The Virtues of Curiosity

The chief executive asked his audience of engineers how many were using an iPhone or Android phone. A few brave souls raised their hands. Brave? They need not have been. The inquisitive CEO is Stephen Elop, who is in his first year as head of Nokia.

"That upsets me—not because some of you are using iPhones," a recent Bloomberg Businesweek story quotes Elop as saying, "but because only a small number of you are using iPhones. I’d rather people have the intellectual curiosity to see what we are up against."

Nokia faces significant challenges, which accounts for its hiring of a CEO from the outside, one from Microsoft, no less. So it should come as no great surprise that one of the first things Nokia did under Elop’s leadership was drop Symbian, its programming language, in favor of Microsoft’s mobile platform.

The success of that move will play out over time, but Elop’s belief in the virtues of curiosity is something that has stood the test of time. Many large organizations get stuffy inside and musty on the outside. Employees seem to spend more time going through the motions than seeing if the motions make sense. Churn replaces change.

Curiosity, by contrast, is the spark of wonderment that fuels creativity. It begins with questions like "why" and "what if?" It will not take a simple "no" for an answer, and it drives people to push for answers to questions they never knew existed. In my career, I have had the opportunity to work with a few genuinely curious people. It seemed that adulthood never squelched their curiosity gene as it has for so many adults.

The good news is that you can turn it back on with a little effort. Here are three suggestions for doing so:

1. Network outside your organization. Make a habit of attending industry and professional trade association gatherings. They are a good place to hear alternate points of view as well as exchange ideas with colleagues.

2. Immerse yourself outside your culture. Nokia was once widely praised for its marketing research. Its designers and engineers spent lots of time outside Finland, in places like New York and Los Angeles, to get a feel of what young people were doing, saying, wearing, and creating. Observations led the Nokia of the 1990s to become a trendsetter in mobile handsets.

3. Read, read, read. Keep abreast of the news and trends in your industry. But also expose yourself to fiction and drama as well as publications outside your field. And yes, you can get a great deal of such information in downloadable audio formats—suitable for listening on the commute to and from work.

Of course, curiosity has its limitations. The person who is always asking —why?" can turn into a nuisance, more like a 3-year-old who asks it as a matter of rote rather than as a matter of inquisition. Too much curiosity can lead to endless questioning that is as wearying as the staid culture it seeks to alter.

Curiosity will not add ballast to the balance sheet or solve all the vexing issues businesses face. But here is what it can do: energize your workforce. It can infuse a spirit of change that challenges people to think about what they could do differently. Not for the sake of change, but for the sake of the future.

As Walt Disney once said, "When you are curious, you find more and more interesting things to do."

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