How to Put Curiosity to Work in Your Organisation

By Louise Muhdi

Companies are starting to understand why it is important to cultivate curiosity among their workforce. Yet, only a few possess a good grasp on how to activate, embed, and leverage it throughout the organisation. In this article, we propose a practical, human-centric approach to help managers design for, lead with, and operationalise curiosity in the workplace.

How many times have you heard recently of an organisation or a process that is due for reimagining, rebuilding, or future-proofing? We live in a time where organisational wisdom has shifted from a company’s sum of experience and expertise to a willingness to open up, to be flexible, and to play with the boundaries of how we see the world and our place in it. Underpinning this pursuit of how things could be and possibly will be is curiosity — organisational and collective, as well as individual.

Indeed, curiosity is seeing a renaissance, particularly across innovation-focused industries such as pharma, tech, and media. Corporations including Merck, Nike, Disney, Target, GE, NASA, Novartis, Facebook, the LEGO Group, Microsoft, and Dell have recognised and established curiosity as a key component in their corporate branding. For a company to be seen as curious has become a ticket to higher quality of investor relations, recruitment, and talent retention.

In writing this article, I drew on a long-term dialogue with corporate champions of curiosity in the workplace, as well as discussions with executive education programme participants across industries. I coupled their input with years of experience in conducting experimental, action-oriented problem-solving modules and interventions for large businesses.

For a company to be seen as curious has become a ticket to higher quality of investor relations, recruitment, and talent retention.

Based on this ongoing research, I propose that unlocking an organisation’s curiosity can deliver a host of fundamental benefits. In this age of disruption and large-scale organisational transformations, it can enable rapid adaptability. Curiosity can also be that key ingredient that wards off a return to complacency and protects employees from transformation fatigue and burnout. On the innovation front, an outlook of curiosity about others will spur collaboration within ecosystems as gateways to value creation and solving complex challenges.

Nonetheless, there are several factors at play that make embracing curiosity an uphill battle for companies. To start with, we have yet to reach a standard definition of what curiosity in the workplace looks like. In its place, misconceptions abound: of curiosity as a distraction, unless demonstrated by those at the very top; a general willingness to ask questions but not much more than that; or a quality that only comes in handy in creative occupations like product design.

Meanwhile, businesses’ traditional reliance on experts means that curiosity goes into a decline the minute we have convinced ourselves that we have all the in-house expertise we need. As a result, what could be a critical business skill and a key driver of growth, innovation, problem-solving, stronger leadership, and rapid adaptability in the workplace is often regarded as a nice-to-have soft skill.

Operationalising curiosity in your organisation: Where to start

Curiosity is an innate human quality. Researchers have pointed out that cognitive needs are just as fundamental as physiological and social needs. In other words, just as we cannot go without food, in many situations we cannot bear not to know what’s out there, who we are dealing with, what happens next. See how skilfully this instinct has been co-opted and ritualised by social media companies. It is what makes us click and swipe and scroll through the mass of unpredictability that is online content.

The difficult part is that curiosity as a concept tends to defy a firm grasp. Its emotional roots make it prone to outbursts which flare up one minute and dissipate the next. The key challenge has to do with connecting these into a more malleable and predictable continuum. Fortunately, we can take inspiration from industry frontrunners who have made heavy bets on transmuting the power of being curious into a tangible value, process, methodology, and organising principle. In dozens of interviews with talented executives, I have identified the following design principles.

1. Nurturing the mindsets is great – but your best bet is to actively shape behaviours

Nurturing curiosity requires a steady infusion of new, on-the-job tasks, challenges, experiences and, at times, even introducing a healthy degree of controlled instability.

Many executives labour under the assumption that simply by talking about curiosity or writing it into vision and mission statements, it will trickle down to form a part of employees’ day-to-day work. The reality is, of course, much more complex and stubbornly non-linear. Neither is building curiosity about “fixing” people in order to make them more curious, or simply encouraging them to ask questions, no matter how probing and incisive.

Curiosity is anchored in what scientists call neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganise and rewire itself in response to learning, experiences, and environmental influences. “Action” is the operative word in this context. It is predominantly as a result of action and movement that the brain responds to challenges and creates new neural pathways. Nurturing curiosity requires a steady infusion of new, on-the-job tasks, challenges, experiences and, at times, even introducing a healthy degree of controlled instability.

