Activate Curiosity. How to train a superpower.

Innovation is vital to human progress. But how can we create work environments that foster innovative thinking? Curiosity is the answer.

Questioning is the answer

How did human beings first discover that a simple flint could light a fire? What drove Newton to develop his theory of gravity? And how did Tim Berners-Lee invent the World Wide Web? Like most breakthroughs and remarkable inventions across the ages, these events all have something in common: curiosity.

Curiosity drives our level of knowledge. It drives all scientific research. It drives great art and creativity. Indeed, Albert Einstein once said, “I have no special talents. I’m only passionately curious.”

We’re all born curious. Every child will ask the question, “Why?” time and time again. Yet with age and wisdom comes a belief of having figured things out. As people grow up, they become more self-conscious, more fearful about asking questions, and are increasingly inclined to display confidence and expertise over curiosity and inquisitiveness.

By the time we’re in the workplace, many of us have gotten out of the habit of asking fundamental questions about what’s going on around us. And some people worry that asking questions at work reveals ignorance or may be seen as slowing things down.

Did you know?

64%

of employees in multiple sectors identified barriers to curiosity and innovation at work.[1]

4

key dimensions help us to define curiosity in a work context.

133

people across 10 teams took part in our pilot Activate Curiosity program.

Curiosity works at work

Companies now need to survive and thrive in a world where developments like 3D printing, robotics, and artificial intelligence (to name but a few) are revolutionizing methods and procedures with breathtaking speed.

Organizations can’t afford to underestimate the value of a change in thinking which leads to a new culture of innovation among their employees. In the science and technology sector, this is particularly true. And we believe the most important factor in the pursuit of progress is human curiosity and its role as a driving force for innovation.

However, the study we carried out as part of our 2018 Curiosity Report[1] showed that innovation has not yet really become an established feature of corporate culture and that the curiosity potential of company employees isn’t being well used.

In total, 64 percent of the 3,000 employees we surveyed across multiple countries and sectors identified barriers to curiosity and innovation in the working environment, such as lack of communication with colleagues outside of their own team or working under strict supervision. The biggest obstacle identified for all employees surveyed was that most initiatives are controlled from the top down, meaning that their own ideas are rarely realized.

Encouragingly, however, extensive research shows a strong association between increased curiosity and increased innovation – and business leaders worldwide are starting to recognize and embrace curiosity as a mechanism to drive success.[1]

In a 2018 Harvard Business Review report developed in collaboration with us, 1,000 business leaders in sectors such as technology, healthcare, and manufacturing were asked “what makes an innovation culture?”

The leading answer for every sector? Encouraging and rewarding curiosity.[1]

“For companies to tap into their full potential, they don’t need new technologies, but a new culture of working,” says Andreas Steinle, managing director of Zukunftsinstitut Workshop and member of our Curiosity Council.

“A culture of togetherness, where people build on the ideas of others. A culture of openness, where it’s more important to ask questions than to give answers. In short: a culture of curiosity. The CEO of the future is thus a Curiosity Enhancing Officer.”

What curiosity is made of

So we know that curiosity is important at work. But how do we define it? Can it be measured?

“Curiosity is a multidimensional construct that rests on four key dimensions,” says Sophie von Stumm, professor of psychology in education at the University of York and another member of our Curiosity Council.

“Each of these four dimensions of curiosity promotes the psychological benefits of experiencing intrigue and taking the steps to explore, discover, learn, and grow. Over the past four years, the members of the Curiosity Council have worked together to produce this multidimensional model of curiosity and to test it in workers around the globe.”

