that if managers lack curiosity, they will have difficulty fulfilling other managerial functions.

A few years ago, a staff writer for
Talent Management magazine also made the curiosity-inclusion connection. The
writer stated, “Increasingly, organizations recognize the untapped power of
curiosity as a unique and potentially unbeatable competitive advantage in a
crowded marketplace.” The writer continued by saying, “And, while not a panacea,
curiosity is a priority that should be required of, and cultivated by, leaders
at every level.”  In the article, the
writer shared the outcome of a pulse survey where leaders across the country
were asked about the importance of curiosity to business outcomes. Survey
results showed that innovation was the number one outcome cited, but that
inclusion came in second.  

In 2016, Juliet Bourke wrote about a
Deloitte study that identified a new leadership capability they call Inclusive
Leadership. Bourke wrote, “Our research revealed that when people feel that
they are treated fairly, that their uniqueness is appreciated and they have a
sense of belonging, and that they have a voice in decision making, then they
will feel included.” According to Deloitte’s research, the diversity of
markets, customers, ideas, and talent is driving the need for inclusion as a
new leadership capability. In their new leadership model, they identified six
leadership traits that characterized an inclusive mind-set and inclusive
behavior. Those traits are Commitment, Courage, Cognizance of bias, Cultural
Intelligence, Collaboration, and Curiosity. On Curiosity as a trait of
inclusive leaders, they said, “Highly inclusive leaders have an open mindset, a
desire to understand how others view and experience the world, and a tolerance
for ambiguity.” In the article, Bourke cites a 2015 interview with Michael
Dell, chairman and chief executive officer of Dell, Inc. When asked what the
one attribute CEOs need to succeed in the future, Dell responded: “I would
place my bet on curiosity…because with curiosity comes learning and new ideas,
and in businesses that are changing very rapidly, if you’re not curious, you’re
not learning, and you’re going to have a real problem.” This learning drives
key attributes associated with curiosity and with inclusion, namely open-mindedness,
inquisitiveness, and empathy.

It was also Deloitte that said,
inclusive cultures are six times more likely to be agile and innovative.

How can curiosity fuel inclusion in
organizations? Many organizations have implemented unconscious bias training. For
organizations that have not, that may be an excellent place to start. I’m
convinced people have to become more aware of their biases and assumptions because
awareness is the beginning of all change. But how do you move from unconscious
bias to conscious inclusion? I am a big believer that people in conversation
with one another can foster change, surface ideas and solutions, and increase
feelings of inclusion and belongingness. One solution is to make space for “inclusive
conversations” where a diverse group of people can have honest and respectful dialogue
about issues that impact their organizations or communities and use inquiry to elevate
everyone’s learning. These conversations allow diverse perspectives to be shared
and celebrated. Personally, individuals can use their curiosity to bring about
more inclusion by consciously tapping individuals who have different views than
themselves to work on projects together or by not going to the usual suspects for

Curiosity fuels collaboration.

Blog writers for WBT Systems, an international elearning company, wrote an article titled, “How a Rocket Scientist Built a Culture of Curiosity and Collaboration.” In it they discuss how curiosity and collaboration led to the successful NASA Mars rover, which by the way is named Curiosity. The rocket scientist, Adam Steltzner, is the chief engineer of entry, descent, and landing systems for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He said Curiosity is an apt name for the rover because “there are few limits to what your team can achieve if you build a culture of curiosity and collaboration at your association.” The article highlights one of the strategies Steltzner uses with his team to invite curiosity and collaboration. If a team member wants to bring an idea to the rest of the team for consideration, the team member has to bring three central arguments for the solution and three arguments against it. With this approach, Steltzner believes the team member bringing the solution separates themselves from their own ideas and also helps their fellow team members to critique the ideas, not the team member bringing the idea.   The writers stated, “Everyone has to be willing to give and accept a critical review of all ideas, including their own. You have to let ideas, not egos, compete against each other.”  

Peter Senge, also an aerospace engineer before becoming so widely known in organization development circles, also said that “the real barriers to collaboration and communication exist in people’s heads.” As the author of The Fifth Discipline, a leader in systems thinking, and the developer of the notion of the learning organization, Senge thought that people needed to develop inquiry skills and reflection to be able to solve real problems. As an OD practitioner, Senge’s work has had a significant influence on my professional practice. Just thinking about an organization as a living system, it’s easy to see how important collaboration is and how a change in one part of an organizational system has ripple effects throughout the entire system. The need for individuals to ask questions, be open-minded, embrace ambiguity, communicate with empathy, and listen actively is critical. And, as organizations reshape themselves, enter new markets, develop products, and connect with a diversifying consumer base, collaboration is vital.

