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Cultivating Organizational Curiosity

Curiosity can be defined as a need, thirst, or desire for knowledge. It's also an attribute found in high performing organizations.

Several engineers from the public works department of a mid-sized city in the Netherlands were gathered in a small conference room. For centuries, their part of the country was renowned for its cleanliness. But the litter problem in the town square kept getting worse and worse.

It seemed no amount of signage, public admonition or enforcement activity could get the younger generation to use the numerous trash containers placed throughout the square. While some people were making the usual calls for stiffer penalties and more cleanup patrols, this group of engineers was looking for a better, less expensive solution.

After brainstorming for a few minutes, they wondered if there were ways to reward people for throwing trash in the containers. They toyed with a number of ideas, all of which ended up being impractical or too expensive. In jest, someone suggested that people could be rewarded with a joke if they used the containers. After a few minutes of building on this idea, they had invented a simple, inexpensive system that used a small chip on which were recorded a sequence of jokes. Each time the lid of the trash container swings open, the container tells the passers-by a short joke.

This little episode illustrates the deployment of a critically important attribute found in high performing organizations -- curiosity. Curiosity can be defined as a need, thirst, or desire for knowledge. It is the very engine of learning, and learning is what drives performance improvement.

Psychologists have written widely about curiosity as an individual trait. The capacity for curiosity appears to vary considerably from person to person. And, it appears to be a quality that can be cultivated and developed. Yet, we also need to cultivate organizational curiosity.

Organizational Curiosity Is Important

In the past, most public organizations were built around well-defined structures of hierarchy, law and rule -- or standard procedure -- guided behavior. Decisions were based on analysis, and work was defined by specified duties. The focus was on good administration.

While these characteristics are still present in most public organizations, things are changing. Increasing numbers of public organizations are moving toward more fluid and flexible structures; behavior is guided by clearly stated values, decisions are based (at least in part) on what could be, and work is defined by the results citizens want. The focus is on using available resources to satisfy government's customers.

The 20th century paradigm of bureaucracy was focused on meeting standards. Things were defined. Following the rules and thinking inside the box was rewarded. By contrast, the emerging paradigm of results-based organizations demands a never-ending quest for "a better way." Curiosity.

My premise is this: if yours is an organization challenged by fiscal constraints at the same time citizens are demanding more, if you want people to be coming up with new ideas and better ways to do things, and if you see your organization as learning and growing in its capacity to meet citizen needs, then you need organizational curiosity.

Building Curiosity

Here are four ideas for building curiosity in your organization.

Do something to create urgency. One way is to issue challenges that force people out of their set patterns. Remember the scene from Apollo XIII? The crew needs to build an adapter for their oxygen filter or they will suffocate. Back in Houston, the flight director dumps a variety of things, including duct tape and socks, on a table and tells his people, "This is what they have on board. Figure out how they can build the filter from these things." And, forced to be bizarrely curious, they succeed.

Set aside formal times for play. No, I'm not suggesting that you install a ping-pong table. Take 20 or 30 minutes each week to bring your team together to play with ideas for solving a problem. No analysis. No studies. No planning. No judgment. That's all for later. Just play with ideas. Do thought experiments together for a few minutes. Think frivolously. The best and fastest learners on the planet are children. They learn by play. Play fosters curiosity.

Flex your risk muscles. This concept comes from noted creativity guru Roger von Oech. In his best-seller "A Whack on the Side of the Head," von Oech suggests that you get your team to deliberately take one risk each week. Take a few minutes to share with each other the risks you took and what each of you learned. It's not about whether the risks work or not; its about the learning. Taking risks to try new things invites your organization to be curious.

Use measures to learn. Measuring outcomes has become an important aspect of high-performing organizations. Sometimes, however, measurable goals are used as a "gotcha" instead of as an opportunity to learn. In your organization, put as much emphasis on learning why you did or did not reach the goal as you do on achieving the goal itself. There is nothing more important to be curious about than results.

Here are some other little things you can do.

o Next time you hear yourself making a declarative statement about some work-related "reality," be curious about your assumptions. Are you sure they are valid?

o Next time you wish something could happen, give yourself 60 seconds to pursue your curiosity about how to make that wish come true.

o As often as possible, ask your colleagues, "What did you learn?"

o Next time you are revisiting a problem for a third or fourth time, set a deadline. It will bring out your curiosity.

o Start your next staff meeting with the question, "What could we do better?"

Your organization was deliberately designed to be not curious. The town square in the Netherlands remains pristine because someone in public works went out of his way to create the capacity to be curious. The times demand it.

Babak Armajani was a Governing contributor. He was the chair for the Public Strategies Group, where he and his partners focused on transforming bureaucracies into customer-focused enterprises.
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