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Good curiosity, bad curiosity
Yes, there’s a wrong way to do it. And most companies are guilty.
This is Tom’s thoughtful dive into curiosity. It highlights the critical role of curiosity in driving innovation, in responding to and being interested in the outliers not the mean. It hadn’t escaped my attention that Tom (cat) was mugged by curiosity, but satisfaction brought him back. This is where our Tom’s closure on experimentation is so critical. This is curiosity as a stone in the shoe, making you do something and finding out. Start with curiosity, get to the satisfaction then do something with what you have learned. As Tom highlights, the danger is you go through the loop once as a business and rock back on your heels, self satisfied. Keep it turnin’ - Toby
A lot has been written about curiosity and its role in creativity and innovation. It’s rightly hero’ed as a key requirement for innovators. That’s because curiosity is very often the first step in any innovation journey - looking outwards into the world, noticing things that don’t quite fit with your expectations, treating them as clues and following the trail that ultimately leads to new knowledge, strategies, inventions and impact.
But there’s a wrong kind of curiosity, one that I’ve increasingly observed as relates to emerging technology. We know that the world is changing at an increasing speed - the unavoidable implications of Moore's law for business as technological possibility expands, and consumer behaviours, attitudes and expectations change alongside it.
Getting the body language right
This curiosity is a ‘lean back’ kind of curiosity that is mostly interested in the ‘What’ - shiny new things created as brands and businesses explore the potential applications of new technologies. It’s a curiosity that ends with a like or a share, simply pointing at the thing, as though finding it is value enough, rather than digging into it, asking questions about it, following the trail…
Lean back curiosity says “I found this”, but it doesn’t say “…and here’s what I think it means for us.”
I think much of this has to do with the compression of hype cycles, combined with the social media advertising-driven business model - together they create vast torrents of content, fuelled by an urgency for the new, amplified by feedback loops of sharing.
In this environment, lean-back curiosity might feel like it’s active but it mostly just creates a rabbit-in-the-headlights feeling of being overwhelmed, with no clear way out beyond keeping on staring and sharing, feeding the loop.
Even worse, much of the click-fodder is just innovation theatre - PR-focused stunts by brands looking to burnish their innovation credentials. Great for PR if that’s what you’re after, but little substantive value against the strategy of the business. This is businesses behaving like start ups in all the wrong ways - playing at the margins of new technologies for the exposure but not for the learning or strategic value.
Sidenote: our regular looking up/looking down posts for 10,002 aims to be something of an antidote to this - not simply posting links, but digging into why they are interesting, what thoughts they spark, what patterns they shine a light on. The behind the scenes back-and-forth that Toby and I share before drafting each edition is a curiosity engine for me - the push to articulate the WHY forces focus and evaluation.
Why big businesses struggle with curiosity
Lean-back curiosity affects established businesses particularly badly. It manifests at a human level in constrained thinking, seeing the world through a single lens, finding interesting things, but not taking that interest to the next level and often feelings of frustration and disempowerment.
But it’s not that people aren’t capable, it’s that the conditions inside the business don’t support it. My hunch is that this is due to a set of factors that are all connected to the tension between business as usual and innovation - doing new things that challenge our current expectation of reality. An organisation focused on cranking on with business as usual will tend to have a low tolerance for anything that doesn’t adhere to a view of the world constrained to the requirements of the current business model - consumers behave in a certain way, profits accrue in a certain way, relationships are balanced in a certain way.
This translates into structures and systems designed to advance and reward the status quo: low incentives - both tangible like promotions and pay and intangible like status and influence - for the sort of curiosity that questions the foundations of business as usual.
Taken together these systems reinforce a constrained role for people inside organisations as narrow professionals, rather than valuing the full individual and encouraging people to bring diverse perspectives into work (for more on this, read Toby’s great piece unpacking the difference between people and professionals).
The result: plenty of talk, but not a great deal of action: people finding interesting things, but going no further than pointing at them, as though it is enough to be aware of new things, but not following the trail, taking the next step into the ‘so what’? And ‘what now?’
Active curiosity - leaning into the discomfort
Good curiosity, by contrast, is simply the first step in a process, it is active, asking great questions - shifting beyond the ‘look at this’ to ask ‘why is this happening?’. As Richard Rumelt puts it, asking ‘what’s going on here?’ is the powerful first component of good strategy.
