It’s not about creativity, it’s about curiosity

The critical leverage point for an organization seeking more effective innovation is establishing new attitudes toward curiosity. Industrial organizations were optimized to extract value from tiny doses of curiosity and cannot tolerate larger doses. Today’s organizations require more frequent and intensive invention and innovation, which depends in turn on learning to foster and effectively channel curiosity in greater doses.

The industrial economy was driven off of very small doses of curiosity, carefully controlled and administered. New ideas were the province of either the senior-most leaders in an organization or their specifically designated deputies (industrial engineers, product designers, strategy consultants). Outside of this small cadre, the rest of the organization was charged with pulling on the oars and carrying out the execution of the designs created by this cadre. Industrial organizations are optimized to extract the maximum output from the least curiosity. Moreover, our schools and other social systems are built around throttling curiosity and channeling it into acceptable settings; isolating the most curious from the rest of the system. For those immersed in the industrial mindset, unfettered curiosity is a serious threat that operates at an emotional rather than rational level.

In the knowledge economy invention and innovation take a more central role. Success based on the ability to out-execute the competition is increasingly short-lived. The changing economics of information and communications technologies continue to drive down the costs of execution. They shorten the distance, in both time and money, between idea and execution. They also shorten the distance between innovation and duplication. The need for more systematic and effective invention and innovation is generally acknowledged. Curiosity is the necessary prerequisite and fuel for this invention and innovation.

Alan Kay tells a story of his days at Xerox PARC. The suits from headquarters in Stamford Connecticut had come to Palo Alto to inspect their investment in open-ended research. Alan carefully explained the nature and risks of research; that PARC was conducting experiments, that most experiments failed, but that even failures moved the research forward. The suits nodded politely, allowed as how they understood what Alan had said, and insisted that these experiments be designed to succeed.

Given the degree to which curiosity in most organizations is discouraged and often suppressed, the first task is to carefully reawaken it. Carefully, because too much curiosity will trigger corporate immune responses. Fortunately, despite all the best efforts of our school systems and organizational watch guards, the human animal remains fundamentally curious. We need to give permission for this curiosity to be engaged and protect its first cautious glimmerings.

Here is one place where RSS and blogging have an important, low threat level place inside the organization. Seth Godin captured this succinctly as quoted in Naked Conversations last year:

Not only are bloggers suckers for the remarkable, so are the people who read blogs,” said Godin. “This is the most curious segment of the population, the people who are seeking out the new and the useful. This is the audience that doesn’t need to be interrupted because they are already listening. They are alert, on the lookout for the next big thing. No need to yell. If you’ve invested the time and the energy and the guts to make something remarkable, this audience can’t wait to hear about it.

(Naked Conversations, Chapter 3, Word of Mouth on Steroids, p.40)

Find and encourage those in your organization who are already paying attention to do so a little more systematically. Encourage them to begin to pass along what they are finding to others who might also be interested.

The second task is to start channeling this nascent curiosity toward potentially useful deliverables that can be judged and evaluated. Incorporate an interesting discovery into the next presentation to a customer. Adapt a lesson learned to an improvement process about to launch. Craft a proposal to target a new customer or begin a joint effort with an adjacent department.

Understand that channeling curiosity is a leadership challenge not a management task. Like a parent with an inquisitive toddler, leaders need to allow room for exploration, risk bumps and scrapes (and possibly worse), and intervene only to avert real danger. If they opt to guide exploration into familiar paths, they will get familiar results.

If you are still unsure about the importance of curiosity, recall what Albert Einstein said toward the end of his life:

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.


8 thoughts on “It’s not about creativity, it’s about curiosity”

  1. Mr. McGee:

    Please write more interestingly. 743 words. “Curiosity”: 15x. “Curious”: 4x. This is remedial writing clumsiness.
    Your interest in curiosity is real, but your reader’s potential curiosity is dulled by your abstract, voiceless, bland repetition of the word “curiosity” and apparent lack of soul. You can do better. You must.

  2. Duly noted that more copyediting would help. Sometimes you just want to get a notion out there in a blog post. It’s always a judgment call between going back to edit and moving on to something new.

  3. I appreciate your reply, and regret what may have seemed my harshness. Soul and form. Excelsior.

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