Organisations are awash with it. Corporate baggage swirls and swills from every nook and crevice. It captures and tugs at you. You can hear it in conversations, see it pinned to the walls and feel it in the atmosphere. These whirlpools of tradition, ritual and norms are in danger of pulling you in and sinking you if you let them. They are strangling your corporate curiosity.
In this blog, I’m going to explore why, in a world facing unprecedented times of chaos, it has never been more important than now to question how these traditions and rituals (that are often unconsciously in place) are impacting your organisation’s ability to navigate your choppy waters.
How do the norms impact performance?
Rituals and norms are beneficial. They help people to navigate the complexity of the organisation. People learn what they can do and how they can do it by observing the ways others perform. The onboarding process educates them about how they need to work. Yet, if their experience when they go ‘live’ differs from what they have been told (and let’s be frank, it often is), people will adapt to what they experience.
Maya Angelou says “people will forget what you’ve said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel”
Our experiences guide us. They inform people about acceptable practices, and they most certainly teach us what is not acceptable around here. People quickly adapt.
For example, if:
You have a boss that is constantly checking your work and making ‘improvements’, you soon start to wonder why they don’t just do it themselves and perhaps stop trying.
Your peers shirk their responsibilities or are late to meetings, this soon becomes acceptable practice, and you fall into line.
Team meetings are just a download of information that could easily have been sent around digitally, you start to question the value of that meeting, but you probably won’t do anything about it, rather sit there and put up with the waster of time.
Conformity is unconsciously encouraged. This leads to these approaches soon become the norm even if it is contrary to the espoused culture of the organisation.
CONFORMITY IS IMPORTANT TO ORGANISATIONS. IT…
Helps build consistency.
Stop and question for a moment, are your norms helping or hindering your organisation right now? Think about it…
Conformity also stifles creativity.
It stops people from being curious.
It inhibits challenge. Challenge is that wondrous place where friction (that is so important for new ideas to flourish) is tightly wrapped in cotton wool, never to emerge.
Are you missing out on the magic of curiosity?
Right now is the time for organisational agility. You have definitely heard everyone talking about the need to pivot during the pandemic. It’s a time to encourage everyone to be curious. Curiosity drives innovation. The future of your organisation could be doomed without it.
Beware, you will find that organisations that choose to remain within their comfort zone miss out on the magic that happens when people are encouraged to step outside of this and stretch themselves. Those organisations are resting on the laurels of their past success. In today’s complex and dynamic world, this will not inform future success; only stretch will. This magic demands organisations to ignite and embrace difference. Different environments, different approaches and different thinking. It demands that you create a culture where people stop people sleepwalking through their workday.
Why do people choose to stifle their curiosity?
You were born into this world as a perfect shining gem, full of hope. Your parents and grandparents cooed over your perfect fingers and toes. The nurses and doctors smiled and told your mother what a beauty you were. Life started.
Life’s excitements and inevitable unpleasantries happened. You’ve felt such things as joy, love and curiosity. But, unfortunately, you have also experienced such things as disappointment, failure, heartache, rejection and sadly, for some, trauma. Life got in the way and suppressed your gifts. As a consequence, some of the usual challenges life throws at you might mean you start to bury your head in the sand rather than face life’s challenges head-on, with confidence and resilience.
More on dealing with disappointment here.
Your beliefs, your experiences, your thinking and your current situation, impact your current behaviour. Your experiences might have taught you over time that it is safer to fit in than to stand out. You learnt to raise your hand at school if you thought you knew the right answer and the teacher would agree; or not. And maybe, over time, you raised your hand less and less for fear of standing out. Leaning over to chat with a friend would prompt a quick ‘shut up’ from your teacher because you were disrupting the class, even if you were chatting about the subject! Your teacher actively discouraged joint exploration.
This is the start of how we learn to stifle our natural curiosity. That intuitive skill taught us to talk and crawl. To walk and to get up again when we fell. To take joy in the things around us and to learn.
How does this play out at work?
In work, difference can cause unwanted friction that can be tough to manage, so sameness is often unconsciously encouraged. It is simply easier to deal with. People just don’t have the time to deal with any additional complexities – our day to day work provides enough of that already! As such, curiosity is often not just stifled, but it can, in some cases, be punished. People learn to get their heads down and just get on with their job.
So organisations have a double whammy to contend with. First, individuals have learnt to stifle their curiosity, and many cultures reinforce this too.
THE MAGIC ZONE DEMANDS ORGANISATIONS RECOGNISE THAT QUALITIES SUCH AS CREATIVITY, CURIOSITY AND CHALLENGE ARE NOT A GIVEN, THEY NEED TO BE NURTURED.
Yet, if organisations want their people to innovate, they need to activate that latent talent again.
The science of curiosity
There are two types of curiosity, both of which are important to tap into in the work setting.
This is the type of curiosity we feel when we need to settle our minds. It’s the titch we just have to scratch. For most people, the driver is intrigue and comes from a positive position. For some people, though, their need to solve problems or remove knowledge gaps comes from a place of anxiety or tension, and this is not such a positive driver but still keeps you on your toes.
