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Leveraging Curiosity: How Asking Questions Drives Innovation and Success

In today’s dynamic business landscape, the only constant is change. Organizations must constantly evolve to stay ahead of competitors, meet evolving customer needs, and navigate emerging trends and disruptions. One of the most powerful ways for individuals and organizations to adapt and thrive is by cultivating a culture of curiosity. Through questioning assumptions, challenging long-held beliefs, and exploring new possibilities, curiosity drives innovation and unleashes creativity.


Today we will explore how leveraging curiosity can enhance individual and organizational performance.


Defining Curiosity

Before delving into how curiosity enhances work, it is important to define what curiosity is. Curiosity refers to a strong desire to know or learn something. It involves actively seeking out new information, experiences, and perspectives through asking questions (Loewenstein, 1994). Curiosity stems from the presence of psychological uncertainty or a "gap" in one's knowledge that prompts further inquiry (Litman & Spielberger, 2003). Research has found curiosity to be a natural human trait rooted in our evolutionary development that helped early humans adapt and survive (Loewenstein, 1994). While curiosity is an innate human characteristic, it can be consciously cultivated through practices that encourage open-mindedness, risk-taking, and exploration (Kashdan et al., 2018).


The Science Behind Curiosity

A growing body of research has explored the cognitive and psychological benefits of curiosity. Cognitively, curiosity helps our brains form new neural connections and strengthen existing ones, aiding in learning, memory formation, and problem-solving abilities (Loewenstein, 1994; Kashdan et al., 2018). Psychologically, curiosity is linked to higher levels of well-being, life satisfaction, resilience, creativity, and flow states (Kashdan et al., 2018; Litman & Jimerson, 2004). Curious individuals tend to perceive life's challenges and uncertainties as opportunities rather than threats. They are more adaptable to change and better able to cope with failure or setbacks (Litman, 2008).


Research has also found strong links between curiosity and performance. In a study of 203 employees across various industries, curiosity levels correlated with subjective ratings of job performance from supervisors (Welker et al., 2020). Curious individuals tend to persist longer on difficult tasks, absorb and retain knowledge more effectively, and think more divergently to solve problems (Litman, 2008; Engel, 2011). This improved ability to learn, adapt, and innovate gives curious individuals an advantage in today's fast-paced work environments.


Cultivating Curiosity in the Workplace

With an understanding of curiosity's cognitive and performance benefits, organizations are increasingly recognizing its value. Leaders can foster a culture of curiosity through practices that encourage questioning, exploration, and risk-taking. Some effective strategies include:


  • Encouraging question-asking: Leaders model curiosity by openly asking questions and seeking others' perspectives. They create psychologically safe environments where employees feel comfortable questioning assumptions without fear of repercussion.

  • Promoting exposure to novelty: Organizations provide opportunities for employees to take on new roles, broaden their networks, and interact with customers/clients to gain fresh insights. Rotating job responsibilities exposes individuals to new problems and fields of knowledge.

  • Celebrating mistakes: Rather than punishing failures, organizations frame mistakes and unintended outcomes as opportunities to learn. Employees are encouraged to experiment and take calculated risks.

  • Focusing on continuous learning: Through training programs, conferences, certifications or rotations to different departments, organizations signal that developing new skills and knowledge is valued.

  • Creating learning agendas: Leaders work with direct reports to establish personalized learning agendas focused on knowledge and skill gaps. Progress is reviewed regularly to keep learning top of mind.

  • Assigning stretch projects: Challenging new projects that require learning new skills help satisfy individuals' curiosity and lead to personal and professional growth.


When these practices are authentically embedded in an organization's culture and normal work processes, they nurture a spirit of discovery and fuel innovation.


Applying Curiosity in Action

While theoretical research provides valuable insights, practical examples bring the concept of leveraging curiosity to life. The following section explores how specific organizations have consciously applied curiosity-focused strategies to drive business results.


Google: Google is renowned for cultivating an outwardly curious culture focused on continuous learning and experimentation. All employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time on "moonshot" projects of personal interest. This supports intrinsic curiosity and often leads to new product ideas (Heath, 2018). Google also leverages curiosity through its "Googlegeist" employee engagement survey. Rather than solely measuring satisfaction, it probes deeper desires around autonomy, mastery, and purpose to uncover new organizational opportunities (Heath, 2018). By tapping into employees' curiosity, Google has unlocked tremendous innovation.


