Curiosity as a Business Practice

Trying to define curiosity is like trying to define the color blue.

Depending on your perspective, mindset, and motivations – curiosity could mean being open to more information or inclined to risk-taking actions and decisions, falling down the rabbit hole of the internet, or being engrossed in research papers. 

Curiosity is such a natural part of who we are and what we do that we are oblivious to its reach into our lives. With the ease of access to information, our continuous demand for information drives everything from the global economy to learning motivation. The impulse to search and discover is ingrained into a person’s DNA. 

Todd Kashdan, author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient in Life, believes “in order to find purpose and meaning in life, one must be curious, engage in experimentation, and utilize all that can be gained from life’s many trials and errors.”  

“Curiosity: the desire to understand what you do not.”

~William James

Creativity, curiosity, and business

When thinking about curiosity as making use of our natural questioning skills it is apparent that there was never a more important time for L&D to support building curiosity as a business practice to support a growth mindset. This means tightening the relationship between learning and business to build curiosity practices into the business ecosystem. 

As nebulous as the concept of curiosity is, we can readily connect its importance to business success. We know there is a thread that leads from curiosity to creativity. However, as we unravel that thread there are some interesting discoveries. 

The IBM Institute for Business Value conducted a survey of 1500 C-suite level executives and asked, “What do you really need in leadership today?” 

The answer: creativity

Understanding that creativity and curiosity go hand in hand, Francesca Gino, Professor at Harvard Business School, conducted a  survey of 520 CLOs and found “[CLOs] discourage curiosity because the company would be harder to manage, and disagreements would arise slowing productivity and execution.”  

Additionally, a recent McKinsey leadership survey stated, “leadership values and requires employees who question the status quo. However, research shows that management intentionally (or unintentionally) suppresses creativity efforts to mitigate risk.” [emphasis mine]

The question then becomes how can L&D square this discovery? Especially when it seems all forces are working against each other.  

Curiosity leads to business benefits

When we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively.” – Francesca Gino

Every day there are pieces of knowledge waiting to be discovered and explored, then pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. To make these discoveries, businesses must rely on and support key curiosity foundations such as open communication and collaboration. Businesses will see that by doing so, overall mindset growth will be directly impacted and improved.  Such as:

  • Reduced group conflict
  • More accepting of positive changes
  • Less confirmation bias
  • Fast and better problem solving
  • Greater adaptability
  • Open skill sharing

These results become apparent when L&D nurtures, and businesses support an organizational culture of experimentation centered around curiosity and innovation. Curiosity is the thread that connects turning pieces of knowledge into greater business discoveries. Building a culture of curiosity is the foundation of how a business goes from direct mail for movies to being the largest subscription streaming service worldwide as of March 2020. 

Curiosity is the difference between Blockbuster and Netflix.

Business and learning leaders alike can point to business improvements stemming from broadening team member’s curious horizons from “giving answers” to “asking questions.” The internet is full of business use cases that demonstrate using the power of putting curious minds to work in a collaborative effort. 

But how to get there from here? 

Building curiosity into the business

“Curiosity results from a motivation to master one’s environment.” – R.W. White, 1959

How can L&D rethink curiosity for better business use? First, remove the instinct to prevent failures and treat curiosity and experimentation as practice. It is not surprising to know that curiosity is the common denominator between successful people and businesses. 

Curiosity is often confused as a serendipitous event (“a curious thought struck me so I spent an hour on the Google machine”). However, what if we treated curiosity like a series of threads woven together to make a piece of cloth. Consider weaving in curious thoughts (What if? How about if we? Let’s try.) alongside day-to-day actions to further develop a growth mindset.

Building curiosity is a skill that can be improved with effort and motivation. One must fight to develop a practice of curiosity. If we do not, daily rote actions take over and smother curious thinking. If you always walk the same path, discovery will never happen. Forcing yourself into a curious mindset means adding questioning as a routine practice.

Questioning behaviors lead to curious minds

With this in mind, L&D must influence the questioning behaviors of the business at all times. How can L&D lead the charge? It starts with you and your actions – are you modeling the behaviors we would like to see in the business?

Does L&D:

  • Embrace uncertainty
  • Take an interest beyond this moment
  • Look at reality from different perspectives
  • Challenge what we think we know
  • Lean into failure

A more concrete action to build curiosity and support innovation within business is to look internally at the diversity of your organization or the teams within it. According to a study conducted by Boston Consulting Group, a clear path to creating a more innovative organization is by hiring and having in place people with different backgrounds and experiences. By doing so businesses will see that diverse teams will often see the same problem from different perspectives, creating different opportunities for more successful solutions. Does L&D bring diversity into our partnership with business?

Discover curiosity through intentional cultivation

As stated, curiosity should not be a group of serendipitous events. It should be time spent listening to the people in your business and being mindful of your surroundings. It’s taking time to understand people and situations from different perspectives and not your own biases. Use the below curiosity process to help activate the curious mindset of L&D and the business.

Building curiosity through intentional cultivation.

Determine Gap: What is the business challenge that is driving curiosity?

Growth Mindset: Are you prepared for the answer, whatever it may be? 

Intentional Discovery: Search with intent and challenge what you think you know.

Deep Questioning: “What if..?” How can we..?” “What would happen..?”

Share & Feedback: Share results of discovery with the team, allowing the team to start their own curiosity process. 

To wrap this up

Often it is thought that business processes and procedures are at odds with curiosity and creativity. In fact, the opposite is true. To make having a curious mindset a norm, L&D in partnership with leadership will need to recognize the value of having curiosity embedded in business as much as they embed service values. The key is to regularly reinforce and model the mindset so teams see that leadership recognizes and rewards curious efforts. 

Businesses guide people and processes daily as part of the business ecosystem, then as such, consciously giving teams the time and energy to be curious, collaborate and create, should be another natural function. In doing so we will see real business results and Carpe Diem!

(Post originally written for Go1)

Shannon Tipton

Shannon Tipton

As Owner of Learning Rebels, Shannon Tipton is a skilled learning strategist, content developer and International speaker. Shannon has over 20 years of leadership experience developing successful learning strategies and infrastructures for training departments within organizations in North America, Europe and Korea.

Shannon works with people and organizations to develop learning solutions that brings actual business results. Recognized as bringing real-world expertise into the learning field, Shannon integrates technologies and social learning tools to strengthen workplace alignment, enhance collaboration and increase learning connectivity.

As author of “Disruptive Learning” Shannon frequently speaking at conferences across North America and Europe and ranks as one of the top 100 L&D influencers on Twitter (@stipton).

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