Nutshell: Drawing Milan: how to build and champion curiosity

Written by
Future Talent Learning

Published
08 Jun 2020

08 Jun 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

A healthy dose of curiosity can help us get the measure of unpredictability and uncertainty.

To-do lists. We all have them. They might remind us that we need to finish that monthly report or find a new supplier. They’ll help us to remember that we need to do the shopping or pick up the dry-cleaning. They could be a bit more ambitious, exhorting us to try that new online course or to reach out to some new people to round out our networks.

The chances are, though, that they’re unlikely to list things like “Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle” or “Ask Benedetto Potinari by what means they go on ice in Flanders”, all the while suggesting that we need to “Draw Milan” and “Ask about the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese”.

But these are just some of the items that appear on the to-do lists of the ultimate polymath, that Renaissance man of all Renaissance men, Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci.

The scope of da Vinci’s interest and influence is staggering: artist, inventor, scientist, anatomist, botanist, musician; the list goes on. Through almost 7,000 pages of his surviving notebooks, we can trace how da Vinci jotted down everything he saw around him, his thoughts, observations and reflections; sketches, impressions and, of course, those to-do lists. And all this with little formal education. So what motivated him?

In his book, How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael J Gelb explores what he calls seven da Vincian principles. They include qualities such as his ability to connect seemingly disparate ideas, to embrace ambiguity and his focus on experimentation. But the most important da Vincian trait Golb identifies is another characteristic the great man has come to embody: curiosity.

Like us, da Vinci lived at a time of great change, when new ideas were challenging the status quo and a world of challenges and possibilities was opening up before him. In the face of this uncertainty, his notebooks show an irrepressible urge to explore, to find out, ask difficult questions and use the answers to inform his inventions, ideas and creations. Art historian and broadcaster, Kenneth Clark, went as far as to describe him as “undoubtedly the most curious man who ever lived”.

Could a da Vinci-like curiosity, then, be a trait worth nurturing in twenty-first century workplaces characterised by unpredictability and the need for creativity and innovation?

The case for curiosity

Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell Technologies, believes so. Dell has identified curiosity as the attribute leaders are most likely to need to succeed in our turbulent times. “With curiosity comes learning and new ideas,” he says, “If you’re not doing that, you’re going to have a real problem.”

Nor is Dell alone. The idea that curiosity - expanding our perspective, having the right mindset to question assumptions - is essential for meeting the challenges of uncertainty is gaining traction. We may not be able to predict precisely what the future holds, but curious leaders, concerned less about having all the answers and more about asking the right questions and listening to a range of answers, hold the key.

Harvard Professor, Francesca Gino, agrees. For Gino, the impulse to “seek new information and experiences and explore novel possibilities” is a basic human attribute. She also believes that it has huge potential benefits for organisations – provided that we leaders create the infrastructures and cultures needed to encourage curiosity, whatever work we’re doing and wherever we may work.

Gino identifies three key benefits of curiosity for organisations, leaders, and employees.

Fewer decision-making errors

When our curiosity is triggered, we are less likely to fall prey to confirmation bias (looking for information that supports what we already believe) and a tendency to stereotype people (making broad judgements about people based on their personal characteristics). Our cognitive biases make us the least objective source in assessing behaviour and performance. Curiosity leads us to generate and consider alternatives.

More innovation and positive changes in both creative and non-creative jobs

Even in work environments considered to be highly structured, like call centres, curiosity can make a difference. An INSEAD study showed that new call centre workers who scored highly on a survey designed to measure curiosity were more likely – after only four weeks – to seek our information from co-workers, and then use that information in their jobs, for example, boosting their creativity in addressing customer concerns.

When we are curious, we are better able – da Vinci style – to make connections and to come up with creative solutions, to be more innovative. It’s also associated with less defensive reactions to stress and less aggressive reactions to provocation – as well as better performance.