How can organizations make the
curiosity-collaboration connection? I’ll share something I’m doing with my own
team. I’ve asked the person who leads diversity and inclusion to develop and
implement a leadership development program focused on engaging a diverse group
of rising leaders and to use the head of the learning function as a partner and
subject matter expert. I’ve also asked the learning leader to oversee some of the
organization’s change management initiatives and to use the head of organization
development as a partner and subject matter expert. Some may say this is simply
a cross-training or cross-pollination effort. It is that, but it’s also more.
When we take people out of their functional expertise, we invite inquiry and
partnership. The reliance on others to provide expertise sparks collaboration. The
exchange also leads to novel perspectives and approaches that may not have
otherwise surfaced. Another example of curiosity as fuel to collaboration is a hack-a-thon.
During a hack-a-thon, a problem is surfaced and a diverse group of people with
different expertise and perspectives are united to solve the problem.
Consequently, the solutions are usually highly interdependent, which requires
collaboration to achieve success. A third example is the familiar brainstorming
process. In a brainstorming session, individuals build on each other’s ideas to
produce even stronger ideas and solutions. We’ve all experienced the benefits
of such a session, where the sum of the ideas is better than the individual
ideas first presented.  

Curiosity fuels innovation.

This is perhaps the easiest connection to see, but it doesn’t mean it is the easiest. In fact, I believe allowing curiosity to thrive to bring about more innovation is incredibly difficult in many organizations because we are working in a volatile and uncertain environment. And in said environment, people have to be willing to take more risks, which means breaking away from established norms and previously successful business models. This also means asking more questions like “Why?” “What if” and “Why not?” It’s about challenging assumptions. In How Your Curiosity Can Keep the Wheels of Collaboration Turning, Jeffrey Mitchell talked about questioning your assumptions by asking – “Why do I think this?” “Could I be mistaken about this?” “Does recent experience support my belief?”

The point is if a company is not innovating and not willing to be curious, they won’t be around for long. It was Eric Schmidt of Google that said, “We run this company on questions, not answers.” Recently, I listened to a podcast featuring Mohammad Gawdat, the former Chief Business Officer of Google X. Gawdat said most companies discuss and decide whether to move forward with a new business venture after creating the business plan (cost-benefit analysis). Google takes a different route. He said Google starts with the problem in need of a solution. The Google X team discusses ideas and makes a decision to move forward. According to Gawdat (and others), there is a fail-fast mentality and a culture of celebrating failure. Perhaps you’ve heard of this – if Google encounters a failure, they will celebrate that failure by toasting with champagne. I’m sure this is to celebrate and preserve risk-taking as a cultural quality so as to not stymie ideas going forward.

Recently, I met with my team and told them I wanted to implement Curiosity time. This is the time when team members are encouraged to work away from their normal workspaces (I believe new settings bring out fresh ideas) for hours or a day and devote time to their interests. Team members may choose to have dedicated time to work on projects requiring creative thinking, shadow leaders in different areas of the business, take time to read, think and plan, or work on something that piques their interests. Let their curiosity lead them. I firmly believe that rekindling the curious mind and giving people the space to pursue something they are interested in will yield more creativity and innovation within our team.

And as for me, my year of focused Curiosity – I am loving it. I am reading more, asking more questions of myself and others, and experimenting through travel and experiences. I am learning to listen more deeply, surface assumptions, and cultivate greater empathy for others. I believe this year of focusing on the value of curiosity will not only make me a better leader; it will make me a better person.

I’ll leave you with a couple of my
other favorite Curiosity quotes…

Albert Einstein said, “I have no
special talent. I’m only passionately curious.” And this last one is by Unknown
– “The Future Belongs to the Curious.” I hope you’ll be curious and see how
curiosity fuels inclusion, collaboration, and innovation in your life, your
team, and in your organization.

Note: this article is edited from a keynote speech for The University of Georgia College of Education Learning, Leadership, and Organization Development program’s 50th Anniversary. As a graduate of that program, it was an honor to share this topic with fellow alumni and the faculty.

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