As conformity takes over, perceptual curiosity is reduced. We are told what to do. No more, no less. The struggle to solve problems takes second place in the work at hand. After all, the achievement of targets determines our success (our bonus or end of year performance review grade).
This comes from a place of desire rather than need. This is the type of curiosity that drives inventors or scientists to create and cure. It drives revolutionary ideas. It is associated with the anticipation of a reward – not necessarily financial.
Those with epistemic curiosity can be labelled as trouble makers in work as their insatiable desire to search for ‘better’ can be seen as just too challenging.
Curiosity is a natural human instinct that is sparked from the day we’re born. Anyone who has been around children dreads the three-year-old constantly asking ‘why?’ This is natural curiosity in action. It is a fundamental element of our cognitive functioning, even if it does provoke challenging or awkward conversations!
In an MRI experiment conducted at the University of California, they found that when curiosity was piqued, it showed up in the parts of the brain that are associated with gratification and reward. They also showed a significant boost in the hippocampus, an integral part of the limbic system that regulates our emotions and stores our memories. And with it comes a release of the brain’s wonder drug, dopamine, to make you feel even better!
But what about the science behind ideas?
According to Erez Reuveni from the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society. “An idea is simply a specific constellation of neurons firing in sync with each other for the first time. Such firing requires both that the neural network contain sufficient information from which an idea can arise… the network’s ability to produce a creative thought is entirely a function of the scope of these neural networks… The more neurons containing some bit of information, the richer the network; and the richer the network, the greater the network’s ability to produce a creative thought when the brain’s neurons fire.”
Woohoo, how amazing is that? It’s like a portal that can take you to a whole new world. The more information you have, the more likely you are to produce new ideas.
Curiosity helps your boat go faster.
Curiosity has its own energy. It moves, it shakes, it challenges, and it creates. It most definitely is not static! And in a world where anyone can copy anything, the key differentiator for your organisation is the ideas you can develop not just about new products but also to challenge how you conduct business.
The two most important questions you can ask (and ask them again and again and again) are why and how.
Why are we doing what we are doing?
How can we make that experience better?
A client sent us a link to a great video this week that triggered this blog (thank you, Tanya!) that sums these questions up so brilliantly. It’s called “Will it make the boat go faster” by Ben Hunt Davis, a former Olympic rower, and you can find it here.
As leaders, whatever your discipline, whoever your audience, keep challenging with the why and how.
Earlier in this article, we explained the importance of difference and arousal, so here are some tips you can easily apply to help initiate these and start to introduce new rituals and norms that will help your organisation pivot and ensure that your corporate baggage doesn’t condemn you to mediocrity.
“Corporations that aren’t curious aren’t going to be around long,” Dan Pink
Top tips for encouraging curiosity
1. ENCOURAGE THE PRACTICE OF CURIOSITY.
You need to exercise your brain just like you would your physical muscles in the gym. Encourage your team (together or individually) to look at their surroundings in 3 ways, one after the other.
With a sense of optimism
With a sense of pessimism
Finally with a sense of curiosity
If you start to look at your surroundings with a sense of curiosity, strange things start to happen. You start to ask questions! You can do this with your surroundings, everyday objects, and once you have the practice nailed (it shouldn’t take long), you can start to apply it to the way you do things – your working practices.
By practising first on more objective things, as the leader, you are encouraging your team to flex their muscles. You are teaching them that it’s OK to question so they will be more familiar and confident to challenge the status quo for the way you do things around here.
Here’s an article on the importance of empathy in innovation that explains more about how to view the world.
2. ENCOURAGE LEARNING
Work-related topics are vital, but they are not the only thing. Many people do some great stuff out of work that few leaders actually know about. What possibilities might occur if the leaders actively encouraged this? Not just on work-related matters but on anything – it could be drawing, skateboarding, gardening… absolutely anything. This is why companies with a great CSR programme that encourage teams to work in the community can hugely benefit from the time out of the job. If (and it’s a big if) the leaders help their team process the experience and ask them to compare the experience with work – what’s the same/ what’s different? What did you enjoy, why? If we could apply something of that experience to work, what would it be?
3. KNOW THAT CURIOSITY CAN BE MESSY, CONFUSING AND SOMETIMES EMBARRASSING AND THAT’S OK!
You can’t expect people to rapidly embrace the opportunity to show themselves up by being curious unless you encourage it. Create safe spaces where your team can be playful, embarrassed. They can be wrong, and, most of all, they understand that this has no repercussions. You can:
Set up a what’s the worst idea challenge.
Ask them to act out customers – the good and bad and use this as a springboard to share ideas.
Do comparing exercises – how is our approach to meetings like a toothbrush?…. It doesn’t really matter as long as you encourage people to think and question and enjoy the process.
You can find an innovation cheat sheet here.
4. KNOW THAT COLLABORATION IS AN ACQUIRED SKILL; IT TAKES PRACTICE
People need to feel safe and confident to practice, providing the team with a new structure or process that becomes familiar over time and allows them to make contributions in a team meeting.
You can find 21 ways to liven up your meetings here
5. SET UP A MENTORING PROGRAMME
This helps people to develop a relationship with someone different. Someone who can challenge and guide them. Someone who can provide insight beyond their normal sphere of influence. This will help trigger new thinking and may just be the spark for that incredible idea!