Ma Yun and friends were googling for beer when he realised he could not find Chinese beer. It prompted him to create a home page in Chinese. Within five hours of posting the page, he got five emails from various countries, including from the US and Germany. The power of the Net world surprised him, which he harnessed towards building Alibaba.
On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers, with no formal engineering training defied gravity with their manned airplane flights, ushering in the era of flight. After seeing how apples always fall straight to the ground, Issac Newton spent several years working on the mathematics showing that the force of gravity decreased as the inverse square of the distance.
If we look at some of thsee best moments of innovation in life or in business, one characteristic stands out. They were curious. They did not start out with an end goal in mind. They were just curious. Once piqued, they kept exploring these things which interested them. Often, these were if unrelated topics. In the end, the pieces that came together and bore fruit.
In today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment, where no one knows what may around the corner and what the next big things could be, curiosity is a key quality leaders and corporations need to have, to pull ahead of the pack.
Curiosity knits the lattice. Louis Mobley, founder of the IBM Executive School in 1956, says curious people share one trait: an inexhaustible curiosity on everything from “NATO to Plato.” The more they learned the more connections they saw… from history, psychology, philosophy, science, literature, and poetry that produced their greatest creative business insights. What we dismiss as irrelevant and therefore uninteresting a genius like Jobs sees as pieces in an unfolding interwoven jig saw puzzle. Pieces to be continually sifted until the piece that fits the problem finally emerges.” In the business world, the Jack Mas and the Steve Jobs cobbled together the bits of information they had chased after and pieced it all together to create a products and service experiences.
Executives agree on the importance of curiosity. In a 2015 PwC survey (http://www.pwc.com/gx/en/ceo-survey/) of more than 1,000 CEOs, a number of them cited “curiosity” and “open-mindedness” as leadership traits that are becoming increasingly critical in these challenging times. Curious leaders are more open to new experiences, more tolerant of ambiguity and more likely to nurture curiosity in their organisations. Ho Kwon Ping, SMU Chairman, when asked at a recent ST Forum on Education, agreed that curiosity is a critical leadership capability in the 21st century economy.
Yet it is lacking. According to MERCK's 2016 State of Curiosity Report (https://curiosity.emdgroup.com/curiosity-report): 80% of workers agree that while curious colleagues are most likely to bring ideas to life, yet only 20% of workers actually self-identify as being curious.
Most companies will argue that their corporations do not lack programmes to encourage innovation or funds for innovation projects. However, it is not enough to rely on external programmes, if your team has not been taught to think like innovators. There is a lot written about the culture of curiosity. I venture that such culture has to start from the top. Leaders lead by example. This critical capability, leadership curiosity comprises three key components: self-curiosity, interpersonal curiosity and business curiosity.
It starts with the self-curiosity, that desire, even obsession, to find out more. At 13, Jack Ma, woke up at give 5am, walked to Shangri-La hotel to chat with tourists and take them sightseeing. That was how he learnt to speak English. He did this for nine years, learning along the way, Western ways of doing things. When he started studying calligraphy and the practice of Zen Buddhism, Steve Jobs had no idea it would lead to the fonts or the design simplicity of Apple computers. He was only being curious.
Personal curiosity is crucial to success because a naturally curious person is more likely to learn from mistakes, try new things, explore new ideas, engage more deeply, be more adaptable, take risks and embrace change.
A leader must also be curious about others. This interpersonal curiosity is the desire to learn about other people, including their life experiences and their thoughts and motives. When you are curious about what your customer is experiencing, even when they are unhappy or angry, you learn how to more effectively solve customer related problems. You learn how to make your product or service better, what systems are needed to serve your customers more effectively and even new ways to reach your customers. Perhaps most importantly, your customer walks away from the exchange feeling heard.
Unfortunately, often what happens to leaders, once they’ve attained a position of leadership, they may feel the need to project confident expertise. They are afraid or seeming ignorant or incompetent, A truly curious leader is humble enough to acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, says: “We run this company on questions, not answers.” The Director-General of BBC goes to every meeting with employees and starts with the question: “What is one thing I could do to make things better for you?” Only when the leader is himself curious, can the employee or team also start to dare to reach beyond their stated scope.
A truly curious leader engenders business curiosity throughout his organisation. He knows that curiosity drives learning and innovation, or the company will stagnate or die. Staying curious about your customers also helps you stay on top of your customers’ changing needs and desires. If you want to lead the curve in your industry, your customers’ comments are the best place to mine new ideas.
Companies need an innovation budget, a maverick team and a culture of learning - which is not premised on success, and which is committed to exploring ideas, no matter how absurd.
Such companies recognise that employees who, deeply immersed in their daily jobs, are the best persons to spot weaknesses in the system, and suggest ways to make it better. Such companies recognise the worth of the newbie, who comes into the system with new eyes rather than write them off as being too junior and too far down the rank and file to be able to contribute.
An example of an exceptionally curious leader is the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who embodies all three components of leadership curiosity. Mr Heng Swee Keat, his former Principal Private Secretary shares that the Mr Lee had a red box which: “carried a wide range of items. It could be communications with foreign leaders, observations about the financial crisis, instructions for the Istana grounds staff, or even questions about some trees he had seen on the expressway. Mr Lee was well-known for keeping extremely alert to everything he saw and heard around him - when he noticed something wrong, like an ailing raintree, a note in the red box would follow. We could never anticipate what Mr Lee would raise - it could be anything that was happening in Singapore or the world. But we could be sure of this: it would always be about how events could affect Singapore and Singaporeans, and how we had to stay a step ahead. Inside the red box was always something about how we could create a better life for all.”
The Committee on Future Economy (CFE) vision for Singapore reiterates this: "for us to be the pioneers of the next generation... our people should have deep skills and be inspired to learn throughout their lives. Our businesses should be innovative and nimble. Our city vibrant, connected to the world, and continually renewing itself, and our Government coordinated, inclusive and responsive.”
For country, corporation or self, the being curious may be the tie-breaker on how our lives will pan out.
About the author
Assoc Prof Tan Joo Seng is an associate professor of management at Nanyang Business School, NTU. He is currently working on a new research collaboration with Kings College London to develop and validate an original Leadership Curiosity Scale (LCS) to assess leadership curiosity.
This commentary was published in Transfin on 29 October 2018.