How do you create a curious culture?

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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.

I discussed the first two lessons learned in yesterday’s blog post. Here is the conclusion to my thoughts on this subject.

I already knew that human hands with our five fingers, including a thumb, were a competitive advantage for Homo sapiens in the battle for resources. In the final lesson from the article, what I didn’t’ know is that societies tended to develop mythology around those people who excelled at “clever hands,” as author Dobbs refers to innovations created by those hands.

Societies tended to develop mythology around those people who excelled at “clever hands”

Mythology made it “cool” to be “clever;” a little like the adulation the Steve Jobs’ of the world receive today. The marine vocabulary of the Polynesians conferred great status on ship builders, as Dobbs says, “like today’s astronauts.” This social standing was a motivating force to continue exploring.

I recently visited Cisco’s customer briefing center in Tokyo, and as I walked down the hallway past a bank of Cisco equipment, I stopped because I saw a box that was a different color from all the others – white with red lettering. I knew right away when my eyes focused specifically on this box that I was looking at a Cisco “AGS” router; the product that was used in the first-ever commercial Internet connection. A group of us just stood there for a few minutes and talked about what this AGS box meant to Cisco – and the world. It is not an understatement to say the AGS changed the world.

I’ve always believed that culture is built on the backs of important symbols. The mythology around the Cisco AGS router is every bit in our vocabulary as the sail is in the Polynesian marine vocabulary.

Culture is built on the backs of important symbols

The lesson:  Nostalgia is what keeps an organization from moving forward, but the myths of what symbolizes the great accomplishments of your organization should be celebrated and must be front and center in your team’s culture.

“When you set sail to find new lands, you became mythologized – even if you didn’t come back.” – National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis quoted in “Restless Genes.”

Great accomplishments of your organization should be celebrated and must be front and center in your team’s culture

Cisco CEO John Chambers frequently says culture is the responsibility of leaders. Curiosity may kill the cat, but it may be the most important attribute of a resilient organization in a constant state of evolution to win in today’s markets. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to set curiosity free inside our organizations, in the same way the great human explorers dared to go places that others feared and few ventured.

It’s our responsibility to set curiosity free inside our organizations

“…for the larger powers we gain through culture…it gives our malleable genomes, imaginative minds, and clever hands the power to transform even the strongest forces in our environment — wind, water, current — from threat to opportunity.” – David Dobbs

Illustration by Ruslan Beridze

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.

  • reply Ivan ,

    Very true. Human capacity for movement and curiosity can elevate humanity to the impossible. What is sad is that many cultures are afraid to take risks of change daring to think different.

    • reply Chandra ,

      Nostalgia is basically a form of appreciation. If we know what has been valued we have a firm basis for creating what will be.

      • reply Ron Ricci ,

        Ivan – thanks for the comment. Nostalgia for the past is a powerful point of resistance. Nothing is harder to change than when people say, “That’s not the way we do it around here.” It is our job as leaders is to inspire human capacity for movement and curiosity. What have you tried?

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