Monday, January 30, 2006

Strategies for Sustainable Curiosity: Part 2

If you missed last week's adventure into the wilds of curiosity, you might want to begin there. But it's certainly not required.

Why Do We Go Into Automatic Pilot?

Linked to the lessons of pyscholinguistics is this: one of the strongest resources people have is their ability to develop habits. Pattern recognition allows us eventually to do anything without thought, over and over, once we've had enough experience.

Just ask the Russian Formalists who felt the purpose of art was to shake us out of our stupor -- otherwise known as conventional wisdom.

Back to Work

Once established, work habits are very difficult to break. Deferred interests get forgotten in the daily the routine of pleasing one's boss. In fact, success according to a superior becomes the highest goal.

To succeed at a job, employees are forced to separate part of him or herself to do the job. This one piece is overdeveloped to satisfy someone else's interests and usually generates little genuine enthusiasm in the person doing the task. In fact, often what employers get instead is a kind of numbness in all the other emotional and intellectual limbs, or worse, they foster resentment.

If exercised only rarely, a strong passion either gets repressed or becomes available in particular contexts.

Western work culture values specialists. We think of identity as singular -- and we are what we do. Someone is EITHER in marketing, in education, or in strategy. However, wouldn't all three benefit from the others?

It's this sort of short-term thinking create that boxes the big bosses complain about.

How good can this be for motivating innovation?

True for the Big Wigs as Well As the Small Fries

It wouldn't be surprising if this phenomenon applied only to entry-level workers who are limited in their training and reach. But even powerful people who love their jobs often hate the prospect of Monday morning on Sunday nights. One executive who happily runs her department feels the pressure to conform to a role, to be right, to leave the rest of herself at home.

And this is a woman who ranks high enough that she can call the shots. I've seen her in meetings, and she is not much different in her reactions or in the subjects she covers than she is in social situations. Yet she still feels the pressure to leave most of herself and interests outside the boardroom and makes a point of reinvigorating her other passions once work is done.

Short-term thinking is indeed necessary sometimes. However, change becomes a big problem for most companies without the long-term support of employees' continuous sense of self, of full range of resources -- across work and life.

On the other hand, if employees can be encouraged to cultivate their genuine interests in order to do their work, they'll be prepared to innovate regardless if their job changes or even if the direction of the company changes.

The Results of Short Term Thinking

As discussed earlier, new employees find pretty quickly which of their interests they can indulge and which must be shelved. Those who don't streamline these interests enough are usually said to be a "bad fit" and move on to find a different but equally narrow role that represses other interests in which they are less invested.

What if you kept the ones who are usually sent away and see what they can add to your culture? For this, ask David Firth about the Corporate Fool.

Effective Thinking is about Making New Connections

Here's the flip-side to the problem with going into automatic pilot in unproductive ways: one of the strongest assets we have as human beings is the same ease at forming habits. How do you break one set of patterns? Create another habit to replace it. And this can be one of the keys to changing work habits and culture.

The more one gets into the habit of remembering what it feels like to be oneselves in a variety of circumstances, the more connections one can make in any particular situation.

In other words, the convergence of what one feels and what one thinks outside work will offer new ways of seeing work situations that would otherwise seem hermetically sealed off from the world by the office walls.

If thinking is associative, and new connections are necessary for innovation, the best thing for a business is a staff encouraged to maintain as many interests as possible. Employees are bound to be more comfortable looking around to see what engages if they are supported in developing a continous sense of self (read: engagement) from life to work and back.

The more comfortable the employee is using her full set of resources, the more likely she is to be able to be creative. This is long-term business thinking.

Throw the Net Wide: Transform A Culture of Training to One of Learning

What if your training program offered a component that demanded new employees sustain several interests outside work and find connections to processes within your company?

What if part of a manager's review focused on the ways in which she accessed the broadest range of resources from her employees? And an employee's review reflected his or her ability to dig deep and find not just the depth of one skill but instead evaluated the breadth of subjects about which he or she is interested or engaged?