Reduced group conflict

Gino’s research found that curiosity encourages members of a group to put themselves in one another’s shoes. Instead of just focussing on their own worldview, they took an interest in other people’s ideas. That improved teamwork, with groups communicating more openly and listening more carefully; they were also able to handle any conflict more effectively. The outcome? Better results.

Barriers to curiosity

With such a positive array of benefits on offer, we might think that leaders would jump at the chance of creating cultures that encourage curiosity – our own as well as other people’s. But it’s not quite that straightforward.

Vulnerability

It’s no coincidence that many of the items on da Vinci’s to-do lists start with the word “ask”. But we often find it difficult to ask questions ourselves. Asking a question like “I wonder?” might seem like we’re admitting that we don’t know – and that can make us feel vulnerable. Embracing that vulnerability or asking a question and receiving honest (but perhaps unwelcome) answers or opinions can be hard. Ego, arrogance, or fear that we’ll be judged incompetent, indecisive, or unintelligent are just a few of the many reasons we might hold back.

As we progress in our careers, this might get worse, as we may think we have less to learn or feel the pressure that, as leaders, we need to provide answers rather than ask questions. Social psychologist, Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead, exhorts leaders to have the courage “not to know”, to take off their armour of supposedly knowing-it-all and instead embrace “rumbling with vulnerability”. For Brown, “wholehearted leadership” is about having the courage not to know and to invite, nurture and reward curiosity, even if that can sometimes feel uncomfortable.

Francesco Gino’s research also suggests that when we demonstrate curiosity about others by asking these questions, people like us more and view us as more competent. It also builds trust and connection, and improves motivation.

We need to be bold and to start asking curious, open questions. Einstein was right when he said: “The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

Work context

Gino has also identified organisational-level barriers to curiosity. Her research shows that, despite the fact that 92% of leaders understand how important a catalyst curiosity can be for “job satisfaction, motivation, innovation and high performance”, on the ground, two tendencies mitigate against it.

The wrong mindset about exploration

Leaders often think that letting employees follow their curiosity will make them harder to manage, result in more disagreement and slow down decision-making. In short: create a “costly mess”.

And although people often list creativity as a goal, they frequently reject creative ideas when actually presented with them – a reaction completely counter to the idea that exploration inherently involves questioning the status quo and not settling for the first possible solution.

Efficiency over exploration

Henry Ford’s single-minded focus on efficiency might have transformed industrial production, but it also meant he stopped experimenting and innovating – and eventually lost his company market share. More emphasis on curiosity might have helped him better to weather the storm.

Today, too, curiosity can fall prey to the pressures of the day-to-day. Having to complete work as quickly and efficiently as possible gives us little time to ask questions or to stop and think about processes or goals. There may be times when the right thing to do is to put our heads down and just get things done – but not always. We also need the time and space to explore.

How to boost curiosity

Shutting down curiosity can lead to problems. It’s costly for individuals and for organisations. We need to make a mindset shift to value and nurture a sense of exploration And, because of our own biases and fears and those organisational barriers, we need to be intentional about fostering rather than stifling it. The good news, though, is that none of us is born with a fixed curiosity quotient; we all have the potential to be more curious, given the right conditions.

Gino offers up five practical strategies that we can all employ.

1. Hire for curiosity and empathy

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 led the curious online, where they found another equation to solve. Those who did so were invited to submit a cv to Google.

It’s a brilliant example of the premium Google places on curiosity: as Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO from 2001 to 2011, said, “We run this company on questions, not answers.”

Similarly, IDEO, the design and consulting company, looks to hire “T-shaped” employees: people with the right depth of skills (the vertical stroke of the T) together with a predisposition for collaboration across disciplines, a quality requiring empathy and curiosity (the horizontal stroke of the T).

It’s an approach that recognises that empathy and curiosity are related. Author, Peter Bregman, even suggests that empathy starts with curiosity. When we ask questions, show that we’re curious, we also work on developing our understanding of another person’s situation. Asking questions, having the humility of Brené Brown-alike not knowing is an important precursor to empathy and compassion.

