Curiosity Did Not Kill the Cat and if it Did, There are 8 Lives to Go

Recently, while on a flight to Seattle for a new product feedback session with a client, I was engaged in a conversation with one of our senior marketing staff (virtually–don’t you love having Wi-Fi on planes now?) regarding an article posted by John H. Bell entitled How Vital is Curiosity in the Workforce?  Our discussion centered around two concepts in Mr. Bell’s post, “generous curiosity” and “divine discontent”, and how those concepts related to Confluence’s core values.

Mr. Bell sees the concept of generous curiosity as wanting “others who care about what I care about to benefit from my curiosity just as I want to live vicariously through theirs” and defines divine discontent as “the state of never quite being satisfied with anything”.  As a software company, we are driven to never be content.  We continually look for ways to offer our clients more value and more functionality.

While I don’t think many leaders in today’s dynamic business climate would disagree with the need for curious employees, certainly there are industries in which curiosity thrives and curious thinkers are rewarded.  I think an interesting question implied in Mr. Bell’s article is, what are leaders doing to create corporate cultures that can capture the value of this curiosity without it distracting from an organization’s overall productivity?

Like most software product companies whose livelihoods are tied to our ability to innovate, Confluence is deliberate in our efforts to capture value from focusing the curiosity of our staff to develop new products. Within Confluence, we have 4 core values: Service, Integrity, Imagination and Discipline. We continually reinforce the importance of these values and tie them back to everything we do as a company and as individual team members.  We define these values as:

Integrity- Facing reality with honesty, courage and accountability.
Imagination- Dealing creatively with challenges and envisioning what the world could be.
Discipline- Building good habits into reflexes which become a part of our life.
Service- Committing to the success of others.

We pair Service and Integrity, and Imagination and Discipline together, purposefully.  The pairing of Imagination and Discipline is how we enable a culture that captures value from the curiosity of our employees.  Those who are curious in nature, often tend to be imaginative.  And imagination drives innovation.

One tool we use company-wide that has enabled Mr. Bell’s concept of “generous curiosity” is Microsoft Yammer.  Our employees are encouraged to share whatever is on their minds.  It has become a core component of how we communicate and collaborate.  A recent “yam”, as we call the posts, was a lively ongoing debate stemming from a blog post about effort vs. complexity in an Agile environment.  Employees often post about non-work related items as well, sharing gems their curiosity yielded.  A few days ago, we learned why we should all care that someone saw a honeybee that morning.

While all this curiosity is a good thing, we need discipline to direct this curiosity into the creation of business value. At Confluence we accomplish this by putting our curiosity into a box; specifically by setting a constraint on the time we allow our teams to be curious purely for curiosity’s sake.  For example, the new product we are introducing to our client tomorrow was developed as part of an exercise we call a “100 Day Challenge”. In our “100 Day Challenge”, we challenge a product team to take one of the business problems identified by our market management team and  develop and deploy a Minimum Viable Product that addresses this business problem for a specific segment of the market.   Because 100 days isn’t a long time, the teams can only afford a week, maybe two at the most, to define the scope of their product. We are finding that limiting the time the team can spend on innovation actually causes them to focus and budget their time more effectively.

Based on our success thus far, we believe this approach allows the product team enough freedom to be curious, and empowers them to be innovative, but also provides the discipline and focus required to generate business value.

How are you enabling “generous curiosity” to improve innovation within your business?

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One Response to Curiosity Did Not Kill the Cat and if it Did, There are 8 Lives to Go

  1. Kenneth Trueman October 1, 2013 at 3:56 pm #

    Similar to the dynamics of the 100-day challenge, I have often said to others that ‘constraints drive creativity’, using the example of ‘tell me a story’ or ‘draw something on this blank page’.

    Both of these are wide open requests and faced with an overwhelming number of possible ways of responding to both challenges (each with a corresponding opportunity cost if you get it quote-unquote ‘wrong’ (see Barry Schwartz’s treatise “The Tyranny of Choice” for a similar take on the underlying dynamics), many people tend to lock up akin to analysis paralysis.

    Simply by adding one or two additional constraints, such as “tell me a story about *a cat*”, one can open up the creative process and get the ball rolling. (As a perfect example of how tough it can be to be creative when faced with a wide-open range of possibilities, I am at a loss to come up with an additional constraint for the blank page example. 🙂

    In a business context, a similar example to yours would be Japanese automakers that set the target price of the vehicle before the engineering and choice of components take place (as opposed to the old cost-plus a margin followed by domestic automakers). This constraint forces all involved to be creative and to question the true sources of value, at the product level, and at the platform level.

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