Leadership Skills: Curiosity

This is the third of three leadership skills for the 21st century. The first was truth, the second was courage, and I wrote about the mindsets that provide the background last week. The last skill set I want to talk about is curiosity.

Curiosity is a skill.

Steve-jobs-iPad
 I suppose, as the proverbial cat could attest, curiosity can get you into trouble. But it's a shame we think that way, because the number of times curiosity gets us in trouble is vastly overshadowed by the number of times curiosity propels us forward out of a mess. In fact, curiosity is a key component of making innovation a regular occurrence at your organization, so it is directly connected to that mindset. 

Unfortunately, the way our education system and most organizational cultures work tends to suppress our natural tendency to be curious. Why is it so hard to be open to new possibilities, to be drawn towards the unknown, or even to simply ask questions?

That's the first thing to work on to develop curiosity as a skill: build the capacity for inquiry. It sounds easy, yet we so rarely do it. Instead of giving answers all the time, ask some questions. Tough, open-ended questions. If you really want to challenge yourself, look for situations where someone you typically disagree with presents and idea and then be genuinely curious about it. Don't ask those questions you usually ask that are really just statements trying to prove YOUR point. Be curious about their position, even though you disagree with it. This doesn't mean you have to change your mind about the position, but through curiosity you have an opportunity to learn, which is more important than being right, particularly for innovation. Want to practice asking questions? Try this exercise.

You should also develop the capacity to more quickly and easily test assumptions. Here is where the you apply one of my favorite conceptual tools: the ladder of inference. It is described in more detail in the handouts I did for this session, which I posted here.  It's a simple way to help you slow down a conversation and better understand the assumptions and also the data that are behind all the conclusions you and others have. When you already have the answers, innovation won't come easy, so make it a regular part of your organizational conversations to understand and test the assumptions behind what you do.

This may get difficult if you realize that some of the assumptions behind your organization's most loved programs are not too sturdy. But that's a big part of being curious: challenging orthodoxy. If we want innovation to become a staple in our organizations, than it has to be permissible to challenge everything. This requires some skill in communication, or you can be branded a naysayer or the dreaded "not a team player." The ladder can help with that as well. 

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