T-shaped employees deploy empathy by listening thoughtfully and seeing problems or decisions from another person’s perspective, and curiosity by showing interest in other people’s work and interests. IDEO also understands that most people perform at their best not just because they’re specialists but because their deep skill is accompanied by an intellectual curiosity that leads them to ask questions, explore, and collaborate.

We might not want to go as far as a curiosity-piquing billboard, but we can all ask Google-style interview questions that encourage candidates to reflect on how they’ve tackled situations they’ve never encountered before or had to be persistent to learn something new.  And we can all look for clues of a T-shaped mindset by looking out for signs of collaboration rather an exclusive focus on individual contribution.

To assess curiosity, employers can also ask candidates about their interests outside work., like reading or study. And, if a candidate asks good questions, perhaps about the wider organisation as well as just the job they’re applying for, that‘s a good sign, too, that they’re naturally curious.

2. Model inquisitiveness

We can also encourage curiosity by being inquisitive ourselves. 

As soon-to-be director general of the BBC, Greg Dyke spent five months visiting the BBC’s major locations before he started in the job, asking two simple questions: “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for you?” and “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for our viewers and listeners?” By doing so, Dyke both built trust with his colleagues and used what he heard to inform his thinking about the organisation’s next steps. He also shone a light on the importance of listening to fill gaps in our knowledge and to help identify other questions to explore.

Leaders should also be open about acknowledging they don’t have all the answers. When we take over a new team or organisation, for example, we might not have the same technical depth of knowledge as our new colleagues. By being open about that and asking those colleagues to teach us what we need to know, we show that we accept we can’t know everything, value curiosity and make others feel they can do the same. Some intellectual humility can go a long way.

Author, Warren Berger, encourages leaders to adopt a  “beginner’s mind” approach, continually examining and re-examining our assumptions and practices, and asking deep, penetrating “Why” questions, as well as speculative “What if” and “How” questions. We might also learn from Bill Gates, who references his practice of reading a wide range of books on a wide range of topics as both a reflection and reinforcement of his naturally curious mind.

3. Emphasise learning goals

We’ve heard a lot about the phrase “lifelong learning” in recent years. Author, Tiger Tyagarajan, prefers the term “continuous curiosity”, identifying the ability to keep on learning throughout our careers – also known as learnabilityor LQ - as a key to navigating the world of work that lies ahead of us. He calls on leaders and organisations to build cultures where that curiosity and learning can flourish and is valued. And he also exhorts all of us to become da Vinci-style self-learners, taking responsibility for, and prioritising, our own continuous education.

Gino reminds us that it’s very easy for us to focus just on results, especially in the face of tough challenges. But she also believes that focusing on learning is generally more beneficial to both individuals and organisations. When, for example, U.S. Air Force personnel were given a demanding goal for the number of planes to be landed in a set time frame, their performance actually decreased. In contrast, framing work around learning goals (like developing competence, acquiring skills, mastering new situations) rather than performance goals (hitting targets, proving our competence, impressing others) boosts motivation. When we’re motivated by learning goals, we much more likely to acquire a wider range of skills and do better on problem-solving and other complex work tasks.

As leaders, we need to beware the performance vs learning goals trap. We can help ourselves and others to adopt a learning mindset by communicating the importance of learning and by rewarding people not only for their performance but for the learning needed to get there. In 2013, Deloitte replaced its performance management system with one that tracks both learning and performance. Employees meet regularly with a coach to discuss their development and learning along with the support they need to keep learning and growing.

We also need to encourage curiosity and learning by reacting positively to ideas that may be not quite work in themselves, but could lead to better ones. Nothing squashes curiosity more than standard “We’ve already tried that” type responses, or even a simple “no” with no attempt made to explore the potential of different options. Gino talks of writers and directors at Pixar, who are trained in a technique called “plussing”, akin to the stage improv technique of “Yes, and…”. This is a way of building on ideas without using judgmental language. Instead of rejecting something out of hand, the response might be “That’s an interesting idea, and what if we…?” Someone else might jump in with another “plus.” It’s a technique that supports curiosity, and show others that we’re listening actively, respecting their ideas and welcoming contributions.

