How curious is your organization?

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I recently was asked by a customer how he could encourage his organization to be “more curious.”

As leaders we all can imagine the positive outcomes from any organization that is “curious” – less insular, better at listening, faster sensing. I would go as far as to say that any organization trying to become adaptable, agile or to execute faster in today’s hyper-connected markets requires a strong dose of “curiosity” baked into its culture. An argument can be made that the ability to adapt may be proportional to one’s capacity for curiosity.

An argument can be made that the ability to adapt may be proportional to one’s capacity for curiosity

How do you create a curious culture? I struggled with this question until the January 2013 issue of National Geographic landed in my mailbox with this cover theme: “Why We Explore.” Inside was a fascinating article called “Restless Genes”, written by David Dobbs. The article provided panoply of scientific evidence as to why humans explore.

“The compulsion to see what lies beyond the far ridge or that ocean – or this planet—is a defining part of human identity and success.” – David Dobbs

The article helped me conceptualize a framework for enabling a curiosity-based culture inside an organization. I learned three aspects of human behavior that encourage us to explore – why we are curious – and what we as leaders can do to unleash this in our organizations.

First, I was stunned to understand that about 20 percent of human beings have a mutated gene that causes us to be more curious and restless. This gene, called DRD4-R7, causes people to take more risks in exploring new places, food and ideas. Remarkably, Dobbs says people with this “explorer’s gene” who lived a settled lifestyle within the confines of a village tended to “wither” and become malnourished.

20 percent of human beings have a mutated gene that causes us to be more curious and restless

Dobbs went to great pains to point out that a gene alone does not make someone an explorer. In the right environmental conditions, however, those with the gene flourished and the societies around them benefited from the bounties of their exploration.

Here is what I think this means to us as leaders: We must institutionalize a system to identify and engage the explorers inside our organizations. At Cisco, we have a select group of men and women called Distinguished Engineers – a tiny fraction of Cisco’s engineering team. These “DE’s” as they are called, are the Internet’s original explorers who invented the standards and products powering the mobile, social, visual and virtual world we all take for granted today.

We must institutionalize a system to identify and engage the explorers inside our organizations

Truthfully though, Cisco did not always know how to engage these DEs in day-to-day engineering innovations – I guess you could say that for a while they were “settled” and undeniably restless. To his credit, Cisco’s President and COO Gary Moore recognized this gap and, over the past two years, has re-engaged the DE community. Many now serve in CTO roles across the engineering organization.

The lesson:  Formalize a system to recognize your explorers and ensure they are consistently engaged in your team’s innovation paths.

“A restless person may thrive in a changeable environment but wither in a stable one; likewise with any genes that help produce the restlessness.” – David Dobbs

The article identified a second trait about human explorers that I already knew: the extended childhood of a human is unique among our closest genetic neighbors. What I didn’t grasp is the impact of childhood on exploration. What’s uniquely human are the many years we get to play, fail and succeed at games that help us grasp the possibilities and rewards of exploring.

I didn’t grasp is the impact of childhood on exploration

(Ok, I can admit it, I was one of those kids who stood in the driveway facing his basketball hoop with this imaginary game going through my head, Ricci has the ball…five seconds to go…he takes Earl “The Pearl” Monroe left… he fakes…he shoots…he scores!!!) These years as a “child” and the games we play as children are vital in learning the value of exploration and its rewards.

It’s completely possible to create “play” inside organizations. At Cisco, one of our leadership development disciplines focuses on experiential learning, where leaders play roles and different personas in solving real-world Cisco problems. Nothing is at stake, other than perhaps a bruised ego of learning an important lesson – we call this “action learning.”

Nothing is at stake, other than perhaps a bruised ego

Another example of “play” inside an organization is the use of “knowledge markets,” a structured form of crowdsourcing where ideas to problems compete with each other in a “market”. Cisco has leveraged knowledge markets for a wide range of applications; we once used these to identify the top five questions on the minds of Cisco’s leadership team about the company’s strategy. Dobbs says that as we get older, we tend to play less.

The lesson:  “Playing” may have to be manufactured, encouraged and rewarded to model the lesson of taking risks, failing and learning.

“We do less of this (play) as we get older and become less willing to explore novel alternatives and are more conditioned to stick with familiar ones.” – Alison Gopnick, quoted in “Restless Genes”, and author of  The Scientist in the Crib

Read Ron’s follow-on post tomorrow on curiosity in our organizations.

Graphic by Theris Faan

Ron Ricci is Vice President, Executive and Customer Engagement at Cisco. He and his team are responsible for the strategy driving how Cisco’s executive team engages with Cisco customers during the 14,000 visits to Cisco’s customer briefing centers around the world every year. Ron spent his first 12 years in Cisco reporting directly to CEO John Chambers with the charter of driving executive alignment and collaboration to Cisco’s top priorities. Along with Cisco colleague Carl Wiese, he co-authored The Collaboration Imperative: Executive Strategies for Unlocking Your Organization’s True Potential. You can purchase a copy through Switch and Shift's Business Heretic's Bookstore.

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