What if creativity became the goal of every company if defined as the ability to learn continuously across contexts? In addition to a particular specialty, wouldn't it empower your employees to think on their feet when change ensues?

Personal engagement would make employees more likely to pursue problems with energy and develop interests ordinarily either forgotten or lost. New connections will emerge. From here comes the fodder for innovation.

Wouldn't The Box be at thing of the past?

Long-Term Thinking: It's Worth It

This sort of transformation takes planning and experimentation until each work culture gets it right. Learning is disorganizing, and businesses would need to prepare for it. However, it could work if a creative culture were supported from the top down and with disciplines developed over time.

What if you found criteria to measure success on a quarterly basis, and fine-tune until it works? Creativity must be a habit, a practice, and it won't work as a one-time effort. People learn over time and develop new ways of thinking with continuous support. Thinking continuously across contexts can be the touchstone of every other piece of business if integrated into each process.

Start small and expand. As part of a larger program and set of disciplines, your company will have much less problem navigating change.

And you'll find much more innovation than you ever expected.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Strategies for Sustainable Curiosity: Part 1

Back-Tracking to Go Forward

Continuing on the topic from the last few weeks:

Psycholinguistics demonstrates that thinking is associative. In other words, our brains make patterns automatically with whatever information we provide.

What Does This Have to Do With Business?

Innovation requires the ability to break from the familiar and make new connections, and the process can only be sustained by finding fresh perspectives on a regular basis. This, in turn, requires engagement primarily driven by curiosity and supported by a variety of disciplines

For a real-life example, just ask a leader in the financial service industry.

It seems that adults are born very curious indeed.  However, as these grown children begin work, they increasingly narrow their focus in order to block out anything not directly related to a work problem. So the rest of their visual field becomes peripheral.

The question is: how can these once-curious adults find their ability to see completely again and leverage the parts that were once driven to explore?

Or to tie the issue directly back to the bottom line:

What strategies can be employed in the workplace to look again for what engages your employees? How can you support these workers to stay connected to that in which they can be curious once identified? And how can such a strategy actually work in a business?

First of All, What is Curiosity?

There are very few drives more powerful than the desire to know. Most people I know make themselves crazy trying to remember a name on the tip of their tongue. Fans sit on the edge of their seats for hours in suspense over the outcome of a sports event.

The success of Soap Operas -- and subsequently, the money networks generate through advertising dollars -- is due entirely to an audience's curiosity about what will happen next. What's more, this phenomenon can be sustained for years through increasingly unlikely of scenarios gluing fans to their sets -- every day.

But Why?

If someone is curious, the outcome matters. Once taken over by curiosity, ordinary blocks to new possibilities are overrun by a focus on the goal of discovering. In the hunt for answers, everything else is often either subordinated or forgotten.

Curiosity can be a tremendously powerful tool to help the otherwise timid forget a lack of confidence or the most despairing find a drive to explore.

How Does This Work?

The state of being curious is a little like anger, infatuation, or any other passionate state -- if stoked enough, it entirely takes over. As a combination of emotional and intellectual drives, a key component of curiosity is desire. What can be stronger than that?

Wonder is useful as well, but that's for another post.

First, Engage

Here's where ownership is essential: in order to support and sustain curiosity, the desire to know must begin with an idea in which someone is genuinely invested, both emotionally and intellectually.

After all, the meeting point of emotional and intellectual engagement is where inspiration comes from.

In other words, an interest in pleasing -- in getting the right answer for the sake of someone else's reward or praise -- can't generate sustainable curiosity. The results can only be temporary and will lack his or her full range of resources.

So What's the Problem?

In a work environment, developing one's full range of resources, even one's own interests, is usually deferred in favor of doing what's necessary to succeed. The theory is that once one climbs to the top of the ladder, one can choose the projects or processes in which one feels genuine investment.