4. Let employees explore and broaden their interests

We all know it can be hard to find time at work to take a step back and reflect rather than rushing around the whole time. But curiosity demands that we give ourselves and others the time (and resources) to explore and broaden our interests.

Whether we think Google’s famous 20% time is a gimmick to encourage their people to give 120% of their time or a revolutionary idea-generating concept, it shows us that we can create environments where people are encouraged to think and step outside the box. Gino gives the example of a worker at Olivetti, the Italian typewriter manufacturer, found taking home bits of machinery in the1930s. When he was reported by a rather earnest colleague for stealing, rather than immediately firing him, his manager chose to understand why he was quite literally taking his work home with him. It turned out that he was particularly curious about how the machinery worked. As a result, he was allowed to continue his exploration at home, which eventually led to the invention of an early electronic calculator.

We don’t have to go as far as giving people 20% of their working time to devote to pet projects. There are a whole range of horizon-broadening things we can do on a day-to-day basis, like giving people the opportunity to work in a different location or division, or to try out other roles. We can connect people with others to help them to build their networks. Rather than limiting organisational training to skills related to people’s day jobs, we can help them to pursue what they’re interested in, to build competence in other areas. We can think about opportunities for people to interact – informally as well as formally – to build serendipitous connections and opportunities. And we can boost curiosity when we bring together diverse teams who feel safe to contribute and challenge one another in the service of curiosity and learning. 

5. Have “Why?” “What if…?” and “How might we…?” days

When young children constantly ask “why?”, we understand that it’s their way of making sense of the world. But, as we’ve already seen, as adults, self-consciousness, not wanting to appear not to know or show our vulnerability, can get in the way.

That’s why we need to draw out our own innate curiosity. Gino visited one company where all employees were asked “What if…?” and “How might we…?” questions about the organisation’s goals and plans. It not only made employees feel that their voices were being heard; it also led to some great ideas.

Techniques like “Why?” days, when employees as encouraged to ask questions, foster curiosity and also help people to hone their own questioning capabilities. Car manufacturer, Toyota, has long been an advocate of a 5 Whys approach, encouraging people to drill down into the root causes of a problem by asking why until the solution becomes more obvious. We need to give people permission and time to ask the right questions – as we’ve seen, the foundation for curiosity.

Leonardo da Vinci believed that “learning never exhausts the mind.” He taught us that curiosity is the basis for creativity and innovation. As individuals, we need to tap into our own sense of wonder to keep building skill and experience for the challenges ahead. Like da Vinci, we can range widely, not limiting ourselves to one role, skill or worldview; we can train ourselves to question rather than accept, to explore and look for answers in a diverse range of places. We can embrace the fact that, as learners, we’re never done. And we can record and reflect to make the most of the experiences we have.

As leaders, it’s incumbent on us to nurture the same curiosity in the people for whom we’re responsible. If we want to build resilient, innovative organizations, we should start by creating curious organizations that nurture and enhance that sense of wonder in everyone. Bill Gates said: “If you give people tools, and they use their natural abilities and their curiosity, they will develop things in ways that will surprise you very much beyond what you might have expected.”

Now that’s something for our next to-do list.

 

Take the test

How curious are you? Take our self-assessments to find out, and learn more about your own curiosity persona.

 

Test your knowledge

  • Identify two of Francesca Gino’s benefits of curiosity.
  • Explain why curiosity and empathy are related.
  • Outline three things leaders can do to encourage curiosity at work.

What does it mean for you?

  • Reflect on how curious you are, and how that might affect curiosity throughout your team? What more might you do to encourage a more curious culture?
  • Consider the last time you hired someone. Were you hiring for curiosity and empathy? What simple things could you put in place to do so in future? 
 

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