The four key dimensions of curiosity are defined as:

  • Joyous Exploration, which describes the pleasure of seeking out new information and engaging in novel experiences, and the subsequent joy of learning and growing. Joyous Exploration is pivotal for workers to successfully respond to new professional challenges and to find meaning and satisfaction in their work.
  • Deprivation Sensitivity, which reflects the unpleasant state of uncertainty that persists until a gap between what we know and what we want to know is closed or resolved. It drives us to Google the answer to a question on our smartphone while we’re still engaged in a conversation, or to pick up a thought, days – or even weeks – after we've first encountered it. Deprivation Sensitivity is key to acknowledging the gaps in our knowledge and arguments and thus, it is the very stepping-stone to thoroughly investigating a question or issue.
  • Distress Tolerance, which refers to the willingness to embrace the doubt, confusion, anxiety, and other forms of distress that arise from exploring new and uncertain terrains. This aspect of curiosity provides us with the resilience and strength to combine our existing knowledge with new information – a process that frequently causes us to change our original interpretation of a situation or context and subsequently, to alter our behavior.
  • Openness to People’s Ideas, which describes our appreciation of diverse perspectives and approaches from the people that surround us. In general, Openness to People's Ideas helps us to be compassionate and tolerant toward one another and to embrace our diversity. In the workplace, it also enriches the development and implementation of our problem-solving strategies by combining our own with others' ideas, while ensuring that our solutions are suitable across different people and contexts.

“Curiosity is not only about finding new ideas,” says Dr Carl Naughton, Senior Lecturer Psychology, FOM Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences, and Curiosity Council Member.

“It is about being able to deal with the new, the complex. It is about being able and willing to continue even if the new brings unpleasant feelings with it. That is the real strength of the Multidimensional Curiosity Scale we’ve created here. It combines all the pieces you really need for curiosity to function as fuel for innovation.”

Identifying and measuring these characteristics – as we have through our 2016 and 2018 Curiosity Reports[2] – is the first step in developing workplace curiosity. The second is answering the question: can curiosity be taught?  

Fostering curiosity to drive innovation

Building on the work of our Curiosity Reports and research, which allowed us to define the four dimensions of curiosity, we’ve since been exploring how we can foster curiosity within our own workforce.

“We’re confident that with the robust measures and tools we’ve developed with our Curiosity Council, we can really measure curiosity,” explains Christine Blum-Heuser, our associate director of brand initiative. “That has been the first step, but the next step is to ask if we can influence it. And this is how the idea of the Activate Curiosity program came up.”

The Activate Curiosity program is the result of extensive work by our internal team and the Curiosity Council to develop a set of interventions that increase levels of curiosity.

“We wanted to understand how we can be more curious within the company,” continues Blum-Heuser. “Current work environments often just aren’t conducive to curious behavior. There are all these barriers that you face, for example with people being under time pressure, financial pressure with their budgets, and so on.”

To tackle these issues, we designed an online video tutorial-based team training program, with each part of the training tied closely to one of the four curiosity dimensions. Each tutorial consisted of a video introduction to the intervention, with a step-by-step explanation of how to use it. Participants were invited to stop after each of the steps to complete exercises that applied the principles to their day-to-day work life.

The results of the initial 6-month pilot project, which was carried out with 133 people across 10 different teams, were incredibly promising. The results show that teams benefited from the techniques in two ways:

  • The intervention altered team routines so that creative ideation became commonplace.
  • The techniques had a visible social impact. Reserved team members contributed more often, and group confidence increased.

“We only had to speak to our team leads, to hear first-hand the changes that the program created,” adds Blum-Heuser. “One said in an interview, ‘My team is now asking such a lot of questions. It's exhausting!’ And of course, that’s true. Having a curious team isn’t necessarily the easiest route for a manager, but it is certainly the best route for fostering innovative thinking.”

The qualitative data analysis carried out as part of the program clearly showed evidence of these behavioral changes, which leads us to believe that training interventions to increase workplace curiosity can improve the innovation potential of teams.

“That link with innovation is vital,” emphasizes Blum-Heuser. “As a science and technology company, we depend on innovations. We’re not just fostering curiosity for the sake of it. It’s of vital business importance. Ultimately, the purpose of this program is to give people a better innovative mindset.”

The findings and results of the pilot program have been presented at the Transdisciplinary Workplace Research Conference 2020.[3]

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