However, by the time most people have worked for a year or more, habit has set in. Employees trained to guess and produce what pleases the boss go into automatic pilot. There are also written objectives that spell out exactly the behaviors and accomplishments that constitute success and failure just in case someone misses the signals elsewhere about how to satisfy the boss's needs.

For more on the blocks to and strategies for sustainable curiosity, tune-in to the next post . . . .

Friday, January 20, 2006

Try This At Home: A Few Exercises in Engagement Through Observation

For Those Who Work for the Unenlightened, Here Are Things To Try On Your Own

If remaining curious is a priority, there are ways to work at it. There are mechanical means when all else fails. Remember how to listen to what's around you. Focus on something you've always taken for granted outside yourself -- anything -- the wallpaper, a crack in the floor, the texture of your desk.

Force yourself to notice one surface of an object, look closely at all the details, and then move onto another. Touch them. Smell them. This is all a form of listening to what you ordinarily take for granted.

Take the object out of context. Consider, for example, something you rarely otherwise notice as a piece in a museum exhibition. How would you consider its meaning, color, texture then?

Once you've got surfaces mastered, start paying attention with a little wonder to faces, to expressions, to body language. Count the number of times someone uses a particular gesture, a particular word, and wonder about it. More on the success of this sort of exercise in a future post.

Put unlike things together to create similes for which you also create meaning. Like a chair in a blender. Like a dog in a drawer. Find two things that just don't belong together and create a meaning, a reason, a purpose for their connection. After a while of concentrated effort, you'll begin to see connections between event the most unlikely pairs of ideas and objects. It's a way to remember how to make new connections.


Remembering requires as much discipline as mechanical means of wondering. Who were you before you took your first job? What did you like to do? What made you curious? Some things will resonate, and some won't, but explore the former again. And wonder what could take the place of the latter, and cultivate those interests by making time to engage in them.

And simply be curious by slowing down perception. Wonder about ideas and expressions you otherwise take for granted.

Monday, January 16, 2006

A Short Tangent: Where Do Grown-Ups Come From?

Every child is an artist. The Problem is how to remain an artist once (s)he grows up.--Pablo Picasso

Art Meets Business

Who should attend to the challenges listed in last week's post? After all, how many people are born curious to begin with?

For Those Who've Just Tuned In: Some Context

Here's a summary of past thoughts relevant to this discussion:

1. Creativity is the ability to learn continuously across contexts.

2. Creativity and effective thinking are synonymous and require a combination of disciplines.

Learned persistence, for example, and practice at observation and analysis are essential, but none will effectively sustain creativity without relationship to the others.

The question that generated this tangent is this: can even those who master the skills one can learn be expected to have the capacity for curiosity as well?

The Particulars

A business executive in Communications couldn't get her desired results, and she wanted to know if only some people are capable of questioning ideas rather than just accepting them.

When I asked the opinion of a financier in a separate conversation, he told me emphatically "some people are born that way and some just aren't."

I've heard the latter response too much to pass it by without comment. Could these people possibly know any small children?

What Do You Expect from Toddlers?

The trademark of a small child is the tenacious tendency to explore, test, and push boundaries. When children are old enough to speak, the first question is usually "why?"

Infants and toddlers knock things over, touch things that are hot, push objects from high places, crawl through small spaces -- just to see what happens.

In fact, if children are identified as uninquisitive and unresponsive to new stimuli, it's considered reason to consult a specialist. Clearly, in the normal range of human beings, the desire to learn is hard-wired from birth.

So where does this voracious wonder disappear to? Have grown-ups’ simply got nothing new to learn?

As discussed last week, blocks to discovery seem at least as much emotional as intellectual.

Strategies for fresh thinking in the next post.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Sustainable Curiosity: Why Do We Need It?

Post-holiday, I've been hearing from quite a few people who don't want to be back at work. Collectively and with differing symptoms, my clients seem to long for what sounds like a sense of ownership.

This ownership goes beyond the usual jargon that indicates the freedom to independently direct a project or department. Otherwise, C-Level people wouldn't clamour as loudly as new employees.

