Today, most savvy business leaders would say they understand and appreciate inquisitive minds. In fact, 83% believe they encourage curiosity “a great deal” or “a good amount” at their companies. That said, only about half of employees agree. What could be the source of that disconnect? One possibility is the difference between simply asking questions and cultivating deliberate curiosity.
For instance, I’ve got a toddler who’s constantly asking questions. Right now, she loves to ask, “What does this taste like?” And sure, it’s an interesting question. But it doesn’t get you any closer to your quarterly financial objectives.
Deliberate curiosity, on the other hand, is about asking three very specific questions that can speed up your growth and achieve those pie-in-the-sky goals. In my experience, cultivating deliberate curiosity begins with habitually delving into some essential questions:
1. What are your blind spots?
As humans, we all have gaps in how we see the world. For example, did you know that most people don’t breathe correctly? It’s true! The majority of us walk (or sit) around breathing in a way that negatively impacts our sleep, our mood, our digestive system, our cardiovascular system, and so much more. And yet we assume, just because no one has told us otherwise, that we’ve got this whole breathing thing down.
Those gaps in perception can unwittingly create similar negative effects on our business lives. For instance, in my role as an innovation consultant, I often interview my clients’ past customers or prospects to ask why they left. A majority of the time, the customers’ answers don’t match what company leaders thought they’d be.
So the question becomes, how can you identify when you’re making assumptions vs. when you have all the information you need? For me, the key is identifying surprising feedback whether I’m talking to employees or customers. A lot of innovation and growth opportunities with quick-win potential will come from seeking out these opinions.
2. How will you know what’s not working?
It’s hard to kill your darlings in business, especially when you really believe in what you’re offering. I have a name for initiatives that take more time and effort to put on than the value they create for your company: “zombies.” Axing the zombie products and services that aren’t delivering results allows you to reallocate your limited resources to bigger and better ideas. Still, it can be scary to start over, so many leaders end up convincing themselves that they don’t have the time.
This reminds me of an old cartoon: Two men are trying to push a cart full of rocks along a path, but their cart is fitted with square wheels, and they’re having trouble moving forward. Another man approaches and suggests testing out round wheels, but the others brush him off, insisting they don’t have time for new ideas. In the same way, you may be spending a lot of time and effort that could be repurposed in better ways. So create space for deliberate curiosity by asking yourself, “Is this a zombie?”—and having the courage to change things up if you need to.
In 2018, Coca-Cola executives set off on a mission to identify their zombie products and eliminate them. They defined zombies as offerings that hadn’t grown in the past three years. Coca-Cola eliminated nearly 130 underperforming SKUs in a single region, and it didn’t stop there. Zombie hunting has become a quarterly practice, and in the first half of 2019, the soft drink giant phased out over 275 products.
3. How do you create accountability?
Accountability forces us to be curious. Take professional athletes: They are peak performers in the top 1% of their industry, and yet you would be hard-pressed to find a professional athlete without a coach or multiple coaches. Why is that? Coaches are like personified curiosity. They help identify blind spots, find what’s not working, and think of new creative experiments to try. They hold the athletes accountable for constant improvement and achieving new levels.
And you don’t need a personal coach to reap all the benefits. You can create a similar level of accountability with your team by holding regular after-action reviews (known as “AARs”) on projects to identify opportunities to improve whether the projects are going well or not.
AARs were first developed as a learning tool by the U.S. Army to help soldiers improve after combat training exercises. Just like professional athletes, they understood the need to review what had happened afterward to tease out the lessons learned. In a similar fashion, your team would be well suited to schedule regularly occurring AARs to review important projects. Think of these meetings as scheduled curiosity.
It’s easy to say, “We should all be curious.” But deliberate curiosity is about dedicating time to that exploration. So that means putting time on your calendar to talk with customers and employees, to uncover blind spots, reflect on what’s going well, and brainstorm on how you can further improve.