Cultivating curiosity

Our experience with our very curious and bright goddaughter demonstrated that encouraging questions and creativity has countless rewards.

Cultivating curiosity by Nancy Knowlton

Dave and I used to spend a lot of time with our eldest goddaughter when she was very young. What started out as a way for us to help her parents juggle a very young family turned into an enjoyable and loving relationship with a young and engaged mind. From a very early age our goddaughter was perfectly content to spend the whole weekend with us, and we loved the distraction that she provided from the myriad of issues that we faced in building our business. Virtually from the start she displayed an inquisitive and curious mind. She wanted to know how things worked as much as she wanted to learn by doing things herself. We talked to her about anything and everything. No business, life or science topic was too grown-up to share with her.

Ahead of the curve

She wanted to know how a toilet worked, so we took one apart. We rode escalators until she grasped the principle, and then we rode many more for fun so that she could repeatedly explain the principle to me. She enjoyed working Mensa puzzles in her head, never writing in the workbooks. She was interested in animals of all kinds, but horses and dogs were her main interest. She liked to reorganize things in our kitchen, finding better ways to do things than I had. She learned words at a prodigious rate, sometimes picking up 30 or 40 words at a time on a weekend. She learned to multiply when it was framed in terms of sweaters and pants. All this and more she did before ever stepping foot inside a school.

Learning right along with her

In short, she was naturally curious with eclectic interests, and beyond that she had the will and concentration to focus on the task of understanding. This was the case literally from the beginning with her. I thought she asked an extraordinary number of questions, but then I spent time with other children and learned that it wasn’t so extraordinary. Still, it was a lot. Many of the questions rocked me back on my heels – I didn’t know the answer. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to research the questions and learn right along with her. As tempting as it was, I never resorted to the old standbys of because, because I say so or stop asking so many questions. I did say I don’t know a lot, but I tried to follow-up with research and an explanation as soon as possible.

Very quickly one of my strategies became asking her how things worked. She knew just enough and had sufficient imagination to provide some credible theories. Even if her theories were wrong, she always offered an idea without hesitation. In truth, I think that she liked it best when she was talking and telling me the ways things were or should be.

She taught me a lot about curiosity on both sides of the equation. In her I experienced incredible curiosity with no fear or worries about encountering or tackling something new. I recognized quickly that I could either enable or dampen that curiosity by the overt and subtle reactions and signals that I gave her.

Innovation and creativity

Endless articles are written today about innovation and creativity, all saying that we need more of both. I tell the story of our goddaughter and our early interactions because it highlights that curiosity is in virtually every new human being in large doses as it was in her. How we choose to nurture and feed that natural curiosity has a lot to do with the innovation and creativity we get from that person as an adult.

Most people are pleasers – they want to do the things that are asked of them. People also learn quickly, and at an early age the learning is rapid. Complain about questions, and soon the questions will stop. Focus on getting the one right answer, and that will become an obsession. Punish mistakes and ridicule risk-takers for those mistakes, and soon only the safest of paths will be traveled.

But the opposite is also true. Celebrate the questions and allow them to expand the discussion and considerations. Look for multiple possible answers and build on them. Debrief failures and share and incorporate lessons learned across the company.

Valuing and rewarding curiosity

Organizations can take multiple steps to cultivate curiosity, creativity and innovation. Make the company’s culture of curiosity, questioning and irreverence explicit. Allow free and open communication across all functions and levels, and that will speak volumes about the openness within a company and its trust in people. Talk about failures and successes in the same way – they’re equally about reaching the ultimate goal of delighting customers. Eliminate negative language that makes people fearful of taking risks or doing something new.

In the end every system, whether it is education or management, gets what it values and rewards. My perspective – put people and their curiosity, creativity and innovation at the top of the agenda and get out of the way.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.