Long ago in a time before Successories, Etsy, or Instagram, the owner of a small business in a small town printed the words of an anonymous saying on an eight-by-10 piece of white paper, stuck it in a cheap frame, and hung it on the wall of his front office for all to see.
“Reason?” it said. “No reason. Just company policy.”
He found it a funny reminder that the status quo will kill your business. Those policies you created that once seemed so essential can have a short shelf life. And when they no longer make sense, they begin to stifle the innovation you need to survive.
The speed of change in business today makes it imperative that leaders display and encourage curiosity, and never default to a culture that operates by default on outdated policies, ideas and practices. And most leaders will agree with the need to innovate. They’ll tell you all about the importance of curiosity. Yet, in the daily operations of their organization, curiosity finds itself under constant attack. If it’s not dead in a corner, it’s mortally wounded or suffering from neglect.
Francesca Gino, a behavioral scientist and professor at Harvard Business School, conducted a survey of more than 3,000 employees from a variety of companies and found that “only about 24 percent reported feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis, and about 70 percent said they face barriers to asking more questions at work.”
Why is that? Why is it that so many leaders claim to value curiosity and yet fail to nurture and protect it?
What is it that kills curiosity in a culture?
Gino landed on two factors. One, leaders have the wrong mindset about curiosity. And, two, leaders over-emphasize efficiency.
The first, I believe, speaks to the fear and pride that attack leaders. They fear the costs of curiosity or they fear the idea that they are giving up control to the masses or their ego won’t allow them to truly empower others. They stubbornly hold to the status quo, because they find it comfortable and safe. And while they might openly say they support curiosity, they effectively find ways to stab it in the back.
The second speaks to things like greed and complacency. Efficiency is a hallmark trait of great businesses, and there certainly are times and places when it can’t be sacrificed. But curiosity is risky, messy, and often terribly inefficient, especially in its infant stages. Again, many leaders see the value of playing it safe and focusing on doing what they know they do well. But then the market changes. Someone disrupts. That black Model T no longer is so popular now that someone else is making different models in different colors. Those videos rented from a brick-and-mortar store are now available in a bright red box in front of the grocery store or instantly accessible online. And your business is going down, albeit efficiently.
There’s a third factor that Gino didn’t mention but that I believe has merit, even if it’s a bit counter-intuitive:
Curiosity kills curiosity.
Albert Einstein once said “curiosity has its own reason for existing” and talked about the “awe” that comes from “contemplating the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.” Then he said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning; never lose a holy curiosity.”
That last part raises an interesting question: is there such a thing as “unholy curiosity”? And, in fact, I think there is. Curiosity needs to be focused on the right things to produce the right results. And if we are consumed or even distracted by an unholy curiosity, we’ll never reap the benefits of a holy curiosity.
What is unholy curiosity? Most of us have gotten lost a time or two on the Internet because our curiosity sent us down one rabbit hole after another until we were sipping tea with the Mad Hatter. In the best cases, we wasted 30 minutes to an hour reading about something that kept us entertained but that had nothing to do with our work. Worst case, we got lost for hours in the dark areas of the web that tangled up our very souls.
The fictional-but-very-wise Charlie Chan put it this way: “Curiosity responsible for cat needing nine lives.” Organizations that lack curiosity, of course, need extra lives, too, and very often they don’t get the second chances that come the way of the cat. Rather than counting on reincarnation, they are best served when they adopt a mindset that’s open to curiosity, find the right balance between exploration and efficiency, and, as Einstein put it, “never lose a holy curiosity.”