How to Foster Curiosity to Inspire Innovation at Work

Innovation is hard work. 

The side of innovation that we read about in books and magazines is the superstar CEO and their genius inventors chugging away at changing the world.

It pushes the reality of innovation past our cognitive horizon. 

But true innovation is much more complicated than that.

What we don’t see is the intolerance for mediocrity, high personal accountability, and disciplined leadership.

How much money you have to throw at R&D has little to do with innovation.

And while leadership matters, having brave leaders doesn’t improve your odds of success by itself.

Being curious does.

Curiosity is essential for innovation.

When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, he only spent six seconds talking about the camera.

Since then, Apple has been raising the bar for camera technology and the photography industry. 

The chicken wire case:

In 2009 Apple wanted to introduce a new portrait mode with bokeh, a pleasing blurred background effect.

Offering that feature required building new technology.

Their first attempts at it were successful. But they also produced a handful of unexpected ‘failures’.

One such failure was the ‘chicken wire case’.

It was an edge case where if the person taking the picture was standing behind a chicken wire, the algorithm couldn’t capture a sharp image of the chicken wire to the side of the face.

Despite being an edge case, the engineers brought in senior designers and professional portrait photographers to understand what makes a portrait beautiful.

They learned that all great portrait photos had blurring around the face but sharpness on the eyes.

And the team was able to improve their algorithm to achieve the same effect.

It takes curiosity to reject accepting the difficulty of a problem as an excuse for failing to produce a better solution.

You may not have the budget, or the technology, or the engineering prowess of Apple. 

But you do have curiosity. And that’s essential for innovation.

Curiosity is a rare trait in organisations.

Companies view curiosity as a catalyst for high job satisfaction and performance.

In fact, in a survey of more than 3000 professionals, 92% believed that curious people bring new ideas to their teams and organisations.

Yet, most companies actively discourage curiosity, believing that it would be harder to manage people if they started exploring their interests.

It’s not surprising that people who start new jobs brimming with new ideas experience a sharp decline in curiosity after only six months on the job.

Sadly, our training for accepting the status quo starts much sooner.

Did you know that a typical three-year-old child asks one question every two minutes? 

And that rate drops to less than one question every two hours after they start school. 

We stop asking questions when we’re under pressure and get on with it. 

Teach yourself to be more curious.

It starts with asking questions.

Out of 3000 employees in a multi-industry study, 70% felt they face barriers to asking questions at work.

The scariest barrier to asking questions is the fear of getting judged as stupid or incompetent.

And it’s worse for people in leadership positions who often feel that they need to have all the answers.

I bet this isn’t the first time you’ve heard that the opposite is true. But deciding to start asking more questions isn’t the answer.

Start with humility. It’s the most underrated leadership skill.

You don’t have all the answers. And that’s okay.

Being the first one to recognise the limits of your knowledge sends a powerful message to others.

It says that you’re ready to explore, to learn.

That act alone is often enough to get others feeling comfortable around you.

Tenelle Porter called intellectual humility the ability to acknowledge that what we know is sharply limited.

And people with more intellectual humility perform better. 

Because once you accept that your knowledge is finite, you’re more likely to pay attention to how the world is changing and see new possibilities.

Curiosity and empathy go hand in hand.

Asking questions is the best way to show interest in others. 

It’s the best way to get people to like you, see you as more competent, and build deeper relationships.

Listen more and talk less.

You can ask explorative questions (what, who, where, when and how) that help others gain a deeper understanding of whatever they’re working on. 

It’s far more rewarding to empower people to find a solution themselves than giving them a half-baked solution.

Forget performance goals and set learning goals instead.

Nothing kills curiosity quicker than busyness.

Despite what we tell ourselves, we’re no better.

When it’s crunch time, we narrow our focus on what’s immediate and pick the path of least resistance. 

It’s natural to concentrate on results in the face of tough challenges.

Start framing your work around learning goals instead of completion goals. This will also help you break challenging demands into more manageable learning tasks.

Try it yourself.

Once you flip that switch where you stop getting excited by checking things off your to-do list, you’ll not only grow in skill; you’ll also do better with problem-solving and experience higher job satisfaction.

Because when you’re curious, you think more deeply and rationally, avoid biases, and come up with more creative solutions.

And small changes in how you interact with others can help you be more curious and encourage the same behaviour in return.

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