Innovation in Leadership

Inno-vation in Leader-ship

Curiosity is an ongoing deep interest in the world — interior and exterior.

Hal Gregersen is the executive director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Leadership Center and co-author of The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany: In your book “The Innovator’s DNA”, you and your co-authors identify five traits that distinguish entrepreneurial executives from ordinary managers: associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting. Four of the five — so, setting aside networking — align to qualities that we use to describe a curious person.

In your work, what connection have you seen between someone having strong sense of curiosity and their success as an innovator? Do you see a correlation and, if so, how is it manifested? 

Hal Gregersen: Let me ask you a question and then I’ll answer your question. In what you’ve learned and what you’re writing, how are you defining curiosity?

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany: Based on a review of the literature and other research, we define curiosity as recognizing, seeking out, preferring things that are new, unusual, outside of one’s normal experiences. We broke it down into four dimensions: openness to other ideas, inquisitiveness, distress tolerance—which means your ability to deal with risk, for instance, or stress — and creativity in problem solving. 

HG: I’m going to collapse those four categories into something quite simple. For me, curiosity is an ongoing deep interest in the world. Interior and exterior. What does it take to express, show, and make that interest real? That is where I think these innovators’ DNA skills are very relevant to, obviously, creativity. 

I think they reflect a sense of openness and inquisitiveness. They are deeply embedded in people behaving curiously. The whole genesis of “The Innovator’s DNA” ... part of it came more than 15 years ago, just looking at academic research around openness to new experiences, one of the big five traits of personality. 

And you look at that and realize that this is so generic and general; it’s not that practical. It’s a nice idea, but let’s make it more real. So we interviewed more than 100 of some of the most curious, open to new experience, people on the face of planet Earth. To figure out who those folks were, we collaborated with the bank Credit Suisse and identified the most innovative companies in the world from an investor’s perspective. 

Investors believed that these companies‘ R&D have and will do new and different things in the future. 

Then we went to either the founders or CEOs of those companies and asked them, how do you go about getting new ideas that are actually valuable? And all of them responded with the word “curious.“ That curiosity was expressed in behaviors where you could physically see them demonstrating their curiosity by asking constantly provocative questions of the world around them, getting out into the world and watching and observing and paying attention to things, like an anthropologist.

Networking is getting out into the world and not just watching things, but talking to people who are very different. We found that people do that, plus they’re willing to have a deeply experimental approach to life in the sense of trying new things, but in a very practical way — rapidly prototyping small, fast, cheap experiments, for example. The folks engaging in those kinds of behaviors were far more likely to make new connections, associational thoughts, and surprising insights that no one else had. 

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany: Once you looked at all these people and talked with them, did you find a culture that allows for curiosity to be expressed? What did you see in that respect?

HG: Absolutely. Some of the people we interviewed were folks like Scott Cook, who founded Intuit, Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon, Mark Benioff, who founded salesforce.com — plus people like A.G. Lafley, who didn’t found the 185-year old company Proctor & Gamble, but he led it through a period of intense and successful innovation.

The starting point from our perspective is that innovative companies are led by innovative leaders. They don’t just expect other people to behave this way and to act innovatively, they actually do it themselves. 

What we discovered in our data was — the initial data were from interviews with these more than 200 people — that we saw patterns. Then we collected survey assessment data from more than 15,000 leaders around the world — CEOs, founders, down to first-line supervisors. What we found is that when anyone uses these skills to try to get a new idea to solve a problem, they are much more likely to get that new idea. 

You don’t have to be a famous Mark Benioff (salesforce.com) to use these skills and get creative with new ideas that actually are valuable. We discovered that, number one, these leaders of these innovative companies, they themselves spent one third of their personal time actively out there using these skills to get new ideas. If you look at their schedule, that’s what they’re doing. 

Then, if you probe inside of their companies, they have actively and systematically created a safe enough space where they expect everybody in the system to do the same around whatever their job and role is. And so it’s either they make the product or service better or they make the innovation better by actively using these skills to get more ideas that will solve challenges.

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany: They create, in part by example, a culture that is conducive to it. 

HG: Yes. For example, the Japanese company Kyocera. It’s a classic business-to-business company that makes process control and longer measurements systems for factory environments. They have systematically taught their salesforce to be better observers than anybody else doing their work. They go into factories. They see things other people don’t see. They work with the technical people afterwards and they consistently deliver best-in-class solutions that no one else can. 

Or go inside of a company like Xero, which is a competitor to Intuit in online accounting software. It started in New Zealand and now operates all over the world head-to-head with Intuit on Quickbooks. 

They systematically expect their people to get outside of their world and meet one new person inside of Xero and one new person outside of Xero every week. 

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany: In your research, what barriers to expressing curiosity or innovation have you found? And what solutions were proposed that worked?

HG: There are a whole range of barriers. The biggest is often that financial incentives are actually against people being curious. One of the things we found in some of the most innovative companies in the world is that they systematically invest about one-third of innovation resources — financial and time — into projects and ideas that have longer-term time horizons, three to five to seven years. 

It’s a big commitment. These are the kinds of ideas that disrupt industries or build entirely new business models — and most companies don’t do that. They are thinking short term. That kind of short-term financial incentives system leads people to be risk-averse and less innovative or curious. 

Many people have never been asked or expected to use these skills — curiosity and innovation—and frankly the skills deteriorate. So, with regard to a solution, some of it is giving those people the needed skillset and teaching them again how to ask better questions and how to engage these skills. 

I think one of the biggest challenges is leaders feeling threatened by someone else asking a question that could be provocative and uncomfortable in order to make the world a better place.

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany: Other experts we’ve spoken with have raised the issue of incentives, too. Long-term incentives seem to be much more conducive to this sort of behavior.

HG: Yes. Even in the short term, most companies do not hire or promote technical professionals or leaders, for that matter, for their innovation capability. Most HR systems do not pay attention to this in an explicit, direct, and accountable way. 

Contrast that with these innovative companies in the world, you drop inside of a team there and everyone is expected to make the place better and to make the product better. And if they don’t do that, they don’t belong there. That is a better way to do this.

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany: Before we wrap up, is there anything else you would like to share?

HG: I’m happy to add one thing. There is a practice that I use with people called Question Burst. They pick a problem they care about, we literally spend four minutes asking a bunch of question about the problem, and at the end of it, 80% of the time they usually have either a redefinition of the problem or a new direction to figure out a better answer.

It’s one thing to ask great questions, it’s another thing to actually get out there and answer them. Even if people can become better at inquiry and questioning, the bottom line is they’ve got to spend time, energy, and resources to get out of the office, into the world, and actually get to new data to solve it creatively. And that — that fact of getting out of my office — is when the rubber meets the road. 

Most companies do not value experimentation to the point that failure is indeed a stepping stone to success. Instead, failure is a stepping stone to having your career ruined. 

Even in companies where they talk the talk of innovation, the biggest litmus test or the biggest indicator of whether they walk the talk is whether they’re willing to invite a broad spectrum of people across their organization to actively spend their time and energy using these curiosity skills to get out into the world and solve problems that matter. 

There’s just such an amazing resistance, especially among senior leaders, who frankly live a life of luxury. There are powerful incentives for senior executives to not change the way they are and those incentives just spill down like a waterfall. So, at the end of the day, these folks have to wake up and decide, “What kind of leader do I want to be?”

That’s the bottom line. Innovation and curiosity are a choice and the leaders who choose it, either the top or the bottom in the organization, they’re very conscious about deciding that it is worth it. "

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