It feels to me that a genuine sense of curiosity is the fuel that powers good, productive work.
Without curiosity, people do the same things, in the same way because “that’s how we’ve always done it.”
Researchers have identified a set of ‘core’ and ‘contextual’ skills that are necessary for people to ‘flourish in the digital age’. These 'contextual skills' include ethical awareness, cultural awareness, flexibility, self-direction, and lifelong learning.
I think that all these areas are linked back to, or only possible with, a sense of curiosity.
Maaike Verberk (Director of the Dutch Knowledge Institute for Culture & Digital Transformation) said in a recent podcast conversation with me,
“curiosity is the starting point of any learning process. I think without curiosity, people just stand still”
A culture of curiosity
Being a curious person is a great thing.
But I have seen people have their curiosity ruined or stifled by institutional culture.
An atmosphere where noone has the time or energy to be curious, or where new ideas are immediately pulled apart, or shut down completely, is not an environment that is going to make people want to explore new ways of doing thing.
Curiosity requires nurturing. It needs time, space, and attention to grow. It also requires that there will be the possibility for things to change.
Here are some ways that I’ve seen this happen.
Prioritise curiosity and ‘make it safe’
If you are a leader and you aren’t being curious then the folks you work with won’t think that being curious is a good use of their time.
Seek out and share new ideas, and show that you value people being thoughtful and curious about how things are done.
Talk about the books you’re reading, the great conference you went to, the thought-provoking webinar you caught.
When people have new ideas, don’t immediately point out all the reasons something can’t happen, or won’t work. Instead encourage them, make it clear that new ideas are welcomed, if they miss the mark then ask questions, guide and give constructive feedback.
Create a space for thinking and new ideas
Western working culture does not like leaving unallocated space in the day. Unless you’re careful and intentional, your workload will grow and occupy your every waking moment.
You need to carve out specific time to think about and come up with new ideas. Blocking out an hour in your diary a couple of times a week, maybe on a Monday and a Friday, is perhaps a realistic way to start.
Turn off Slack or Teams, log out of your emails, stick some headphones on or better still, leave the house or the office and go for a walk.
Research has shown that ‘moderately engaging activities’ are helpful for creative thinking (sometimes known as ‘the shower effect’).
Read, watch, listen
Being curious is a practise, it’s an active state that you need to engage with. You need to choose to expose yourself to new ideas which will in turn spark new ideas in you.
That means seeking out new perspectives and points of view.
Read books, watch talks, listen to podcasts.
Ask for recommendations, sign up to some newsletters, pay for a subscription to an interesting publication or two, get something like Pocket.
The internet has loads of different ways of helping you to discover new ideas, use them.
Investigate doing ‘speaker swaps’ with other organisations, hearing about how other people do things is always interesting, inspiring and thought-provoking.
Share and reflect
Sharing your ideas with someone else helps you clarify your thinking.
The act of sharing your thoughts can also spark new ideas.
Some people will be happy to share their thoughts without any prompting, but other people will need specific opportunities created for them.
At Substrakt we do short, weekly ‘show and tell’ and ‘demo and drink’ sessions. These sessions last between 15-30 minutes each.
'Show and tell’ is an entirely open agenda, folks can talk about whatever they want. We’ve had people talk about archery, coffee, comics, family history, knitting, castles, mountains, and loads of other things. It encourages the regular sharing of ideas, and also does a nice job of helping to creating an environment where people feel comfortable to be themselves (which in turn makes it more likely, and easier, for them to share future ideas).
‘Demo and drink’ is more work-focused and usually involves someone showcasing an interesting aspect of a recent project, or a new tool or concept. It is more of a ‘teaching and sharing’ style session that allows us to share best practice amongst the team and to showcase what everyone has been up to.
We also do retrospectives at the end of each project which gives us an opportunity to explore and discuss things we could’ve done differently or better, and ways we might change our approach on the next project.
All of these are examples of space being created and held for the exchange of ideas, and for thinking and reflection. These are elements of every week, and every project, regardless of how busy we get.
Asking ‘why’, in the right way, can be a great way of arriving at new and better ideas. It can help both you, and the person you’re asking, achieve a better understanding of what you’re talking about, and each other.
But asked in the wrong way, in the wrong environment, the act of asking questions can be seen as hostile and unhelpful.
Places where curiosity is valued are places where questions are encouraged. It shows confidence, it encourages healthy debate and discussion, it’s how the best ideas happen.
This isn’t a definitive list, there will be lots of other things you could try. These are just examples of things I have done, or seen done, at organisations that prioritise curiosity in the way they work.
I’m curious about what you think, have you seen other approaches or techniques work? Am I over-emphasising the importance of curiosity?
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Show and tell / demo and drink sound like a good pair to let the curiosity flow! For the second format, you might want to have a look at https://www.gradu.al/