[Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.]
I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious. … The important thing is not to stop questioning. … Never lose a holy curiosity. – Albert Einstein
Leaders don’t need to have all the answers. But they do need to be curious. – Dalia Molokhia1
During World War II when I was a young boy, we lived with my mother’s parents while my father worked about 100 miles away in an oil refinery and commuted back to our small town of about 300 on the weekends. I think that I must have been a real question-box back then, asking my grandmother more questions than she wanted to answer. I don’t remember what I asked, or how she answered. What I do remember is that when she tired of my questions, she always responded with the old adage “Curiosity killed the cat.” At that point in my life, I didn’t understand the importance of curiosity (and neither did my grandmother).
Francesca Gino,2 Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, speaks of the importance of curiosity this way: “Most of the breakthrough discoveries and remarkable inventions through our history, from flint for starting a fire to self-driving cars, have something in common: They are the result of curiosity. The impulse to seek new information and experiences and explore novel possibilities is a basic human attribute.”
She continues noting that curiosity is much more important to our organization’s success than we have likely thought. When we are curious, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more creative solutions.
Dalia Moloklia,1 senior learning solutions manager in the Corporate Learning group at Harvard Business Publishing, points to the importance placed on learning by corporative executives such a Michael Dell, founder, chairman, and CEO of Dell Technologies, and Alan Wilson, former CEO of McCormick & Company as well as others such as Peter Drucker, all of whom have spoken and written about the importance of expanding their knowledge by asking the right questions, by being intellectually curious. Molokhia suggests four approaches we might take:
• Apply a beginner’s mind: Be open to and look for new and novel ways of doing things.
• Ask questions, listen and observe.
• Try something new: A different route to work, read a book in a genre you usually avoid, attend a play…
• Ask others their opinions, perspectives, and approaches. ... Everyone does things a bit differently, and there are potential new answers and solutions to problems hidden in other people’s thinking.
Leadership consultant Keith Webb3 builds on Molokhia’s four points reinforcing the point that curiosity leads us to new thoughts and perspectives. He points out that being curious helps us break away from the status quo by asking why things are the way they are and not some other way. Curiosity leads us to inquire about what is not known rather than for confirmation of what we already know. For those wanting to cultivate their curiosity, Webb suggests four approaches:
• Cultivate your whole brain. Curiosity is more a function of the artistic right side of the brain than the logical left side. For most of us, this requires that we move beyond the logical cause-and-effect thinking to listening with our imagination, in pictures and colors. There’s more “what if” and “why” in our questions than just “what.” What questions did Columbus ask to enable him to sail as he did? Begin to ask the “what if” questions that take you beyond mere evolution of the current state to a “quantum” leap to the future. Look for the possibilities.
• Expand your interests. Webb says that breadth and diversity are key foundations of curiosity. Take your reading beyond the old favorites. Move beyond your favorite TV shows. Go to the museum or a sports activity. Don’t think about just making it better; think of how you might take it far beyond “better.” Think like Steve Jobs did when he began the process of changing the music industry with the iPod.
• Be childlike. Children don’t know and so they ask. (That’s what I overdid with my grandmother.) Their questions often focus on basic assumptions and unspoken or unseen details. With each answer their world expands. Somewhere along the way to adulthood, most of us, unfortunately, stop asking. We may feel that we know everything important. Or, we don’t ask for fear that not knowing will demonstrate our ignorance to those around us, our friends, colleagues, or managers. Or, because others not knowing that we don’t know will be embarrassing. We need to get beyond that. This requires courage and confidence that asking is OK, as well as persistence.
• Ask, even if you think you know the answer. When you have a sense you know the answer, ask in a way that expands your knowledge. Look for elements in the responses you receive that are different in some way from what you expect. Learn more by building on that difference.
My grandmother’s retort usually turned off my stream of questions, at least for that moment. Today, I’m still asking questions. Sometimes I ask because I’m curious and want to expand my knowledge. Sometimes I ask to gather information I need for something I’m currently working on or contemplating. And, sometimes in a conversation, I’ll ask questions when I know part of the answer to gather additional information on the subject, possibly to stimulate the thinking of my conversational partner(s); and also, to extend the thinking of others.
Being curious is an important characteristic that all good leaders, should have and nourish. And, it’s something that we all need to work on. Perhaps now is a good time for you to sharpen your curiosity tool.
. . . jim
[A version of today’s essay appeared as the Tuesday Reading on June 7, 2016.]