Therefore, a simple act of physically moving things and people around can be a good start.

Branding and community expert Patrick Hanlon described it as follows: Scramble the desks, force people to regroup and continually rewire their brains to know more. Encourage lateral or associative thinking by rubbing together different groups, cultures, skill sets, and department silos.1

An online (virtual) intervention guarantees a wide reach against a low cost. Norway’s state-owned renewable energy player Statkraft has learned that short-burst, online collaborative problem-solving modules can stretch its workers’ traditional engineering mindset.2  DBS bank in Singapore runs regular hackathons where innovation managers share concepts and practices of innovation with their colleagues. For your company, choose whatever mix of social and tech-enabled formats is likely to grab your employees’ attention and motivation.

Stimulating curious behaviours can also be a gateway to collective learning and inclusivity. Much too often, the way companies traditionally relied on experts and expert knowledge has kept workers “in their place” and reluctant to demonstrate natural curiosity beyond their own expertise. In today’s age of uncertainty, where advances in technology have nearly obliterated the idea of established expertise, structured curiosity exercises and interventions can place people in a zone where there is something new to be learned and where their input is desired, acknowledged, and rewarded.

Managers at Merck have shared with us stories of lab technicians who were, possibly for the first time ever, emboldened to speak up and share insights that proved essential for rethinking and redesigning a specific innovation process. The stories reflect the reality of the mainstream workplace where bureaucracy and hierarchy have been corrosive of curiosity. In the 2018 edition of Merck’s “State of Curiosity” survey, 64 per cent of the 3,000 respondents reported grappling with barriers to curiosity and innovation in the working environment, such as a lack of communication with colleagues outside of their own team and working under strict supervision.3

In many organisations, teams approach problem solving by brainstorming, typically starting with a clean slate. Merck employees learned that there was a better way. By tapping into the diversity of a team’s potentials and behaviours with regard to curiosity, their teams’ interactions turned out to be more creative and productive. In particular, they realised that curiosity could give creativity an organic boost by linking different ideas better, i.e., using a colleague’s idea as a stepping stone to the next idea — “Yes, and…” rather than “Yes, but…”.

Amid complex transformations, employees are told to have trust in the big plan – trust that the change will pan out well and bring the organisation to the desired business outcomes. This is where behaviours that build on curiosity can go a long way. People believe because they have seen outcomes of their new behaviours. They also observe and mimic others. Actions coalesce into habits and are eventually automated. When it comes to curiosity, the magic of action is that it often precedes motivation. Pedro Guerrero, Senior Global Project Manager for Merck Life Science and a participant in Merck’s Activate Curiosity pilot programme, observed: People’s motivation received a big boost. They realised that the company was walking the talk. As if saying, we want to be innovative, we are a curious company, and we want to invite you and give you the opportunity as well as the tools to contribute.

MERCKImage source: www.merckgroup.com
With a history of 350 years, science and technology giant Merck has been known for continually reinventing itself and actively sorting through ingredients that make a business survive and thrive for centuries. Innate curiosity was behind some of Merck’s most revolutionary inventions and growth junctures, such as perfecting the technology of liquid crystals. In the past six years, Merck has built on this tradition to reassert “who we are” and “what we stand for”. The company started upholding curiosity in its communications, marketing, and branding. The underlying business case was one of “More curiosity creates more innovation.” Once the buzz was in place, employees demanded to see tangible manifestations of curiosity in their day-to-day work. Merck set about understanding, defining, visualising, and enabling curiosity in the workplace, developing assessment tools, running a pilot initiative, and applying its learning points to individual employee level. Working with occupational psychologists and curiosity specialists, Merck sought to conceptualise and formulate specific tactics to shape and automate behaviours; to determine the psychological needs that informed the intended behaviours; and to highlight, make conscious, and strengthen these links through training modules. In aggregate, Merck has achieved breakthroughs in shifting curiosity from a state of mind and a branding attribute to concrete tactics, a process, and a way of thinking and working.