In doing this, good curiosity should even feel slightly uncomfortable. If it is to take you to somewhere new - a new realisation, new insight, new view of the world - it should surely break some of your assumptions. While bad curiosity lives in the comfortable world of confirmation bias, good curiosity asks “how does this challenge what I hold to be true?” or “how does this contribute to an emerging pattern?” These itches are the grit in the oyster, the discomfort that forms the clues and hunches that fuel innovation.
So how can you turn the tide on the torrents of clickbait and shift into action?
Start by asking ‘Why?’ What was it about this thing that caught your eye, why do you want to share it with others? Why is it happening? Why now? The business model can be a good frame for this - use the business model canvas as a tool to push you into all of the different potential sources of value.
For example, you might see an article about Gucci creating world in the metaverse. Lean back curiosity would be happy enough to copy/paste and send it on - Look! Metaverse! We should be doing something! Not very helpful. Active curiosity would start to dig - why would Gucci be doing this? Perhaps because younger generations are spending increasing amounts of time in gaming environments - the first instance of the Metaverse, and they see patterns of behaviour in those online worlds that look similar to patterns in the current real world consumers - the drive for individualism and status for example. And perhaps they have spotted similar dynamics in Roblox to those in the luxury sector - a willingness to pay for rarity, status associated with appearance, or perhaps too they are concerned about the sustainability credentials of their product and manufacturing processes and are curious about how digital products might enable them to operate in a completely different manufacturing and supply chain model… all of these are clues for where these curiosity-piquing headlines might lead you.
Your goal is to follow your curiosity back upstream to find clues that will be your starting point for hunches and experiments.
Building a curiosity muscle in businesses
At a personal, human level, we can solve for active curiosity, but there’s also an organisational component. For businesses that strive to be innovative, the first step must be to encourage and incentivise active curiosity.
This can come in softer interventions in company culture - when I was at Fahrenheit 212 we gave every employee an annual curiosity budget for them to spend on whatever they liked, with two conditions: it had to involve some form of learning, and the person had to pay half - an investment in self. Then there are structural interventions such as Google’s 20% time, where employees were allowed 20% of their time to work on their own projects and side hustles. Though to give it credit where its due - an idea that Google lifted from 3M. There’s some disagreement now as to whether 20% time still exists, at least in its original form - I suspect due to the scale of the business, one more example of the challenges of staying innovative once you hit scale (a topic for another time!).
Active curiosity is the first great step in getting better at sensing and interpreting, but for curiosity to really matter to a business, it must be the outrider in a broader response to changing external environment. We know that the world is changing at an increasing speed - the unavoidable implications of Moore’s law for business as technological possibility expands, and consumer behaviours, attitudes and expectations change alongside.
The question is, what to do with all of this input - so much you could do, but with the constraints of time and money, how to use curiosity as the first natural step in meaningful directed action - this is where to some degree, you need to shuttle between the 10,000ft view of the world that your curiosity has started to expose, and drop into a 2 inches world of experiments and probes that start to explore the value that might be yielded from the clues you have uncovered..
Making it matter - learning from start-ups
This is where we can learn a lot from start-ups. Successful (or effective at least) start-ups are natural born curiosity and experimentation machines. In part because being small they are freed from the bureaucratic, logistical, reputational shackles of big businesses; and in part because they have very real constraints in time and budget. It’s called runway and burn rate for a reason - if you’re not airborne by the time you reach the end, it’s terminal!
Early stage start-ups are often little more than a tight group of motivated, invested people with an idea in search of a business model, they flip rapidly around the cycle of curiosity, hypothesis, test, interpret, adjust to build confidence and fidelity in the idea.
There’s a deep-dive to be written on experimentation, but the starting point, the connection with curiosity is learning. Experimentation is the next logical step that comes from following the clues you’ve uncovered - it’s the means by which you learn more about how they apply to your own business.
And in a way, this thought about speed of learning brings the story full circle - curiosity without learning is simply browsing. Rather than resulting in an exhausting firehose of headlines, curiosity should be a virtuous circle of interest, enquiry, experimentation and learning.