Curiosity is Not Just for Killing Cats

A basic premise of much work on innovation today is that innovation is creativity applied to real-life problems. Creativity provides the spark of insight that is manifest in an innovative process or product. But there is another element at play in the process of innovation – curiosity.

In discussions of innovation, curiosity is typically given short shrift. Creativity is seen as the main force leading to innovation. Meanwhile, curiosity labors beneath the surface and without enough recognition. And since curiosity is not fully recognized, it is not sufficiently developed as an essential skill in the process of innovation.

Historically curiosity had a more elevated status. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.”  What is it about curiosity that makes it so significant, even if undervalued? Simply put, creativity and innovation are impossible without the natural inclination to be curious about one’s surroundings.

Leonardo da Vinci, certainly a “creative,” commented on the role of observation and curiosity in his life.   “I roamed the countryside searching for answers to things I did not understand. Why shells existed on the tops of mountains along with the imprints of coral and plants and seaweed usually found in the sea. Why the thunder lasts a longer time than that which causes it, and why immediately on its creation the lightning becomes visible to the eye while thunder requires time to travel. How the various circles of water form around the spot which has been struck by a stone, and why a bird sustains itself in the air. These questions and other strange phenomena engage my thought throughout my life.”

Observation and curiosity occur almost simultaneously. The act of observation is accompanied by the most basic question of the curious mind – “why?” And the question “why” leads to more precise examination. Observation and curiosity, in turn, lead to creative problem-solving designed to understand and to reshape the phenomena in new ways.

How might curiosity be advanced – short of our being touched by a fairy godmother? At the individual level, there are several things parents and teachers could do to help encourage curiosity in kids – all of which fall into the category of not squelching the natural curiosity of children.  1) Parents and educators should recognize the importance of encouraging the “why” questions as opposed to finding them annoying and shrugging them off to move on to other things. 2) Educational systems, with parental encouragement, could focus on open-ended learning goals rather than simply learning what the teacher prescribes (or what’s likely to be on the exam). 3) Teachers could allow more time for observation and curiosity as opposed to moving immediately toward problem-solving – especially rational problem-solving. “What’s the question” is often more important to answer than “What’s the solution?” Yet the latter seems to get more attention in homes and schools. But a pretty bright guy, Albert Einstein, described himself as exactly the opposite, saying “I have no special talent. I’m only passionately curious.”

At the organizational level, there are similar recommendations, again all designed to eliminate obstacles to our natural curiosity. 1) Replace impenetrable organizational silos with openness, transparency, and the sharing of ideas. By definition, curiosity cannot be constrained; it must be given breadth, perhaps even limitless breadth (though see the comments below on risk).  2) Build cross-functional and cross-disciplinary teams, where people bring different views to the table. NASA managers have commented on how the astronaut corps changed as it went from a group of test pilots who saw the world in very similar ways to a group of doctors, engineers, scientists, and teachers, each bringing different perspectives to their work.  3) Remove obstacles to collaboration. Often the most well-meaning regulations, performance management systems, and reporting mechanisms limit the possibility of people doing what’s most important to creativity and innovation – exercising curiosity together.

There is still one missing element, however. Carries with it risk – remember that curiosity killed the cat. A certain amount of risk is inevitably associated with curiosity. There is risk at the individual level, as curiously exploring dead-end paths or not connecting them with nearby outlets can result in limits on promotions, salary increases, and reputation. And at the organizational level putting too many resources into failed explorations can be very costly, again in many ways.  But for now I suspect that the problem is not too much curiosity and too much risk, but too little. Remember curiosity is not just for killing cats!

*With appreciation to Paul Danczyk for his insights and encouragement. Not a single cat was injured or killed in the production of this post.

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