“Holding a curious mindset is a great starting point when you're leading your team or organization. If you're in a truly new space, you won't always know the answers. Your team won't either. You're going to venture into the unknown together. Curiosity is a great way to lead that charge.”
–Tim Brown, IDEO CEO
As leaders, we tend to rush to solve problems. After all, we became leaders by deciphering these puzzles, especially when others couldn’t. But often, we start reaching for solutions too quickly. When we go after complex, systemic challenges, we need to leave space for greater exploration.
So as a leader, how can you take a step back and get curious? And how can you build curiosity on your team? It starts with daily practices that allow us to seek and find inspiration everywhere—not just when we’re searching for it.
Here are 6 techniques you can use to explore with curiosity:
1. Seek inspiration
Inspiration is the fire that keeps teams seeking, building, and pushing—it prevents them from getting complacent or bored. Seek it out by looking beyond obviously-related contexts, fields, and networks. Consider both how you’re approaching problems and what you’re working on. For example, who—individual, company, or even country—is working on a similar problem in a radically different way, and who is working in a radically different problem in a similar way?
Conduct analogous research to test out experiences that might lead to insights. When one of our teams was researching safety in the operating room—a place where speed and communication are key—they headed to the racetrack to observe a Nascar pit crew changing tires. Though a race track is significantly different from the sterile environment of the OR, speed and safety are key in both environments.
If discovering inspiration provides the kindling, creating moments for cross-pollination within your team will supply the spark. Ask your team to come to a meeting armed with a piece of inspiration that excites them. Sharing it together can help you find links and patterns that can lead to your design solution.
“Inspiration is the fire that keeps teams seeking, building, and pushing—it prevents them from getting complacent or bored.”
2. Adopt a beginner’s mindset
Expertise and experience are valuable assets. But they can be roadblocks to making new leaps because of their strong connection to what is and what has been. At IDEO, we try to check our own misconceptions, stereotypes, and biases, and approach a challenge with fresh eyes—so much so that we balance our project teams with newbies who are unfamiliar with the field or problem.
Consider the story of the Polaroid Instant Camera. The idea came when the founder’s four-year-old daughter asked one simple question: Why do we have to wait for photos? In our own project work with Sephora, we made sure to bring a beginner’s mindset by including men on the team. We sent them to try on makeup and figure out what about the experience made them feel good. As you work on your own projects, keep asking why—especially when you think you know the answer.
3. Challenge your assumptions
Assumptions guide the way we think, our ability to generate new ideas, and the filters we use when weighing whether to share those ideas. They can be a serious creativity block. When your team gets stuck, start asking two key questions—“why” and “what if”—to fuel curiosity:
Why is this the way it is? Why do we do it this way?
Asking “why” will help you better understand the beliefs or rules behind previous decisions, the way you work now, and the way you look at the world. This question will flip your curiosity inward, so that you can stretch the way you think. (Example: People won’t get into a car with a stranger. Why? We’re suspicious of strangers.)
What if this barrier didn’t exist? What if we were totally wrong?
Asking “what if” flips the curiosity outward. “What if” sets the context by giving your team permission to explore. What if our assumption is false? What might the world, our company, or our relationships look like?
Remember that as a leader, your opinions may come off as rule of law, even when you’re just brainstorming. Ask your team to prove your ideas wrong, and let them know that you genuinely want their perspectives. Joe Gerber, Managing Director of IDEO's CoLab frequently ask the question of his team, "what assumptions have to be true for this new business to work?" He then works with the team to prioritize the assumptions and build experimental prototypes to learn if they hold true or not.
“When we go after complex, systemic challenges, we need to leave space for greater exploration.”
4. Frame problems as questions
Questions are a critical component of setting strategic priorities and directions. Whether you’re starting a strategic initiative, or looking to elevate the way you accomplish your daily tasks, try framing your project with the phrase, “How might we…” It’s an invitation that allows your team to participate, and creates the space for them to surprise themselves and discover the unexpected. “How might we better meet the needs of expectant mothers?” is a far more creativity-inducing framework than, “We need to create a strategic initiative to increase revenue stream in the marketspace of mothers.” It’s not about designing a better online payment interface for the elderly, but asking, “How might we empower them to confidently and competently handle their finances?”
5. Get uncomfortable
To explore with curiosity, you have to be willing to step outside of your comfort zone. Spend some time thinking about what that means. How do you do things? Where do you go (to work, for insight or inspiration, for answers)? With whom do you engage? Do you dislike ambiguity? Define where your discomfort begins, then make the conscious effort to push beyond it.
Stretch yourself and your team by asking whose perspectives are missing, and who might be able to teach you something. Do this for internal conversations—Who is doing the designing or decision making?—but also for your customer base—Who are we leaving out? What might we learn from them and their needs?
At IDEO, we look to those edges to help expose insights and needs that are harder to see. When one of our teams was working to redesign voting in Los Angeles County, they went to salsa dancing lessons—in Spanish—to understand what it feels like to have operate in a language you don’t speak. When another team had to explore nursing bras and the pump gear on the market for moms, they discovered that “You really do feel like a cow.”
6. Practice immersive empathy
So HOW do we do that? How do we learn about what lies beyond what we know? We believe that real empathy is critical to understanding the people a product or service might serve. If step one is having the courage to acknowledge what we don’t know, step two is taking action to explore it.
That same L.A. County team also wanted to consider the needs of visually impaired voters, so they spent time with a retired postal worker who had lost his vision in his 40s. He helped them see objects, materials, and spaces in a totally different way. In one exercise the team tried buying train tickets while blindfolded as well as withdrawing money from an ATM and determining, without the benefit of sight, how do these machines work?
For your own project, find a way to put yourself in the customer’s shoes—with keen attention to details and patterns. Closely monitor your emotional experience. How do you feel?
To go deeper in exploring with curiosity check out our 5-week course on Insights for Innovation.