2. Curiosity needs to be prioritised and architected into your organisation’s systems and processes

Channelling curiosity in productive ways requires what most channelling does: dedicated dimensions of time and space. One-time events make for good publicity. But connecting curious behaviours in a deliberate way, through team interactions in controlled environments, around meaningful work, and repeating these over time can yield so much more. Companies can use it to construct a workable long-term framework of continuous learning, collaboration, and innovation. In the words of Christine Blum-Heuser, Senior Manager for Brand Communication at Merck, who spearheaded several of the company’s initiatives in this space: Instead of something vague and inchoate like a state of mind, we soon started to think of curiosity as a process — and from there on, as a framework, not only for solving problems but for effectively navigating the entire process of exploration, R&D, and ultimately innovation. We could consciously channel curiosity to create something new and impactful in the organisation.

Processes and mechanisms that enhance curiosity include personal ownership of projects, using instruments of one’s choice to accomplish tasks, and having sufficient time for exploration.

When Merck launched its Activate Curiosity programme in 2019, it ran a six-month pilot. It involved 133 people in 10 groups – a mix of intact and cross-functional as well as virtual teams representing a diversity of Merck’s business segments and key markets. Team members completed a “State of Curiosity” survey (similar to the 2018 and 2020 surveys) in order to understand their curiosity profiles and the curiosity dimensions they could improve upon. Each group was assigned a business innovation challenge to work on.

Crucially, extrapolating from the pilot, Merck succeeded in instituting specific behaviours and routines into its “new normal” ways of working. Among these, curiosity serves as the underpinning of Merck’s key behaviours such as discuss, disagree openly, decide, deliver (“4Ds”), which have been putting down roots as “the way we do things around here” – in other words, the unique Merck culture. Furthermore, staff are actively encouraged to call out actions and behaviours that go against the grain of these practices.

As a shortcut, think about embedding curiosity and the related behaviours in the standard levers of organisational change (see Figure). On the people front, companies like Roche have gone to great lengths to install leaders who exhibited systems thinking and a holistic perspective on healthcare delivery in local markets. These executives see themselves as connectors (Roche talks about Visionaries, Architects, Coaches, and Catalysts), rather than leaders in the hierarchical sense. Similarly, recruiting young people can be a powerful conduit for infusing curiosity into the company. Staff surveys conducted at Merck showed that young hires were by far the most curious cohort within the workforce.

Processes and mechanisms that enhance curiosity include personal ownership of projects, using instruments of one’s choice to accomplish tasks, and having sufficient time for exploration. Likewise, measuring and rewarding behaviours and outcomes linked to curiosity can be done in simple ways. You could start tracking the percentage of staff that come forward with new ideas. Indirect indicators like staff engagement and satisfaction can also be tweaked to gauge whether employees are finding outlets for their curiosity in day-to-day interactions and processes. Additionally, companies that have been the leaders in curiosity have encouraged their people managers to pick a specific behaviour underpinned by curiosity, complete related tasks throughout the year, and ground them in solid KPIs. Top leadership at Novartis has been explicit about setting a goal of people spending 5 per cent of their time or 100 hours a year on learning, curiosity, and development.4

Figure-How to Put Curiosity to Work in Your Organisation

3. Curiosity is contagious: Empowering people through repeated practices

In any type of short-burst problem-solving intervention, game, or other team activity, curiosity — and, by extension, trust in one’s collaborators — is typically heightened within a couple of hours. People are empowered to speak up, make comments, and share observations. Working against time, ramping up one’s concentration, and focusing on solving a real-world problem; in tandem, these parameters work like a crucible that melts away hierarchy along with personal insecurities, rivalries, and office politics.

The systematic approach can be enriched with informal, loosely structured experiences. These are important, because the curiosity muscle will atrophy without use. Practise, repeat, keep experimenting and expanding through small steps — ideally in an environment of psychological safety where team members obtain a sense of connection, develop deep trust of their peers’ intentions, become comfortable with taking risks, and learn to move on constructively from things that didn’t pan out.

