Article: The secrets of building a curiosity culture

Learning & Development

The secrets of building a curiosity culture

Curiosity is fundamental to innovation and even more fundamental to working with uncertainty, but how can organizations encourage curiosity?
The secrets of building a curiosity culture

When we talk about forward-thinking transformation and innovation, or about navigating disruption, or even just about learning new things, one common underlying factor can be found: curiosity. In a world filled with ambiguity, with more and faster change than we can easily keep track of, and without precedents to draw upon, curiosity allows us to ponder the unknown and—instead of being overwhelmed—think of a next step forward.

"By nurturing that curiosity as an organization, you are finding the way to navigate through this uncertain world that we live in," says Simon Brown, Global Chief Learning Officer of Novartis and author of "The Curious Advantage".

Together with Borko Kovacevic, COO and CMO of Microsoft Singapore, Brown was speaking about the importance of curiosity and how to develop it at a webinar hosted by Tigerhall earlier this week. They shared a variety of tips about how their organizations have created a workplace culture where curiosity is not just accepted, but viewed as desirable and actively sought out by people at all levels: from creating safety, to fostering interdependence, to embracing learning, and of course leadership.

Create safety for innovation to thrive

"I think, as a leader, one of the key things is creating the safety for people to be curious," Brown says. Based on internal research Novartis has done, he explained that favorable leaders enjoy an average of 18 points' advantage in team engagement over unfavorable leaders, and one of the largest contributing factors is curiosity—there is, he said, a 22 point difference in the curiosity team members display when under favorable versus unfavorable leaders.

"If your leader is not encouraging you to speak up, if they're not encouraging you to question things, if you try something and get in trouble for're not going to ever do that again," he observes. "Failure is a key part of innovation, and if people don't feel safe, they won't do it."

Agreeing, Kovacevic says that an excessive focus on KPIs leads to a transactional, individualistic approach that reduces safety and thereby curiosity.

"The biggest threat to a successful, thriving organization is the mindset that 'I'll get fired if I am curious beyond my scope'."

Foster interdependence so people step out of their comfort zone

When an organization is siloed, people will not feel any need to be curious about what's beyond your silo. This was the case for Microsoft when Kovacevic joined the company 14 years ago: despite its fast growth, there was little market innovation and a strong, almost exclusionary focus on KPIs. But one key aspect of its transformation involved making individual performance not just about KPIs, but also about how each person built upon the work of others and brought others along in the process.

"These two additional aspects require you to be curious," he explains. "You need to be curious about others. You need to be curious about the context. You need to be curious about pretty much everything, so that you are really able to bring others along."

While Microsoft does not specifically identify curiosity as a key skill, it is recognized as part of the principles of customer centricity and simplicity. "In order to be customer centric you need to be curious about your customers business, about the real challenges," Kovacevic points out.

Accept learning as a part of work

"We have come across instances where there's a perception that if you're spending time learning, you're not working." Brown observes. And that perception, he points out, is actually harmful to an organization in the long term. Organizations, he says, ought to actively encourage people to spend time learning. "Because otherwise we will have out of date skills and out of date methods while others will have the latest way of thinking, the latest skills, the latest processes. This is a business imperative."

It is not so much that learners lack time, as that they have other priorities. Even in workplaces that protect learning time and encourage people to block it on their calendar, learners often find themselves disrupted by other requests and activities that they believe are higher priority. Hence, says Kovacevic, leaders need to create an environment where people feel comfortable turning down such requests, and where they feel they won't be judged or accused for not doing their work—which means that the leaders themselves have to set the example of putting learning on the same priority as, for instance, a meeting with the customer.

"People need to understand that learning is not only work, that it's even more important than work, because today's work will probably be obsolete by tomorrow if you haven't been learning," he points out.

Where do we start?

In his book, "The Curious Advantage", Brown describes a "Seven Cs" model for curiosity: context, community, curation, creativity, construction, criticality, and confidence. But even before embarking on that model, he suggests simply: "Identify what it is that you're curious about."

Kovacevic's advice leans more toward the tactical: "Sit down and build your learning path," he says, suggesting that learners build their own curriculum from what's available to them. Then, plan time—build it into the weekly calendar, and stick to it. "If you don't put that in your calendar, trust me, you will not do it. Something else will come up," he warns.

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Topics: Learning & Development, #ReimagineLearning

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