The role of curiosity

The role of curiosity

Harm van Maanen speaks about curiosity in start-ups and companies

Harm van Maanen
I meet a lot of founders who would never stand a chance in a company

In his function as executive partner of “BrückenKöpfe” (Bridgeheads), Harm van Maanen advises and accompanies companies and start-ups in the health sector. On the one hand, he meets up with experienced CEOs who need an independent opinion on important corporate decisions. On the other hand, he is contacted by founders who wish to know if their ideas have any chance of market success. In this interview, he tells us how German and Dutch employees differ, and which are more driven by curiosity.

In your opinion, what role does curiosity play in everyday working life?

The most decisive factor in working life is the corporate culture of the respective company and how much curiosity is allowed. At a meta level, the question is: would I give the Steve Jobs of tomorrow a chance, even though I recognize that he has the creative potential to leave me far behind? I encounter many founders of start-ups who, in my opinion, just wouldn’t stand a chance in a concern. Simply because their ways of thinking are too disruptive. They would be unable to stick to the rules. Instead, they would question the status quo and think about what could be changed or done better. Many companies fear such personalities and the potential turbulence they might generate. 

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany recently published the first international curiosity study. According to its findings, only 20 percent of employees see themselves as curious. Do you have an explanation for this?

Many companies tend not to encourage curiosity, or at least don’t give it a particularly high priority as a performance attribute.

As curiosity often questions existing and established corporate structures, employees who show it tend to be seen as uncomfortable and disruptive. For me, however, the important factor is that curiosity is not strictly limited to questioning the status quo, but also embraces elements of constructive advancement, also for the curios minds themselves.

Is curiosity more pronounced in the case of founders and start-ups as opposed to companies?

In general, founders tend to exhibit much more pronounced curiosity. On the face of it, a good thing, but it can be problematic from an entrepreneurial point of view. I’d like to give you an allegory from childhood to illustrate what I mean. Curiosity eventually leads almost every child to touch the hotplate of a stove. Once is enough. Lesson learned. As an entrepreneur, it is naturally a much better idea if you don’t have to touch the hotplate at all. Many start-ups need people who can help them to make well-considered decisions. In my opinion, the greatest added value can be created by an optimum balance of experience and the curiosity of founders. 

How does the role played by curiosity differ in Dutch and German companies?

Dutch corporate culture is strongly characterized by a “Why not?” attitude. In Dutch companies, if someone comes up with a new idea, it will usually be put to the test to see if it works. If it doesn’t, the Dutch tend to make corrections along the way. In Germany, anyone with an idea is immediately asked if every aspect of it has been exhaustively checked before it can be realized. This ends up with a checklist that’s so long that people often grind to a halt before they can even start getting the idea off the ground. But the world moves on, in a state of permanent, rapid change. Those of us who get started to see where things lead us usually make faster progress. The optimum way is probably to be found somewhere in between. This is why teams in particular benefit from the different personalities of their members.  

How can companies motivate the curiosity of their employees?

Fundamentally, I think that companies must avoid employing too many like-minded people at the recruiting phase. Acceptance, tolerance, and the ability to permit other opinions and attitudes is important. Many industry segments tend to be uniformly structured. This is often seen in the age spread of their employees. While supervisory boards debate equal opportunities for women, I think they should also take a closer look at how old the board members are. Lowering the average age on the board revitalizes a company and brings new, quite different momentum and ideas. And can, in turn, reawaken curiosity. 

About Harm van Maanen

Harm Van Maanen is an architect and a graduate in economics. He has been actively involved in the health sector for the past 15 years. For example, the native of Holland played an essential role in the development of the specialist category “Springer Medicine” in his function as Executive Vice President at the international science, technology, and medicine publishing group Springer Science and Business Media. 

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