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Innovation

How to boost curiosity in your company — and why

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We all know the value of a good question — the way it moves beyond the search for an answer and pushes toward new ways of thinking. But how can enterprises encourage the kinds of behavior and culture that lead to this questioning? How might a company institutionalize curiosity?

As part of the Future Enterprise webinar series hosted by MIT Sloan and Queensland University of Technology, MIT Sloan professor and QUT professor Marek Kowalkiewicz discussed how companies can spur innovation through curiosity and creativity, practices of particular value in a world reshaped by pandemic.

Curiosity and creativity benefit from structure, Eppinger said. These practices can and should be systemized. Companies should also emphasize questions over answers and carve out space for exploration.

Here are four key ways leaders can encourage curiosity.

Know that “a little bit of process goes a long way”

For decades, Eppinger has been studying and teaching design thinking, which he calls “a mindset of curiosity leading to innovation.” He has also tracked the immense benefits of agile project management, an iterative process in which small projects are built and tested simultaneously, as it has taken hold in the tech sector and beyond. This got him thinking: are the two complementary?

“Can we use the formal set of roles and events in agile and still give people an environment in which they can use curiosity to come up with innovative solutions?” Eppinger said. “It sounds somewhat paradoxical that methods like agile, which are highly prescriptive, could facilitate an innovative process like design thinking.”

But this is just what he’s found in companies well beyond software development. He recently worked with a multinational packaged-food company that used agile tools to  successfully develop a chip snack. (The company typically focuses on meats and cheeses.) Over five weeks, a team ran a series of “sprints” to tackle this challenge: they started with concept design in the first sprint, moved to the recipe in the second, refined flavors and packaging in the third, moved to the production line in the fourth, and prepared market launch in the fifth.

Most striking to Eppinger: these were essentially “part-time” sprints.

“They did this for one week out of each month,” he said. “And then they worked on meats and cheeses the rest of the time.”

The crux of this success, he believes, is the consistent structure provided by agile thinking, in which the same set of activities defines each day of the week. He noted that these structures need to be customized to different sectors — the sprint process for a packaged-goods company does not mirror that used by a software company — but the fundamental mechanics remain the same.

“This process can make you better at innovation,” Eppinger said, in part by formalizing space and time for curious inquiry. “You just have to get comfortable overlaying a little structure, a little process, over your creative activities.”

Prize asking over knowing

Expertise is often important reputational currency within companies; the goal is to know, not to wonder. But this mentality can quash curiosity and inhibit a culture of exploration.

Eppinger suggested two steps to mitigate this problem. First, teams and companies should increase the range of people who are engaged in a project by adding people from different departments with distinct skills. Increasing diversity often reduces this tendency to rely on a single expert or form of expertise. Second, companies should institute processes that, in the context of curiosity and creativity, explicitly counter standard notions related to expertise and hierarchies of knowledge.

“You want a process that gets you out of the habit of seeing the most experienced person as the one with all the answers,” he said. “If we can create a culture in which we’re not expecting that at all, then we tend to listen much more inclusively to the whole range of people who are participating in an active way.”

People should practice asking "why" in forms that minimize the risk of targeting or accusing, Eppinger said. “‘Why’ may come across as a pointed challenge,” he said. “But there are a lot of ways to ask the right question. Instead of ‘why’ or ‘how’, one of my favorites is 'What are 10 or 20 ways we could do this?'”

Make space for aimless exploration

Given businesses operate in a highly uncertain environment, Kowalkiewicz noted that it’s not easy to predict what kind of knowledge or understanding will prove useful in the future. With this in mind, he suggested businesses allow — or, better, encourage —employees to be curious. (He also distinguished between curiosity and creativity: curiosity is focused on the process of learning and discovering, but it does not necessarily turn into action.)

“You should make space for a certain amount of aimless exploration — aimless, which is not the same as pointless,” he said. “When you explore you get to learn, you get to build up knowledge and understand the world around you.”

Eppinger seconded this point, drawing on the analogy of children who not only ask questions endlessly, but constantly run experiments on the people they know and the world in which they live. Leaders, he said, are responsible for fostering a culture similarly rich with experimentation.

“Leaders should embrace that same kind of curiosity — not only the why, but the trying and failing and testing of things,” he said. “We should not only be asking questions but trying stuff all the time.”

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Eppinger said that though most people aren’t comfortable with — or even good at — being creative, everybody is able to get better. And the way to get better is through feedback that targets continuous improvement; agile development, he suggested, does this particularly well on two fronts.

First, agile has steps in place to improve the product or idea under consideration. It does this with demos and reviews in which a range of people test and discuss the results. Second, agile incorporates feedback designed to improve the process itself. Each sprint concludes with a retrospective to define what went well, what didn’t, and what needs to be done about it; there is a specific person responsible for managing this step and incorporating the results. In this way, agile, or whatever feedback process a company chooses to adopt, can systematically help people get better at being curious and creative.

“These cycles happen so quickly that, in a couple of months, a team could do three, or five, or 10 sprints and get really good at doing whatever type of work they’re doing,” Eppinger said, even if it’s a creative activity. He reiterated: “A little bit of process goes a long way.”

Read next: 10 agile ideas worth sharing

For more info Sara Brown News Writer