Treat Your Curious Culture Like a Product

Last week, I began a two-part series about curious cultures because I was, well, curious if there were consistent patterns in how organizations nurtured an inquisitive environment. In the first post, we explored the strategies specific to SurveyMonkey. Today, we delve into the workplace at HopeLab.

HopeLab is a social innovation lab focused on designing science-based technologies to motivate teens and young adults to adopt healthy habits. Unlike SurveyMonkey, HopeLab is a nonprofit organization, so I was curious to see if there were similarities in how they inspired inquisitiveness among employees.

To answer this question, you have to start with Pat Christen, HopeLab’s CEO until 2015, who launched many of the “curious practices” that are reinforced today by the current CEO, Margaret Laws. Laws brings her own brand of inquisitiveness to further strengthen the culture.

“We look at our culture as a product … and we believe a culture of curiosity is a key to innovation,” said Christen. By making the culture a product, the organization gives it equal focus and priority.

Under HopeLab’s leadership, meetings took on a new definition: they were seen as problem-solving opportunities. As a result, HopeLab’s agendas are always generated in the form of questions. For instance, “What models of engagement might we pursue and why?” The staff also created tools such as the “Questions for Curious Leaders” deck of cards that found their way into meetings and offices and were a source of inspiration.

Accountability is another cornerstone of HopeLab’s curious culture. Rather than look for who to blame when a prototype failed to accomplish its goals, Christen assembled her team, took full responsibility and asked employees to rally around problem-solving. “There can be a ‘villain, victim, hero’ dynamic, but when you recognize you’re in that game, playing one of those roles, you have the choice to step off the triangle,” said Christen.

HopeLab also fosters inquiry by assuming all learning is good. Employees get to choose their own paths in professional development. For example, one employee took photography classes and then later became the organization’s in-house photographer. The leadership’s sentiment is that if you’re practicing curiosity, no matter what you learn, you’ll benefit the organization.

Where do both SurveyMonkey and HopeLab intersect in their pursuit of curious cultures?

  1. Encouraging inquiry and questions: SurveyMonkey implemented a speaker series where the value of inquiry could be modeled. They also used #greatquestion on their internal channel to promote queries. HopeLab created tools to foster reflection and conversation. For example, they developed a deck of “Curious Leader” cards with 12 categories that help facilitate exploration, innovation and experimentation.
  2. Embedding curiosity in daily practices: SurveyMonkey scheduled hackathons to break the cycle of predictability and inspire competitive, break-out thinking. HopeLab formed a norm where agendas were always created by listing questions rather than statements, which are often based on assumptions.
  3. Creating a climate for teamwork: SurveyMonkey promoted gender diversity in their employee hiring practices, which ultimately contributed to better brainstorming and decision-making in meetings. HopeLab reframed meetings to be problem-solving sessions that avoided the blame game or the triangle of victim-villain-hero.

According to HopeLab, if you prioritize your curious culture much like you would your product, then innovation is your reward. Survey Monkey’s CEO, Zander Lurie, adds that “Leaders need to find ways to help employees flex their curiosity. We want people to ask big questions—and we want to celebrate them when they do.”

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