Why Curiosity Fuels Business Innovation

Where’s the Curiosity?

Children thrive on curiosity. People grow up asking questions. Many young children ask “Why?” almost excessively, wanting explanations for everything—unafraid to ask, always curious, and fiercely inquisitive. Why? They are in a phase of intense learning, absorbing information, and widening their capacity for new information at a rapid pace.

But studies have found that curiosity peaks at around age four or five and takes a steady decline from there. 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.

It’s no surprise we see this phenomenon at play within many workplaces. People have a tendency to consider their role as fixed and an organization’s way of doing things set in stone. Many employees and even leaders solve problems by asking minimal questions. They accept their task as it is assigned and work simply to finish it—not questioning the process or asking about overall goals.

Employees are often afraid to voice options and raise questions because they don’t want to bother others, or are worried they may be seen as incompetent or difficult. And many of the most intelligent, skilled, and capable employees and leaders are simply not asking enough questions, ignoring the great power in asking “Why?” and “What if?”

Why Is This a Problem?

To compete in today’s dynamic and ever-shifting markets, employees and leaders have to ask questions. Accelerating change and clouding uncertainty demand it. It’s no longer enough to fall back on long-established ways of doing things.

As a result, businesses that are unable to adapt and keep pace with change simply cannot survive today. And many who have relied on mere expertise in the past are now faltering because they don’t have the tools, practices, or mindsets to adapt, be flexible, innovate, or disrupt.

The speed of things requires companies to be constantly learning, adopting new practices and perspectives, asking the right questions, and anticipating how they will be able to compete today and tomorrow. As a result, curiosity and inquiry are gaining increasing value for businesses today.

The most innovative companies today search for people who are willing to admit things they don’t know and show interest in what they can learn. That’s because innovation and business growth rely on people who ask questions, challenge established assumptions and ways of thinking, and strive to always be learning, progressing, and moving forward.

Why Innovative Companies Are Winning

Think about some of the top business breakthroughs of our time, many of which are today’s most innovative companies.

Facebook didn’t come into creation because people accepted the status quo.

Uber wasn’t developed because people were afraid of changing the game.

Amazon isn’t successful today because the business was unwilling to evolve with the times. In fact, innovation throughout time has relied on asking hard questions like “Why?” and “What if?”

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, says: “We run this company on questions, not answers.”

The Director-General of the BBC goes to every meeting with employees and starts with the question, “What is one thing I could do to make things better for you?”

Asking questions can generate new ways of thinking, challenge long-held assumptions, and fuel real, transformative change for businesses.

So, how do you create an environment that asks the disruptive, transformative, and productive questions that fuel innovation?

1. Lead by example

When leaders ask questions, everyone within an organization feels more comfortable doing the same. Leaders who are open to asking and answering questions help foster an environment that is naturally inquisitive, increasingly engaged, and overall, more productive. But these practices have to begin at the top. Leaders that are stuck in their ways and resistant to different perspectives are less likely to lead their business to new heights. And this is often due to halted innovation. Be open to everyone’s perspective. Recognize what you don’t know and what you could do better and ask others to help. Be attentive, observant, and model curious behavior.

2. Ask why and use hypotheticals

Asking “What?” is often necessary. However, “What?” has no value to your business unless people ask and understand “Why?” Sometimes, when brainstorming within the workplace, it’s quite useful to ask the question “What if?” This question can open people’s minds to possibilities and can remove constraints on creative and innovative thinking. “How might we?” is also a good way to phrase a question about a company’s goals or objectives. It introduces the possibility that not every answer has to be entirely rational, plausible, or doable. Creativity often happens within the process. Sometimes, it’s the unrealistic questions that lead to innovative, doable answers. Hypotheticals force people to think big and create a new starting point.

3. Don’t fall into groupthink

By bringing different teams and individuals together, different perspectives can create breakthroughs for a business. So, try asking a marketing team a question about product design. Ask designers to weigh in on strategy. Encourage your engineers to review a blog post. Outside perspectives bring fresh eyes and different strengths. And often, a question from someone with a different point of view is just what an individual or team needs to move a project forward or tackle the challenge at hand.

4. Reward curiosity and learning

Curiosity fuels productive business today. So, make sure you foster an environment that looks for, recognizes, and rewards people who strive to ask questions, learn, and grow. These people will be your best innovators. And your business needs innovative people and teams to compete in today’s world. Build an environment where people feel that their role can grow. Help them understand the positive impact of their questions, work, and curiosity.

5. Be empathetic

Put yourself in other people’s shoes. Think about the questions employees, customers, stakeholders, and investors would ask when considering your business, products, brand, and marketing strategies. By looking at things through a different lens, you can better understand how to reach out and connect with the people who matter to your business.

Questions have great power for businesses today. Building a meaningful workplace culture that encourages asking questions can be of great value to your business. Employees and leaders who ask the right questions are more engaged, think more creatively, and in the end, have the ability to power innovation.

Recognizing the power of questions and fostering behavior that encourages curiosity and inquiry can help your business compete in shifting markets, and even help ready your organization for growth. So, use questions to fuel innovation and design your business to thrive in today’s world.

Emotive Brand is a brand strategy and design agency in Oakland, California.

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