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Curiosity Didn’t Kill The Cat, It Created The Mousetrap

Chimpanzees do it. Birds do it. Rubberneckers do it.

“Everybody is curious,” declares Dr. Henry Weisinger, author of the bestseller Nobody’s Perfect. “It’s an instinct that is hard-wired. To explore or investigate our environment is life-enhancing. Organizations interested in what their people are doing, are more resonant. On an individual and organizational basis, people need to ask themselves, when was the last time they did something to spark their interest?”

Think of this in personal terms. “If the parents are not interested in what their kids are doing, it’s hard for children to be curious—the parents effectively squash the curiosity instinct.” The same holds true in organizations.

Entrepreneurial curiosity requires the desire to be curious. Sure, we are hardwired to be inquisitive. But in the bric-a-brac of daily life, we can turn off curiosity, replacing it with the bone-numbingly mundane.

We have to alpha up, says Weisinger. We have to stimulate our curiousness. we need to be aroused. “Arousal is nature’s Gatorade,” describes Weisinger. “If you look at a situation as exciting, it changes your brain.”

Every enterprise has its own baggage, but incentives for innovation can abound in product design and manufacture, distribution, packaging, retailing, marketing, finance, systems, wholesaling, affinity, marketing communications, technology, (have we missed anything?).

Today is a time for agility. It is a time to pivot. It is a time to be curious. For many companies, this can be the difference between boom or doom.

Uncomfortable Curiosity
As companies default to their less curious comfort zone, one way to stimulate people is to make them uncomfortable. Scramble the desks, force them 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.

Creating pipelines to the curious mind is one of the greatest accomplishments enterprise can make. These pipelines allow for innovative development and exchange. Senior director of global innovation Michael Perman leads Mindspark, an internal group inside GAP, Inc.

“Everything comes from two questions,” says Perman. “‘Why’ and ‘How’ Why are we doing what we’re doing? Can we make that experience better? Curiosity is about learning, so we want people in situations where they can learn more. Learning is derived from experiments. You try a rough prototype, you adapt, you switch things out. The way to keep learning is to continue to ask why and how.”

 

Perman puts inquiry into three buckets. “From about 800 ideas, we select according to: New, Unique, and Not Feasible. We focus on Not Feasible: if we can move from fuzzy to fruition, that would be a remarkable thing.”

Mysteries drive us. But this was not always so. In fact, avoiding curiosity is a weighty part of the Western tradition. Being curious inferred discontent with established doctrine. (Remember how Galileo Galilei’s curiosity led him to the discovery that the Earth revolved around the sun? Galileo was nearly burned at the stake for that revolutionary idea.)

It was not until the 14th century that Petrarch started hiking through the Italian Alps, just to see what was there. In the 17th century, philosophes like Robert Boyles and Thomas Hobbes made lists of curious things. Plants, insects, planets, words. They were troublemakers whose gifts of curiosity were breakthrough, but nearly heretical.

These days corporate management can be wrapped in the cloak of current success, drunk on “this is what has made us successful… this is how we do things,” and other anthems as old and vital as the pterosaur.

“In many corporations, curiosity and inquisitiveness are punished,” explains Henry Doss, chief strategy officer at T2VC, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm. “Why look for new ways of doing things, when everything is already functioning and working properly inside the system?” he asks. “The paradigmatic structure does not encourage curiosity.”

Doss suggests that innovation is more like a rainforest, than a plantation. “In the rainforest, you have this robust quantum explosion of new things,” he says. “Not a predictive, controlled output.”

John S. Johnson co-founded BuzzFeed.com, one of the fastest-growing viral media and web trending sites today. “Curiosity is finding dysfunctions,” says Johnson. “When I see dysfunction, it really makes me curious. That has created the narrative arc of my career. So, after filmmaking (the writing/directing part), what I experienced was that there was no great geographic location for independent filmmakers. So I founded the Filmmaker’s Collaborative on Greene Street.

Curiosity sparks creative tension. “There is such incredible resistance in the old guard,” says Johnson. “And incredible curiosity and willingness among the new guard.”

On the East coast, they ask “Why?” On the West coast they say, “Why not?”

Michael Spoodis is a creative consultant with Disney and Target, and a self-described rabid consumer of the culture—a devoted cinephile, a faithful arts patron, a reader of multiple daily newspapers, an architecture and design geek, a travel junkie, a foodie, etc. In other words, an actively positive curiosity seeker, desirous of having vivid and memorable life experiences.

“It’s the fuel,” declares Spoodis. “If you aren’t curious you’re not going to come up with anything fresh. Inspiration comes from cross-pollination and connecting to different things. Hawaiians have 100 different words for rain. Curiosity enables me to frame or see the world from multiple vantage points, think differently, and remain innovative in the way I brainstorm a brand name or compose a lyric or tell a story.”

Embedded in the connective tissue between data points is that rogue, breakthrough, boom-boom idea that changes everything.

And Now The Science
“An idea is simply a specific constellation of neurons firing in sync with each other for the first time,” writes Erez Reuveni from the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society. “Such firing requires both that the neural network contain sufficient information from which an idea can arise… the network’s ability to produce a creative thought is entirely a function of the scope of these neural networks… The more neurons containing some bit of information, the richer the network; and the richer the network, the greater the network’s ability to produce a creative thought when the brain’s neurons fire.”

So, it’s good to be curious, because being curious opens portals of new information. The more information you have the better your chances for sparking new ideas. Good job, brain.

Curiosity has it’s own kinetic energy. It moves people along paths of improvement, with new perspectives and new ways of seeing.

New York City restauranteur Danny Meyer sees his business through the lens of hospitality. These days anyone can copy anything, claims Meyer. In the competitive restaurant business, this includes your recipes. So it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. Meyer emphasizes the desire to do things for people, not to them. That axiom dictates how his Union Square Hospitality Group hires people, how they train them, how they treat their guests.

Why does curiosity exist? Because to be in the why, is to be in the know.

“We move throughout our lives in a series of patterns. Curiosity breaks those patterns,” suggests architect Craig Dykers, a partner at the internationally renowned architectural firm Snohetta. Then he tells a story. “I was in China and alone,” he begins. “I was in a market and asked a fruit vendor if I could have three oranges. He held up four fingers. I said, no three. Again, he held up four fingers. I repeated, three. Finally, he pointed to the spaces between his fingers. The numbers were defined by the spaces between the fingers. He was giving value to the things we don’t see.

Curiousness can be sparked, incented, nurtured, piped, pinged, and developed. And it can be killed. Companies (and the people within them) have reasons to be curious and it is in their best interest (personally and professionally) to stay aroused and keep the curiosity pipes open.

“Corporations that aren’t curious aren’t going to be around long,” sums up Dan Pink.

We are innately thoughtful and curious, we cannot pretend to tweet our days away, our lives are more than a wiki link. We are here to dream dreams, to discover worlds within worlds. This is no time for flabby brains.

Curiosity is our escape pod.

Push the button.

Here we go.

Patrick Hanlon is CEO and founder of Thinktopia.  A version of this piece first appeared in his Forbes column.

Curiosity Didn’t Kill The Cat, It Created The Mousetrap was originally published on Ideas Lab

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