Top Innovation Mindstates : Curiosity.

Baby in crib reaching out to mobile symbolising how endlessly curious babies and children are.


Picture a baby reaching out to the colourful mobile bobbing above its crib. Or a six-month old crawling around the living room, picking up toys, the waste paper basket or the family cat; feeling them, shaking them, sucking them.

Or recall the pre-schooler who tests her parents’ patience by asking “why?” more than a hundred times a day.

Curiosity is a drive to explore your environment. In children, it’s a powerful urge, but research has shown that that urge to explore diminishes over time.

Curiosity is an important mindstate for innovation. So the less curiosity we have, the harder it will be to innovate.

How can we rejuvenate our own sense of curiosity and encourage others to be more curious?

What is Curiosity?

Curiosity can be defined as ‘the urge to seek out novel stimuli’. However, the research into what makes people curious and want to explore the unknown is inconclusive. Curiosity has been characterized both as a motivational state and also a personality trait. What’s more researchers are still not clear as to whether it is an innate drive or one that is learned.

What is clear is that there is a strong link between curiosity and memory and learning. And this helps us understand why it is important in the innovation process. To innovate we need to explore new ways of looking at markets and customer problems and find new ways of using resources. We also need to connect the new information we find when we explore, with the learning and knowledge that we already have.

Why Does Curiosity Reduce Over Time?

Some psychologists believe that curiosity helps children to understand their environment.  Children learn about their world by creating a model of it. In the early years, the child’s model is poor and has many gaps in it. By exploring the world, chlldren take in information and fill in the gaps in their model. The more they explore, the more gaps in their model they can fill.

Then these same young children test their model of the world and in doing so discover when the model does not work. What’s more, they may appear to have low levels of  confidence in their models so they are flexible to receiving new information that might contradict or compliment what is already there. They use the new information to update their models on an ongoing basis. E.g. if the first time a child’s hand is held under a tap, the water is cold then their first model will be that cold water comes out of taps. If they then hold their hand under a tap running warm water,  then they will update their model to know that water from taps can be either cold or hot.

With the teen years, curiosity seems to reduce. Children settle into the academic routine and become more passive about their learning.

Some attribute this to strong messages that come from parents. ‘Don’t do this’ and ‘don’t do that.’ Although the intention is to protect the child from danger, a side effect is that they learn that the world is a dangerous place and that it’s generally safer to stick to what you know.

Another factor may be that as children grow into teens and adults, there are fewer gaps in their models. So this means there is less motivation to explore.

In adulthood we have a lot of information already in our models of the world. We have tested our models frequently and as they hold up most of the time, then we tend to believe that our model is a good one.

However, as the pace of devlopment in science, technology, and communications increases, people, and by implication also organisations need to be open to the idea of their models being out of date or no longer reliable for future planning scenarios.

If this is the case, then we need to get back into the cycle of getting curious, testing our model and refining it. This will hep us innovate.

Organisations and Curiosity.

Unfortunately in many organisations what is valued is the facts and demonstrating competence and full confidence in our understanding at all times. Many managers are intolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity.

In some organisations if a junior manager presents data to their senior with the commentary: “This is what the research data shows – but this may not be true for x group of consumers or for younger people or for people who have tried this other product...”

Then the senior may get frustrated and say “Well go look at those sub groups and come back to me with the full picture.”

This re-inforces the message “we don’t want speculation here. We want facts and data with high levels of confidence  at all times”.

However, a key aspect of creativity in the innovation process is about making new connections within the data. And you can’t make new connections, if you are not open to speculating on possible new ways to connect the data.

How to Encourage Curiosity in your Organisation.

  •   Encourage teams to speculate and to generate hypotheses
  • Give people permission not to have to have all the answers available immediately.
  • As with all the other key mindstates for innovation it is critical for leaders to ‘model’ these behaviours and traits. By modelling them the leader gives permission to everyone else in the    organisation to act curious. So go ahead, speculate out loud, wonder about things and encourage colleagues to ask intriguing questions about customers and products.
  • Create an environment where it feels safe to sometimes ‘not know’ and to speculate.

Curiosity is one of the key innovation mindstates that we help you develop further in Anatellô's top-rated innovation trainings.

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