If You Want To Foster Innovation, Support Curious Employees

Most breakthroughs result from inquisitive workers, not an innovation office staffed by specialized “innovators.”

We are told that innovation is the process of improving or adapting a service, product, or system in order to deliver better results and create value. It turns out that most innovations result from the curiosity of employees, not the creation of an innovation office staffed by specialized “innovators.”  

An article by Harvard’s Francesca Gino in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review explores the business case for encouraging curiosity among employees. She says that “curiosity is much more important to an enterprise’s performance than was previously thought.”

Cultivating curiosity “at all levels helps leaders and their employees adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures: When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more creative solutions,” she writes.

Leaders can encourage curiosity in their organizations, but “most stifle curiosity, fearing it will increase risk and inefficiency.” In a survey of 3,000 employees in a wide range of companies, Gino found “only about 24 percent reported feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis, and about 70 percent said they face barriers to asking more questions at work.”

A key benefit to encouraging curiosity among employees is that it leads to better decisionmaking. Managers are less likely to only focus on information that supports their pre-existing beliefs because curiosity encourages looking for new options. Interestingly, a field study by the French business school INSEAD concludes that “A one-unit increase in curiosity [on a 7-point scale] was associated with 34 percent greater creativity.”

But leaders tend to value efficiency over exploration, Gino says. In a survey, she found that leaders’ mindsets “often shy away from encouraging curiosity because they believe the company would be harder to manage if people were allowed to explore their own interests.”

Five Ways to Bolster Curiosity  

Fortunately, Gino’s research identifies strategies to encourage curiosity in an organization. Some are applicable to government; others are not:

1. Hire for curiosity. While this may not always work in government, Gino says it is not uncommon in private sector firms. To assess curiosity, ask job candidates about their interests outside of work. Do people explore things they don’t know, read widely beyond their field? Are they excited by learning opportunities? What questions do the candidates ask? She says that Google’s mantra is: “We run this company on questions, not answers.”

2. Model inquisitiveness. Leaders need to model curiosity. “When we demonstrate curiosity about others by asking questions, people like us more and view us as more competent, and the heightened trust makes our relationships more interesting and intimate,” Gino says. This is true in government. For example, when Steve Kelman was awaiting Senate confirmation to a political position in the Office of Management and Budget back in the 1990s, he spent time visiting agency procurement offices around the government to learn firsthand what they do and created an informal council of frontline procurement officers to ask questions and listen to them.

3. Emphasize learning goals. Gino notes that research demonstrates that “framing work around leaning goals (developing competence, acquiring skills, mastering new situations, and so on) rather than performance goals (hitting targets, proving our competence, impressing others) boosts motivation.” I saw this in government when OMB’s Shelley Metzenbaum encouraged learning and asking questions as part of her drive to improve agency performance. Gino observed, however, that “unfortunately, organizations often prioritize performance goals” over learning goals.

4. Let employees explore and broaden their interests. Some companies, like 3M and Google, give employees time and resources to explore their interests. Gino says, “Curious people often end up being star performers thanks to their diverse networks.” Some agencies have encouraged this. The Office of Personnel Management, for example, in 2015 piloted a GovConnect initiative and several agencies offered employees opportunities to explore their curiosity by temporarily working in other units.

5. Hold “What if?” and “How might we?” days. Just asking those questions of employees can have a big impact, and it’s something any manager can do. Several years ago, the Education Department’s Andy Feldman ran cross-agency innovation sessions to ask these kinds of questions. More recently, there’s been an effort to use “design thinking” to achieve the same goal.

In the end, it may be more productive to give your team the space to ask questions—to be curious—and to explore potential answers, than to exhort them to “be innovative.”