Putting Curiosity to Work

Putting Curiosity to Work

Insights into the Work of a Curiosity Advisor

While many recognize and appreciate the value of curiosity in the workplace, Becki Saltzman has made a career of teaching people how to leverage it. Though she has had a variety of life experience, from undergraduate and graduate studies in behavioral science to fashion buying to real estate brokerage, she grew up in a family of auctioneers who instilled a propensity for questioning. “I was constantly being challenged to ask good questions, starting with challenging assumptions about people,” she explains.

As her thinking progressed, she noticed a differentiation between “free-range curiosity,” or stereotypical childlike openness and questioning and “applied curiosity.” After recognizing an opportunity to teach the latter strategically, she decided to do just that. Saltzman has written two books, is conducting her own research and travels often giving speeches and teaching applied curiosity workshops.

While the obvious assumption about a “curiosity workshop” might be inspiration and encouragement to be more curious, Saltzman takes a different approach: Applied curiosity is not an ingredient but a device to combat things like cognitive biases, assumptions, judgment, criticism, fear and complacency. 

At a workshop, she can set a new tone among a group by first asking absurd questions: “I can ask, ‘how does a circus elephant affect your recruiting process?’ There’s something this does to the brain that opens it up to preposterous things,” she explains. “Then, when I ask a different question, there’s already a playfulness and curiosity in the space." 

"It’s really question-based consulting compared to answer-based,” as she puts it. She opens up company cultures to the spirit of applied curiosity by creating a space for them to ask each other what might ordinarily seem like risky questions. In this way, “it allows them to blame the questions on the culture of curiosity, allows them to ask questions that they would otherwise not ask or be afraid to ask.” And it is in this space that the status quo can be changed and improved.

The Business Case for Curiosity

This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, according to Saltzman: “taking the idea of a culture of curiosity and really applying it, not just as a talking point on a mission statement that you file away, but actually knowing how to cultivate a culture of curiosity that both gives permission and requires all members of a company to ask questions.”

The business case for curiosity is clear, she says. Curiosity “makes you more accurate in your judgments.”

For example, she has heard feedback from attendees who make investment decisions who say exposure to applied curiosity “has helped them to take a step back and evaluate whether they have cognitive biases or assumptions that are greasing the decisions along more than they should.”

Unfortunately, as she has noticed and the State of Curiosity Report reflects, many companies do not actively encourage curiosity in the right places. Saltzman argues that companies would be wise to change this. “I think it’s given a lot of lip service, but I would ask [a company], ‘How does your review process reflect curiosity?’”

She has dedicated her time to working to move beyond this “lip service” and teach people to actively and strategically wield curiosity in the workplace, with coworkers, bosses, customers and clients. “My job is to teach curiosity as a tool,” she says. “Curiosity has a wide range of applicability, but I think it is a tool. I believe it’s great for people to be curious in a company, but I think it might be more important for them to understand how to use curiosity strategically.”

Applying the Concept of Peak Curiosity

One component of Saltzman’s research and programming is the concept of “peak curiosity,” which shows that after a point, the more familiar we become with something or a situation, or the further it deviates from our expected outcome, the less curious we are about it (see graphic). This comes in two forms: at first, with zero familiarity about something, we are not curious. It takes a little information to pique interest, and then the more and more we get to know something, the less we tend to wonder about it. 

In terms of deviation of expected outcome, Saltzman uses the metaphor of showing up to an important presentation. If a colleague shows up dressed in a suit as you expected, you will feel zero curiosity about him. If he shows up wearing sweatpants out of the blue “you’re probably just going to be critical, judgmental or complacent, not curious,” she says. But if he wears a suit but dances his way into the boardroom, for example, you are likely to wonder about him. 

She mentions the case of an advertising and design company that has started to use the concept often. “They realized that there are times in a cycle where an ad agency might want their client to be at peak curiosity, when they’re in the discovery stage and doing diverse thinking to come up with the best campaign.” And then, the company has learned when they prefer not to encourage curiosity and to keep things more familiar, namely “when it’s time to present the elegant proposal.” 

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