I’m going to do something a little different this week. I’m going to use the entire blog to give a blow-by-blow response to a podcast I listened to a couple of days ago that was tremendously inspiring and triggered many ideas within me.
First, a direct link, for those who would like to listen along: https://audio.hbr.org/ideacast/20181009152347-episode_651_gino.mp3
In 2011, Clara Ma won a competition put on by NASA to name its third Mars Rover.
“People get annoyed by how many questions I ask”, the then-11-year-old says.
This reminded me of another idea I had heard earlier this year. That as we grow older, in school, we are rewarded more for having answers than for having questions. I recalled memories I hadn’t really delved into in years, in studying the trees in my backyard with my mom. As a person who became an artist, I like to shock people by telling them my parents were scientists. But then I quickly follow up with stories of my grandmother taking me to Broadway plays, of my mom changing careers mid-stream to design jewelry. That’s why I turned out so creative, I tell people.
But not one minute into this podcast, I have a realization that ties my art career to my MBA experience and my professional desires more clearly than ever previously. Maybe I wasn’t just creative.
Maybe I was curious.
Let’s introduce this person. Francesca Gino.
She wrote this article.
She notes that curiosity peaks at the age of 4 or 5 but then declines from there. She talks about her children and how the questioning never ends. “Why is the sky blue?” She tells a story about how she encourages, rather then shuts down, her children. 6 am in the kitchen – opening up cabinets, making a mess. But now she joins in, in the exploration, asking them questions.
First, of all, way to parent Francesca! But secondly, I have yet another epiphany. What a tragedy this is. What a challenge we have as humans that the thing that advances our society, that makes us special, is something we start losing so young. I think about how I have been interested in trying to help others be better empathetic listeners, at various points in my life, most recently in developing a prototype for a worksheet in my class with Ideo U. I think about an exercise we had at the orientation for the UC Davis Graduate School of Management. How we were supposed to listen to our partner and only respond with prompt questions of “Who, What, Where, Why, and How” to help them dive deeper into a topic.
And it hit me. The only word that matters (OK slight overstatement but go with me here) for an empathetic listener is… WHY. In my own frustrations in conversations in which I don’t feel listened to, I was never able to put my finger on what would bother me. It’s WHY. Why helps us understand. Why gives the gift of allowing a person to dive deeper. Why allows them to explore uncharted territory. Why encourages the thing we are slowly losing. Curiosity.
If you are someone who would like to be a better listener, try something next time. Be a three year old. Just keep asking why.
She aligns her fear that her children would make a mess with the worries leaders have that they will make a mess. “You have to be willing to clean up the salt”, Curt Nickisch responds. New life quote. Thanks Curt!
We are learning about “opportunity costs” in my Microeconomics class taught by Brett Saraniti. In essence, this is the loss of a potential gain in other alternatives when you choose to invest in something. Gino talks about how “costly” it is to shut down curiosity. She talks about Intuit, and how it gives failure awards that give important learning opportunities to the team. The employees even get a failure party. It made me think of Intel (come on, they are similar names, easy jump) who came in and gave us our first “case competition” during orientation. I can tell you first hand that they had inquisitive, satisfied employees. We were abuzz with dreams of interning there after they left. If you measure the cost of lack of curiosity by whether or not MBA students are excited about working at your company… well, I think it’s a halfway decent measure, is it not?
She points out how curiosity is not talked about as often as creativity and innovation. Bingo. But it is KEY to creativity and innovation. So instead of fostering creativity and innovation in your organization, foster curiosity. Not everyone can just be innovative. But we can all be curious. I wonder, if you have been worrying about this in your own MBA journey, what would happen if you boil it down to asking “why” more often.
“I’m much more likely to ask questions” is an outcome she mentions. Bingo. But she crystalizes it further. “I’m much more open to a different view on the same task or problems”, she notes. Curiosity allows us to have a more open mind towards finding a solution. It makes us better at taking others perspectives and encourages us to see how someone can have a different viewpoint. It improves our decision making.
Putting on my “systems thinking” hat here, which I am prone to do, Gino is not just proposing a solution to making companies more effective, she’s got the world on a string. I get my progressive education now. Wow. Thank you Park School of Baltimore. Thank you all my teacher friends fighting to encourage better citizens of humanity. What would happen if we were all encouraged to see how people can have a different viewpoint?
There is no evidence that when you allow curiosity to stay alive in organizations, efficiency becomes an issue. The notion of “curiosity killed the cat” is raised, or more accurately the embarrassing humorous image of a cat with a tissue box on its head is pointed out.
As I’ve noted in my podcast previously, we had an opportunity to decide what animal we were in orientation, and what animal a partner was. Cats were often mentioned for their laconic-ness, their even-keel, independent nature. For being hunters and going after what they wanted. Curiosity was pretty much ignored. Small but powerful nugget there about what we are encouraged to value in each other.
“Yes, and.” OK, Francesca. You have my heart now. For anyone from a performance background, those words ring loud and strong. It’s what you learn in your first improv class, the core concept of creating a new world from scratch.
The idea is that to build a world you have to accept and agree with whatever your partner decides to be true. Disagreement becomes immediately confusing. If I say “that was a good game of catch, Dad” and you say “but I’m not your dad, I’m your sister, and that wasn’t a baseball, but a penguin”… sure that’s funny at the moment, but what the heck do I say next. If you say “thanks, and I’m so glad your Mom finally mowed the lawn so we had room”, that sets up some funny potential for my partner as to where the scene could go next and gives more information to play with.
But what she points out about all of this is it starts with a point of acceptance. Then she brings up Pixar. One of my dream organizations. What are you doing to me Francesca!! She says they call it “plussing.” Build on top of each other’s ideas. Don’t shut down exploration before it begins.
I also like to refer to improv as we experiment with working in teams at the GSM. I brought up an idea a few weeks ago about choosing team leaders, and whether you should have a top-down approach in teams or a collaborative approach. The thing that I love about improv is that every choice that is made is in service to the team. Someone has to step out first. But you don’t do it because you think you are the best or you deserve to lead. You do it because… in order for the team to succeed, someone has to. And then someone has to step out next because, in order for the team to succeed, you need someone to talk to. Every step, including leadership choices, are in service to the team.
Aaaaannnddd… I’m going to leave it here. I have homework to do. And if you have read this far, I applaud you and imagine you probably are interested enough to listen to the podcast now, if you haven’t already. I left about half of it for you to take in on your own.
Thanks, Harvard Business Review, and Francesca Gino. Hope this blow-by-blow wasn’t a little much. I appreciate you all helping me process my thoughts here, and do also hope it was useful to someone out there in good ol’ cyberspace.