3 Tips for Encouraging Curiosity at Work

Encourage Curiosity at Work

There’s a reason why the saying “curiosity killed the cat” has stuck around. Not all cultures or workplaces welcome curiosity as a path toward innovation. Some see it as questioning orthodoxy or stirring up trouble.

But asking questions to uncover new problems and drive your thinking is a critical step toward achieving innovation. So how do we bridge the gap between those two competing perspectives?

That is a question that’s been top of mind lately for Jane Fulton Suri, IDEO Partner Emeritus and Executive Design Director.

“Curiosity has always been a hallmark of the way I approached the world, so I think I took a lot of things for granted,” she shared with IDEO U Dean Suzanne Gibbs Howard in a recent Creative Confidence Series conversation.

From Jane’s personal experience studying under a master woodblock carver in Japan and realizing “my curiosity was not a particularly appropriate thing to be giving voice to in that context” to recognized cultural concepts like the “tall poppy syndrome,” asking questions can ruffle feathers or incite defensiveness, even when the intention is pure.

To open the door to more fruitful and courageous curiosity—and creativity, in turn—we must actively create space for it at work. Start with Jane’s three tips for encouraging more curiosity on your team.

Tips to Spur Curiosity

Change the Environment

A simple change of space can do a lot to free up inhibitions and release people from the customs and norms associated with their typical office environment. Try an offsite location, like a coworking space or cafe, or meet in an unconventional space like a yoga studio, garden, or museum.

Analogous experiences are another way to spur curiosity through a change of environment. On a project with a bicycle company, Jane says the team’s curiosity about their own customers’ shopping experience was enabled by a visit to a beauty store, a customer experience none of them were familiar with.

If nothing else, choose a different meeting room than your usual go-to spot or move the chairs and tables to create a different feel in the space. Experiencing newness together can help bond a team. “It’s leveling the playing field between people,” Jane says. “They’re all in the same level of discomfort.”

Shift Your Perspective

Looking at the same challenge from a new point of view can help your team get curious, too. Take a project Jane worked on for a retail company to create a shopping experience for kids. They handed out 3-foot tape measures to adults and told them to look at the store from the eye level of a child.

That simple shift led to new insights because “changing perspective then just opens up a whole lot of new questions, which is what we’re trying to do with curiosity—question what we’ve always looked at.”

On an even smaller level, a shift in perspective can look like questioning an ingrained habit or unconscious action. Like drying off after a shower, pause to think about why you did so in a certain way. Or at work, it could be why you use a certain agenda for a recurring meeting and what would happen if you changed it up. Jane writes about the insights buried in these everyday actions in her book “Thoughtless Acts? Observations on Intuitive Design.”

Build Psychological Safety and Trust

For people to feel comfortable asking questions at work, they have to feel like their team understands their motivations (to learn and improve, not doubt or put down) and shares the same goals. As a leader, modeling your own vulnerability goes a long way toward building a foundational layer of trust that taking risks or being wrong will be supported and not punished.

Jane suggests sharing stories of times you did something wrong or had a misunderstanding. The point is to establish that “we’re in the space of not knowing, or being wrong, or maybe a little foolish or risky.”

Try to shift the mindset of your team from one of work, where we’re often conditioned to avoid failure, to one of play, where taking risks, being imaginative, and guessing are the name of the game.

“Everybody remembers the experience of play,” Jane says. Signal that this is a moment of fun for your team by using props or doing a hands-on activity, an atypical experience in most office environments.

Learn more ways to fuel your curiosity in Jane’s online course Insights for Innovation.

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