Ownership in this case seems to extend to a feeling of being "more" oneself at work, of the ability to access more of the range of one's selves normally available outside the office walls.

What Does This Mean In Practical Business Terms?

Every situation has its own protocol of dress and behavior that offers credibility and authority. Obviously, if you show up in shorts at a Madison Avenue meeting, you're unlikely to be taken seriously or be heard.

There are exceptions, of course. Shorts are likely allowed if worn by someone who makes the rules -- a CEO or highly effective Creatives whose trademark is non-compliance, for example.

Why Do Most People Shrink To the Size of Their Suits?

Dress and behavior are more shell than core. So why do these external restrictions so often tie us up internally and limit our notion of who we are and of what's possible?

For one thing, there's a strong cultural belief that we are what we do. In a related vein, the more right answers we can prove, the stronger our value. The more we invest in being right, the more rigid and narrow our sense of strategic behavior. Clearly, this kind of thinking can discourage innovation.

Back to a Need for Change Management

Remember the fellow from the Change Management seminar who felt that the narrower his team's perspective, the more productive their output? This team was built of tremendously bright and well-educated tech people, and they were top in their field.

I'm loosely quoting, but here's the logic:

A. The goal at work is to be right.

B.To be consistently right, one must limit one's focus to the problems at hand. Any uncomfortable process or issue (eg unrelated topics) outside the problem at hand should be cleared away. The narrower the perspective, the stronger.

B . Being right involves innovating using only your head.

E. Emotional reactions are not only suspect but hazardous to problem-solving.

Ultimately, entertaining the value of new ways of seeing or learning is absolutely out. David Firth called it maintaining a work culture by "circling the wagons."

Does It Work?

David was called in because this sort of thinking isn't actually effective on a macro level.

In fact, some of the strategy isn't even possible. You can't separate your emotional system from your intellectual processes. After all, inspiration is the meeting point of emotional and intellectual insight. Venturing into the unknown might result in an answer that doesn't immediately work, but without it, there's no possibility for innovation.

What's more, intellectual conviction is often an abstract articulation of an emotional conviction anyway.

And Yes, There's (Always) More

Thinking is associative, innovation requires being on the look-out for new connections wherever they might lie. Most executives with whom I've talked prize the ability to innovate above all other qualities in employees. The narrower the focus, the less likely new connections will emerge.

So Why Limit Our Interest at Work to Our Job?

The simple answer seems to a combination of habit and fear. Culturally, we don't feel comfortable mixing office business with personal interests.

We also haven't been trained how to do it.

How many new (and old) employees throw themselves entirely into their new jobs to succeed? The more involved with work, the more face time, the longer the hours, the better the worker.

With this as criteria, how long does it take to forget who you were in college, what interested you on summers off, or your passions before you began your career?

Without maintaining engagement in varied interests, the field of possible connections becomes increasingly narrower. Is it a wonder that businesses crave the ability to make new connections?

Back to a Time Before The First Job

Considering ourselves to be singular -- rather than multi-faceted -- gets in the way of creativity. In particular, it's the belief that the singular self is defined by what we do that allows us to forget all the other selves we've got to draw from.

At the same time, we know better-- that's the beauty of multiple perspectives.

It's common sense that each person is made up of many selves. Our language demonstrates it in the way we describe our own behavior: I was beside myself, I wasn't myself, I have no idea why I behaved that way, I don't know what came over me.

The more limited our movement, the less frequent or diverse our adventures, the less likely we are to venture out into the unknown. The sense of singular self is, in part, the result of a kind of psychic repetitive stress syndrome. Without it, would there be mid-life crises? Without it, how many new connections would every worker be able to see?

Feeling Stuck: Getting Back to Sustainable Innovation

To work toward sustainable innovation,
How does one maintain access to a continuous sense of self -- and with it, the maximum range of resources -- for the sake of to creating new connections?

How does one maintain the ability to see things new after years of playing relatively similar roles? Or create a work culture that cultivates sustainable curiosity from the start?

More next week.