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The Benefits of Curiosity in Organizations

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In grade school, I always wanted to ask questions. Why is the sky blue? Why do we not burn algae instead of coal for fuel? Why do we teach American History more than once—and why aren’t the facts fully correct the first time? As many students have experienced, these questions are an unwelcomed nuisance. It’s not necessarily because the teacher doesn’t like having an inquisitive student. It’s because teachers have a finite time to teach to a result: high scores on testing. Consequently, time for questions is put to the wayside. However, what if the next great idea, or even the next better idea, was passed over due to lack of time? That doesn’t benefit the individual, the school, or the country in the long-run.

Organizations work in a similar way as schools do. Organizations have multiple objectives and projects to accomplish— collecting profit, maintaining public image, building product and/or services, expanding the reach of the company— with limited resources—time, money, human capital. Like with school, this hurried, live-for-the-next-assessment type of practice leads to more mundane, less innovative results. Curiosity should be explored and encouraged, but how can it be when efficiency is such a priority? Could curiosity and efficiency co-exist? After consulting business-related websites, I believe that the answer is yes.

Before exploring how curiosity and efficiency could simultaneously occur, one should first recognize what curiosity and efficiency are. Curiosity is defined by Merriam-Webster as a desire to know and interest leading to inquiry.[i] Curiosity is the forefront of innovation because curiosity leads to creative solutions. Tony Vartanian, co-founder of Lucktastic, deliberately seeks out qualified and curious employees over qualified but mollified employees for this reason.[ii] Curious employees seek out and stumble upon new questions, which leads to new ideas, new processes, and eventually to a more effective and efficient means of producing than previous systems.

Curiosity is highly beneficial to both start-ups, which require innovation to stay afloat, and to long-lasting companies, which need innovation to stay competitive. Yet, curiosity is often ignored by organizational leaders like how it was ignored by teachers because the trait is considered childish and inefficient. After all, how does a project finish when the creators keep asking why?

To answer this question, one must first recognize the trait that allows for a finish: efficiency. Merriam-Webster defines it as the ratio of the useful energy delivered by a dynamic system to the energy supplied to it.[iii] In layman’s terms, a highly efficient system is one that little is put into, but a lot is taken out of. Imagine the fantastical example of placing a kernel of corn into a bucket and it transmutes into a bucket of gold; the result is far greater than the sum of its parts and would therefore be considered efficient. Efficiency is valuable because a company, person, product, or process with this trait maximizes output, such as profit or quantity made, while minimizing input, such as operating costs or time.

Asking questions takes time, which can make efficiency less in the short-term. However, curiosity-spurred innovation increases efficiency in the long run, which in turn increases profit. Therefore, curiosity and efficiency must co-exist for a business to be successful. The question remains: how? An examination of how to encourage both behaviors separately suggests a solution.

Curiosity in the workplace is encouraged through cross-team communication, employees’ outside hobbies, and increased employee task identity and autonomy.[iv] Within an organization, curiosity can be culturally cultivated by accepting and planning for a degree of failure, by encouraging questions for the sake of learning, by leading by example and hiring curious executive leaders and managers, by hiring teams players over talented individuals, and by focusing on process to an end result as opposed to the result itself.[v] In short, curiosity is encouraged when members of an organization welcome, question, and explore all ideas and perspectives.

This quote spoken by entertainment innovator Walt Disney in his television show The Wonderful World of Disney best explains why curiosity is valuable: Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. The quote is also better recognized from a failure-embracing movie, Meet the Robinsons.

Efficiency benefits from defined process, clear communication, well-matched tasks to employee skill, appropriate incentives, and feedback.[vi] This trait’s merits are widely recognized in the business world, but highly successful companies value and concentrate on it. Travis Kalanick, co-founder of Uber, goes so far as to say that being Uber means being efficient. Uber’s efficiency, both for customers and drivers, is one of its trademarks and measures of the company’s success.

Using this information about methods to maximize both traits, the clear overlap between curiosity and efficiency is time and communication—that is, both require high levels of clear communication, but curiosity removes time from an inflexible but efficient schedule. To benefit both, organizations would do well to learn how best to communicate with their employees, to build multidisciplinary teams that minimize inefficiencies in projects’ departmental transitions and encourage questions across all aspects of the project, and to establish a forum to record ideas stated in both formal and informal meetings so to avoid repetition of thought, misremembrance, and misunderstanding. To alleviate the overlapping time issue, organizations should schedule a time for curiosity. This can take the form of weekly meetings in which people state all their questions and establish adjustments based on the questions asked or allow employees more time to consider solutions to the questions. To benefit more introverted team members, this weekly meeting should also have an online written presence that can be edited throughout the week. Although this adjustment would take time away from an optimized work schedule and therefore may upset current managers and systems, it would allow for long-term, money- and time-saving innovation and would increase efficiency later.

Earlier, I used both WED Enterprises (Disney) and Uber to individually demonstrate curiosity and efficiency. However, both highly successful companies demonstrate curiosity and efficiency. For WED Enterprises, its early days were marked with limited resources: initially, it was only Walt Disney and a mouse. He minimized his living costs and maximized his output for the mouse. Later, Walt’s brother, Roy, joined Walt’s animation studio. Walt placed Roy in charge of monetary costs of the company so that Walt could focus solely on animation, allowing him more time to create Mickey Mouse cartoons. Walt continued to build his team, placing them in roles in which they could be most effective. Through this practice, he went on the create full-length films, starting with Snow White, and several decades later his company owns a large part of the entertainment industry.[vii] None of this success could have been achieved if Walt Disney did not place his human capital to maximize his employee’s efficiency. Uber is a far more recently created company than WED Enterprises but is surprisingly innovative. Its business model of hiring ordinary individuals in place of taxis was surprising and controversial but successful. Its creation has spurred questions about whether their employees are contractors or employees, how taxis and the taxi drivers’ unions work in a world of Uber, and whether Uber is should be legal in various states and cities. Uber has also created waves in food delivery services through Uber Eats and has started to move internationally in China and India. Uber also has a memorandum with Toyota over a future collaboration whose details have not been revealed.[viii] Uber’s curious question of what if people could ride-share instead of calling a taxi? has led to several billions of dollars and changes in several markets and the law, successfully joining curiosity and efficiency together in unexpected ways.

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