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Lack of curiosity kills innovation

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"Curiosity killed the cat", says an English proverb: excessive curiosity can be dangerous. However, the more I have worked with various efforts to foster successful innovation in the public sector, the more I have come to realise that insufficient curiosity is at least as dangerous. In fact, it is so dangerous that it often causes efforts at innovation in the public sector to fail.

As with so much else, it is not a realisation I formulated first myself; one of my employees did so. We were about to start a project in which one of the absolutely key people in the partner organisation did not want to allow either its users or his own employees to be involved in the process. There may have been good reasons for this, but it was to a great extent a premise of our participation. We had intense discussions about whether it was a job in which we could nonetheless succeed. It is never pleasant to have to stop a project almost before it gets going. And it is fair enough that one may be concerned about what will be unleashed if employees and users are to be involved and brought into play in new ways. But at one point in the conversation, my colleague hit the nail on the head: "I really think we could manage this, were it not for his complete lack of curiosity."

"What could be crazier?"

The challenge for most large organisations – private and public – are the constraints on curiosity. Clear and well-researched answers, strategies and decisions are required; one can rarely justify an initiative on the grounds of “doing it because we are curious”.

But curiosity is crucial for an organisation’s growth. This has been known ever since 1991, when renowned organisation researcher James March indicated that organisations must balance exploitation (use of resources) with exploration (searching for new possibilities). Curiosity implies asking questions such as "How can it be?”, "How could we?" or “What if?". Curiosity is thus not only oriented towards gaining new insights; it is future-oriented and thus a central driving force in the creation of new solutions.

In my own research on public sector managers’ use of design methods I continually come across statements revolving around curiosity. Take a public sector manager in the welfare area, within municipal “meals on wheels” services who insists on asking employees why they have a quite specific process when they come through the door to visit senior citizens. The manager goes into detail and asks why they say what they say, why the order of their actions is as it is, and what this must mean for the citizens’ service experience. Or consider a school administrator who in a workshop on digital learning persists in asking "What more could we do? What could be even crazier?”.

Even more basic than the examples I have given here is that managers who are good at fostering new thinking in their organisations continuously try to question their own assumptions. They are quite simply curious as to whether the perception they have of the world now also holds true. They are ready to create a space where their assumptions may be challenged - including by their own employees. As a third public sector manager I interviewed said about the experience of letting employees themselves drive an innovation project: “It was a loss of control, but it was a positive loss of control”.

The collaborator whom my colleague and I debated whether we could work with was not ready to live with that kind of loss of control. 

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  1. Comment by Chris Barrett posted on

    Thanks Christian, very thought-provoking. I have a question for you - or maybe other readers will have views?
    People sometimes claim they don't have time to be curious, because they're already so busy. I agree with your point that organisations need to be curious in order to innovate and grow; but what practical strategies have worked for you to convince people it's worth investing their time in being curious, rather than just carrying on with the same old approaches?


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