Can We Embed Curiosity in Corporate Culture?
I had the incredible good fortune to be one of 850 people from around the world in late June who participated in the World Positive Education Accelerator. This gathering intended to take a major step in the direction of acting at the scale of the whole—with a focus on spotting and fanning the best current efforts and emerging innovations in the field of positive education (i.e., education fueled by the principles and evidence-based learnings of positive psychology and human flourishing).
Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva, moderator of the WPEA summit, is a world-recognized chief reinvention officer. Among many mind-stretching points in her remarks was the assertion that business lifecycles are so compressed today that reinvention is required every 7 ½ years. Contrast this with the mid-20th century, where she noted that it was not only possible but likely that you could work your entire 40-year career without seeing a single major transformation. Business lifecycles were moving that slowly as to require reinvention about every 75 years. By the end of the 20th century, that figure had dropped to about every 15 years. Now, not even fully through our second decade of the 21st century, we’re experiencing a need for business reinvention in 7+ years.
No wonder we’re all tired.
In an environment of this level of constant and swift change, an organization’s ability to adapt is paramount. Call it what you will—imagination, ideation, improvisation, adaptation—this learned ability to culturally adapt is a product of curiosity and an unapologetic resolve to focus on what’s creating lift, what’s infusing life into the organization. These are the elements to study and magnify, for they hold the keys to our ability to reinvent.
Our headlong pace into this ever-shortening business cycle environment means everyone in the organization has to become more adept at, and comfortable with, improvisation. Leaders should attend closely to this agenda. Some change expertsi suggest we need to strengthen four improvisational capacity muscles:
- Affirming – focusing on the best of what is and the possibilities that affords;
- Expanding – using bold vision to stretch everyone’s thinking to new margins;
- Generating – establishing systems that provide feedback and insight to performance;
- Collaborating – welcoming diverse perspectives and fostering joint participation.
Embedding this improvisational capacity into your team or organization begins with full recognition of the fundamental power of conversation as the foundation of everything we do and create together in organizations. Stavros and Torres make clear this power when they say, “The nature of our conversations determines our well-being and our capacity to thrive.”ii
So how can a leader leverage every conversation to head down this path without some big established initiative or change agenda? Here’s some suggestions:
- Be aware of your own tone and tenor – your words get amplified and mirrored.
- Focus on (or reframe to) the positive – what’s working and why; what gives this life?
- Intentionally ask generative questions – those that foster energizing new images and metaphors, information, knowledge, and possibility.
- Invite dialogue with and among all stakeholders – recognizing that nobody owns the future we’re co-creating together.
- Dream together and try stuff quickly – prototype solutions and keep learning.
As with anything else in organizational life, there’s no panacea. Yet you need not be afraid to wade into the notion of positively impacting the culture around you. The first shift to make is yours: be genuinely curious about the best of what exists currently (even if that seems infinitely small at this moment!). From that posture, then inquire more deeply about that strength or asset. Note the conditions around it. Understand the contributing factors. Clarify your sense of awareness about those moments. Then ask, “what might be possible if these seemingly fleeting moments of pure strength could become more pervasive….then what would be possible?”
The more you can practice this as an individual leader, the more likely you will contribute to a culture of greater adaptation. Take this tack in your routine meetings by helping your colleagues reframe their frustrations and negatives into an exploration of what you all want more of. Expect to be a bit of an oddball at the beginning, as many organizational cultures are infused with a head down, get-er-done, running fast production pace that breeds a defensive employee survival attitude of separation or, worse, skepticism and judgement.
Unchecked, a widespread corrosive skepticism can infect even the best organization, becoming a fire-breathing dragon that eats most change agents for lunch. The barriers are real, as I’m sure you’ll agree. In his seminal work on experiential learning, David Kolb notes, “The greatest challenge to the development of knowledge is the comfort of dogmatism…or even the shadow dogmatism of utter skepticism (for to be utterly skeptical is to dogmatically affirm that nothing can be known”iii (italics added for emphasis).
To combat the potential for this pervasive skepticism and deficit thinking, therefore, a leader has to intentionally attempt to influence culture. Modeling the routine use of powerful and probing questions designed to help others illuminate the best in their shared experiences is a key step. Like any behavior that you want to stick, you’ll have to stay with it. You don’t have to deny or deflect challenges and bad news but you can reframe it in such a way that it invites more curiosity by colleagues—each of you looking to better understand the best of what is at this very moment and, buoyed by that, imagining what might be possible if that “best” were amplified.
In my experience, the healthiest and most successful cultures are those where curiosity is a widely shared value on display daily, at every level of the organization. Growing your individual and shared competence to be affirmative, expansive, collaborative, and generative will build your improvisational muscle.
With business lifecycles as short as they are, working to embed curiosity organization-wide may be your best strategy.
i Barrett, F. (1998), Creativity and improvisation in jazz and organizations: Implications for organizational learning, Organization Science, 9(5), 605-622.
ii Stavros, J. and Torres, C, (2018), Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement, p. 25.
iii Kolb, D. (2015). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, p. 162).