LEGOEditorial credit: EQRoy / Shutterstock.com
In 2018, the  LEGO Group introduced three core behaviours of Brave, Curious, and Focused as part of its bottom-up leadership model, The Leadership Playground. It came up with the role of Playground Builders, who would encourage their teams to create spaces for role modelling and bringing these values to life. A voluntary role, a Playground Builder cannot be a People Leader of the team for which he or she acts as the playground builder, thus creating diffused responsibility and leadership across the team. The LEGO Group also emphasised the importance of rituals in driving behaviour. Campfires are safe-space conversations that reflect on the behaviours of bravery, focus, and curiosity. The immediate outcome of the campfires was the development of missions, everyday micro-experiments in practising these values-based behaviours. A simple, accessible tool and metaphor for workers as well as People Leaders and Playground Builders, campfires mushroomed during COVID. In aggregate, they continued to make the LEGO Group feel like an energising place. Turnover has been encouraged, so that, in 2023, 60 per cent of Playground Builders were new in their roles. Gradually, the 2,100-strong network of Playground Builders became tasked with more specific agendas, for instance digital transformation and well-being. Once a largely informal, grassroots collective, today the Playground Builders have established themselves as champions of specific strategic change programmes. The underlying simplicity of the ideas, metaphors, and rituals has ensured a fit with every team across the LEGO Group. To quote Maeve O’Sullivan, Director of Culture and Organisational Development: All we provide is guidance. Go ahead, hack it, adapt it to your team’s own context. I firmly believe that if we were to over-structure and over-metrics this, the whole concept might unravel. We need to have trust in the energy we know this experiment has created.

By the people, for the people: Practical outcomes for companies that get it right

Enhancing curiosity and putting it to work won’t turn every employee into a systems thinker and innovator. But it will give people a voice, help them better understand their own roles, and provide them with a common language as a foundation for holding each other accountable.

Encouraged to think outside their own narrow frame of reference, they become more exploratory and future-oriented. As employees’ trust in the process is strengthened, they obtain a real feel for “this is a company where I can develop myself, where I have the freedom to experiment and learn. I can make a difference. I get to see results.” This makes organisational transformations more human-centric and sustainable in the long term.

The sense of engagement works both ways. Our studies show that managers who have experimented with curiosity become curious about their own workforce. They are keen to learn about what drives and what inhibits workers’ curiosity. Renee Connolly, Merck’s Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer and Head of Innovation HR Engagement & Inclusion, reflected: We find that consistently and systematically feeding the curiosity sentiment has provided us with better inside analysis of what makes our employees tick, flourish, feel energised, do their best work, as well as which of the world’s regions are the most curious. DE&I metrics tend to improve significantly. As an employer, we now have a better understanding of, for instance, what kind of benefits are the most effective in making our employees want to be here and want to succeed.

Embracing and role-modelling curiosity helps leaders evolve and adapt their leadership styles. To the rest of your organisation, it sends a signal that the best way to tackle real-world problems is to get one’s hands dirty. Action also solves the conundrum of connecting the fresh spark of curiosity to longer-term projects that fuel transformation — team learning, product development, problem solving, staff recruitment and onboarding. When properly constructed and channelled, curiosity minimises the trade-offs between learning and performance. It can be the driving force as well as the accelerator of developing a culture of adaptability and agility.  

About the Author

Dr. LouiseDr. Louise Muhdi, PhD, a distinguished Professor of Innovation and Strategy at IMD Business School, is renowned as an author and advisor. Focused on empowering executives across industries, she accelerates transformation, fostering positive change at all organisational levels with her expertise and guidance.

References

  1. Hanlon, P. (2013). Curiosity Didn’t Kill The Cat, It Created The Mousetrap. Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/patrickhanlon/2013/05/06/curiosity-didnt-kill-the-cat-it-created-the-mousetrap/ [Accessed 15 Feb. 2024].
  2. Muhdi, L. and Králik, M. 2023. “Statkraft: Building a culture of collaboration in a fast-growing state-owned company”. Case study. IMD-7-2432. IMD International.
  3. Merck. “State of Curiosity Report 2018”. Available at: https://www.merckgroup.com/en/company/curiosity/curiosity-report.html#:~:text=The%20Merck%202018%20State%20of,D. [Accessed 10 Feb. 2024].
  4. Green, D. (2020). How Novartis Promotes Learning Curiosity to Drive Business Value (Interview with Simon Brown). Available at: https://www.myhrfuture.com/digital-hr-leaders-podcast/2020/10/6/how-novartis-promotes-learning-curiosity-to-drive-business-value [Accessed 10 Feb. 2024].

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