3M: At industrial products giant 3M, 15% of employee time and resources can be spent on self-directed projects. This longstanding policy, known as the "15% Rule", has fueled the development of Post-it notes, Scotchgard, and other billion-dollar products through playful experimentation (Roy, 2020). To sustain a culture of questions, 3M leaders sponsor informal "tech forums" where scientists openly share works-in-progress to generate new ideas through respectful peer feedback (Gino & Staats, 2015). 3M's curiosity-driven culture has produced over 60,000 patented inventions.


General Electric (GE): Under former CEO Jack Welch, GE became a model for applying curiosity to gain competitive advantage. Welch encouraged executives to ask provocative questions at all levels, challenge norms fearlessly, and treat problems as opportunities (Myatt, 2018). As a result, an "ideas pipeline" emerged across divisions to share discoveries and accelerate innovations. Leaders like Welch also role modeled curiosity through regular "work-outs" - visiting customer sites and grilling frontline staff for new ideas (Myatt, 2018). By cultivating pervasive inquisitiveness, GE transformed industries and its organizational capabilities.


Fika Coffee, Seattle: Even small businesses can harness curiosity. In Seattle, the founder of specialty coffee shop Fika applied curiosity principles by establishing an inclusive culture where all staff, from baristas to managers, freely proposed new ideas. A suggestion box welcomed questions and initiatives on anything from drinks to community outreach. Curiosity was also fostered through weekly tastings of unusual coffees to broaden taste profiles and spark unusual drink combinations appealing to adventurous customers. Six years later, Fika has grown to five locations based on innovative offerings driven by a curiosity-led spirit of experimentation.


Conclusion

In uncertain times, curiosity emerges as an essential leadership competency and organizational capability. By cultivating an environment where questions are welcomed and exploration is rewarded, leaders empower individuals and teams to adapt continuously, solve complex problems creatively, and discover new opportunities. The research clearly shows how curiosity strengthens cognitive functioning, drives better decision-making, and improves performance outcomes. Yet ultimately, curiosity is about more than metrics - it fosters innovation, resilience, purpose and fulfillment at work. As technology rapidly transforms industries and shifts social landscapes, maintaining an inquisitive mindset will be critical for organizations to evolve, connect knowledge gaps, and envision new possibilities. By leveraging curiosity throughout their cultures and processes, today’s most progressive leaders and organizations secure relevance and competitive advantage for the future.


References

  • Engel, S. (2011). Children's need to know: Curiosity in schools. Harvard Educational Review, 81(4), 625-645.

  • Gino, F., & Staats, B. (2015). Why organizations don’t learn. Harvard Business Review, 93(11), 26.

  • Heath, C. (2018, January 22). How Google builds team creativity. https://www.researchgate.net/blog/post/how-google-builds-team-creativity

  • Kashdan, T. B., Galliher, R. V., & Gratz, L. E. (2018). Doing good and feeling good: An approach-avoidance analysis of prosocial behavior. Journal of personality, 86(4), 525-538.

  • Litman, J. A. (2008). Interest and deprivation factors of epistemic curiosity. Personality and individual differences, 44(7), 1585-1595.

  • Litman, J. A., & Jimerson, T. L. (2004). The measurement of curiosity as a feeling of deprivation. Journal of personality assessment, 82(2), 147-157.

  • Litman, J. A., & Spielberger, C. D. (2003). Measuring epistemic curiosity and its diversive and specific components. Journal of Personality Assessment, 80(1), 75-86.

  • Loewenstein, G. (1994). The psychology of curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychological bulletin, 116(1), 75.

  • Myatt, M. (2018, November 21). Jack Welch, curiosity and leadership. https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikemyatt/2018/11/21/jack-welch-curiosity-and-leadership/?sh=4c1073e62c34

  • Roy, A. (2020, June 28). The 3M philosophy of innovation through ‘calculated curiosity’. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/28/3m-philosophy-of-innovation-through-calculated-curiosity.html

  • Welker, A., Carrabba, C., & Owens, B. P. (2020). Epistemic curiosity as a predictor of job performance. Journal of occupational and organizational psychology, 93(3), 687-715.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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