Remember the popular proverb, “Curiosity killed the cat”? You’ve probably heard of it while you were growing up, possibly as a cautionary tale, warning you of the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation. And you might have unconsciously brought this belief of yours into the workplace as a leader, paying it forward by not encouraging your employees’ to be curious beyond their job scope.
However, did you know that “curiosity killed the cat” is only one part of the famous proverb? “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.” is a more contemporary variation that includes the rejoinder “but satisfaction brought it back.”
Although the original version was used to warn of the dangers of unnecessary experimentation, the addition of the rejoinder indicates that the risk would lead to resurrection because of the satisfaction felt after finding out. The resurrection element may be a reference to the “multiple lives” of a cat. This may ironically be what every organisation is striving for in today’s increasingly volatile world where a single economic lifeline may no longer be enough to ensure the organisation’s fiscal longevity.
In my opinion, curiosity is one of the most important personal qualities every leader wants their employees to have — a Harvard Business Review study, for example, found that 83% of executives say they encourage curiosity in their employees. This is even more so in the domain that you consider yourself as knowledgeable in, and the only way that you could be the best and could compete with the rest is when you are concerned about learning new things.
Why then, is curiosity so important for your organisation? Curiosity is important for your organisation because it helps your organisation to excel. When you look at a two-year old, one of the traits that they have is the ability to learn from observing. That is why the brain of a five-year old is the most absorbent and your ability to pick up things fast blossoms at an early age.
Hence, if you are operating your organisation as a knowledge workforce, the only way it can propel forward is if it’s in the business to learn. Curiosity instils that important ingredient in the organisation, it injects that shot in the arm for your organisation to continue with the process of learning. Whether it is learning by asking the right questions, learning by looking for answers that are not the status quo, or learning by looking at others and seeing if there are better ways to do the same thing, it all boils down to curiosity.
How then, can you subtly encourage your employees to embrace curiosity? Let me introduce you to a framework which I apply often: the FUEL framework.
The first step is to weave the fabric of curiosity. To do this, you should build an organisation that is ambidextrous in nature. An ambidextrous organisation has two parts: one has process-driven aspects of control, monitoring and optimisation, and the other part has the more flexible aspects of experimentation, agility and breakthrough thinking. It is very important for you to create harmony by building an ambidextrous organisation, where you are not only doing the right thing within the governance aspect, but also letting your organisation try and experiment new things.
When you weave that fabric of curiosity, you are also bringing the element of outside into your organisation. As business leaders, we tend to not focus enough on what’s happening around us, outside our organisations, and in sectors unrelated to us. Whatever problem it is that you are trying to solve, chances are that somebody else has solved it already.
To any CEO, there are a few key metrics that are important: increasing revenues, reducing costs, mitigating risks and improving customer experience. Oftentimes, you are looking at these four when you are looking at a problem that needs to be solved. Start with the business problem. Then, look at whether that problem has been effectively tackled in a different industry. If so, how was it done and what are the components that they used? The inputs and the objective function you may have to use may be slightly different, but perhaps the overall approach can be replicated.
Every single problem that you are solving for has a likelihood that it has to some extent been solved in other businesses or other sectors and that’s the thinking you should have. Don’t start building things from scratch, see what is already out there, sometimes leveraging solutions from the other industries can be a good thing. There’s also a risk of it deviating you towards the same slippery scope, but at least it brings you a better start than building it from scratch.
The second part of this is unravelling the thread. When you weave the fabric, it’s about creating the organisation where one part of the organisation has that outside in you. But how do you unravel the thread? Unravelling the thread essentially means you set out a vision.
Set audacious goals and activate your vision, which forces the organisation to think beyond the existing set of solutions. I would expect to be able to improve our efficiency by 50% for instance, or any other such audacious goals. We would like to reduce the dependency on A, B, C, and we would like to reduce the turnaround time by 70%.
This may force your organisation to focus on cross-industry benchmarks. In turn, this may force your organisation to focus on mechanisms that are disruptive in nature, and also focus on processes that are completely contradictory to the type of environment. It is important that when you are weaving the fabric, you are also creating a vision which forces your organisation to start thinking in that direction.
The third part of this is firing the engine. When you give your employees a big word, vision, it’s important that you give them the necessary tools, the resources and a team to be their supporters. The biggest impediment to somebody with a big idea shouldn’t be a lack of resources, infrastructure, tools, or people to help them. Without a robust support system, there’s no foundation upon which prototypes can be created. It’s important that when you’re bringing in this vision to strengthen the core, you provide a small disruption-fit talent network to allow the team to quickly try out the different hypotheses and come up with a solution.
Lastly, keep it lean. Don’t look at organisations as machines, where you’ve got silos and bureaucracy. Look at organisations as organisms which thrive on action, flexibility and agility. Leadership is about enabling action, and there could be anyone at a given point of time taking the baton and driving the rest of the organisation together.
It’s important that when you are looking at new elements that are disruptive to fuel curiosity, you also create an organisation which is lean at the same time. This is an organisation that has the necessary support to strengthen the core and articulate the vision, while setting big audacious goals which forces people to start thinking in a direction which contradicts or even defies age-old paradigms.
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Group Chief Data Officer