Creating the conditions for curiosity

February 18, 2021
Curiosity is the very thing that pushes us forward through life, driving us to learn more and develop ourselves. But how do you encourage people to be more curious?

Curiosity is the very thing that pushes us forward through life, driving us to learn more and develop ourselves. By creating environments that foster, stimulate and encourage curiosity, organisations can reap the rewards of bigger and better ideas. But how do you encourage people to be more curious?

Central to the development of curiosity is the act of asking questions

You may have children, or have encountered children, who repeatedly ask 'why' something is the way it is. We are all born inherently curious, and we spend much of our early life questioning our environment in order to learn how to function effectively within it.

Yet by the time we reach adulthood we have often forgotten our natural tendency to question everything. Our experiences at school can be viewed as partly responsible for this as we are taught that there is a 'right' and a 'wrong' way of doing things. Commentators such as Sir Ken Robinson have even gone as far as to ask whether schools kill creativity.But schools cannot be held entirely responsible for extinguishing our natural curiosity. To be human means to live in a community and a society in which there are rules, with consequences for breaking them.

And yet some of the most creative thinking happens when we are curious about why these rules have come into existence. Asking 'why' is often one most powerful ways to change the status quo, rather than just accepting it.

Organisations are beginning to understand that some of the most innovative ideas emerge when employees are encouraged to question accepted working practices and consider alternatives. Three key ways to achieve this are 1) through storytelling, 2) by changing the environment, and 3) by allowing employees more autonomy.

Encourage storytelling

Humans are social creatures. Before we developed the ability to write, we passed information to each other using stories. One reason why stories are such a powerful way to encourage curiosity is that they require us to use our imagination, both to tell the story and to understand it.In organisations, storytelling can help employees learn about other areas of the business. Providing opportunities for employees to tell their stories, both in person and online, encourages others to take an interest in their area. This can help stronger ties to develop between employees, and these relationships form the basis of a strong internal network. The conversations that happen across this network are the creative engine of the organisation, a powerhouse of ideas and inspiration fuelled by the stories of those working within it.

Change the environment

The average office tends not to have been designed with creativity in mind. Many organisations are still built according to an industrial model informed by a mentality of production lines where the work is valued more highly than the people doing it.Now picture an early or pre-school classroom, an environment where creativity is actively encouraged. There will most likely be pictures in the wall, coloured pencils and pens, different types of paper and card, all designed to stimulate ideation and creative thinking. As Teresa Amabile notes, 'creativity depends on the right people working in the right environment'.

What happens between kindergarten and the office? It seems that as we move through school and into work our environments gradually force us to stop making a creative mess, face the front, sit in isolation at our own desk, work between fixed start and end points, and sit in the same space almost every day.

New ideas are sparked when we enter different physical spaces, and different types of work also lend themselves to different environments. There are times when we need to work in isolation, but equally there are times when we would benefit from sofas and soft furnishings, or being surrounded with coloured paper and glitter.Understanding and educating ourselves about how our environment affects our work is essential if we want to create the conditions in which feel more inclined to be curious.

Allow more autonomy

Telling people what to do is a sure fire way to dampen their curiosity. But simply not telling them what to do can lead them to be unproductive and demotivated. So how can we encourage autonomy?

The key is through effective questioning. Instead of telling employees what to do, ask them what they should be doing and allow them to set their own rules. By allowing them to ask more questions they will develop a more personal understanding of how their work aligns directly with the organisation's aims, and are likely to be more motivated and engaged as a result. As Dan Pink observes, 'traditional notions of management are great if you want compliance. But if you want engagement, self-direction works better'.It's not easy, as many of us have had our curiosity crushed by years of being told what to do and how to do it, both at school and at work. But to truly engage people it is necessary to reignite our curiosity by helping us to question what makes us get out of bed and go to work every day.

By allowing us greater autonomy over what we do, and over how and where we do it, we are obliged to be curious and flex our own decision-making muscles.

Storytelling, environment and autonomy therefore constitute three powerful steps to developing a creative mindset. Nurturing a culture of curiosity requires leaders and managers to move away from a model of management based on control, and towards one where employees are trusted - and encouraged - to share their stories and ask questions in a creative environment.

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