Cultivating A Culture of Curiosity to Drive More Innovation

by Jesse Nieminen

I recently read a great article on how disasters can lead to innovation by Paul Sloane here on Innovation Excellence. It’s a great reminder for all of us on how simple curiosity is the driving force behind many of the greatest innovations we come up with.

The article inspired me to write a follow-up sharing some actionable tips on shaping and cultivating a culture that values curiosity.

Why Curiosity Matters

Just like the examples from Paul’s article tell us, innovation doesn’t always come from deliberate research or well-managed innovation management processes.

Serendipity plays a big role in both scientific discovery and innovation. Probably more so than we’d want to give it credit for.

According to research, around 30-50% of scientific discoveries are accidental in some sense.

When an accident or disaster hits, we’re often busy or frustrated with the setback. It’s all too easy for us to just brush it aside or try fix the damages instead of trying to learn from the incident.

A curious mind, on the other hand, leans in towards the unexpected and starts to dig deeper. Why did this happen? Could we harness this same phenomenon for something else?

curiosity innovation

On an individual level, curiosity allows us to think more deeply and rationally, as well as to come up with more creative solutions. A small one unit increase in curiosity was recently shown to increase creativity by 34%.

On an organizational level, curiosity is the difference between stagnation and constant improvement.

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
Walt Disney

A curious organization is able to challenge its current ways of working, get better at everything it does and adapt to the ever changing market conditions.

As such, curiosity is one of the key values an innovation-oriented organizational culture should be built on.

Cultivating Curiosity in an Organization

While it’s important to communicate the importance of curiosity, communication alone is rarely enough to shape culture.

To do that, you must put your money where your mouth is and start leading curiosity from the top.

So, without further ado, here are a few proven ways you can promote curiosity within your organization.

1. Leading by Example

As the old saying goes, a leader leads by example, whether she intends to or not. Thus, a leader should model the intended values of the organization with their behaviour. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Building rapport for the cause and showing that this is a priority, for both you and the organization at large
  2. Showing what you expect from everyone in practice

When Greg Dyke was named as the new director general of the BBC in 2000, he spent five months touring all the major locations of the company, addressing the staff at each of them.

He always asked the same two questions:

  • “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for you?”
  • “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for our viewers and listeners?”

By listening carefully to the answers, he naturally won the respect of his new employees, but his curiosity also helped him identify the biggest challenges the company was then facing.

He then went on to address these challenges with a number of reforms that changed the culture and direction of the company, for example, reducing administrative costs of the organization by almost 40%.

2. Innovation Awards

Our next example is perhaps less of a necessity than leading by example, but can still prove tremendously useful.

As once innovative companies grow, the culture often tends to gradually change and they might lose some of the innovative vibe they previously had.

To combat this, a number of companies like Intuit and Workday have introduced annual or quarterly innovation awards.

innovation awards

The idea is simple: by recognizing and rewarding employees who take initiative and come up with innovations, you’ve incentivized people to replicate the right kind of behaviour.

For example, the recipient of the Scott Cook Innovation Award at Intuit gets their name on the company’s Innovation Wall of Fame, time to work on a project of their own choosing within the company and an all expenses paid holiday for two.

However, to cultivate curiosity, you should reward not just the most successful innovator, but also the ones that failed but managed to learn something valuable in the process.

This is what truly drives curiosity and further encourages employees to investigate ways to make the organization better.

“To cultivate curiosity, reward not just the most successful innovator, but also the ones that failed but managed to learn something valuable in the process.”

3. Innovation Challenges

While innovation awards are a great way to celebrate the role of curiosity and innovation, you might want to combine it with more practically oriented methods as these are easier for the employees to act on.

Innovation or idea challenges are fixed-term campaigns that are usually focused on finding a solution to a specific problem or opportunity, typically conducted with the help of an online tool.

You could, for example, ask the same two questions Greg Dyke asked his employees at BBC.

Innovation challenges allow a company to not only quickly and easily gather insights from across the organization, but more importantly, they show that you expect everyone to be curios and to be on the lookout for ways to get better. This helps people understand that innovation isn’t just someone else’s job.

4. Operationalizing Curiosity

Innovation challenges are a great way to kickstart the process of encouraging curiosity, but for it to truly bloom, it should also be present in employee’s daily work.

To achieve this, the organization should have practices that make employees ask “why” and “how” more often.

The way to accomplish this obviously depends on the business, but one of the most practical and useful of the various methods is the “Five Whys”.

five whys innovation

Invented by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of the Toyota group, the method is seemingly simple: When a problem occurs, ask “why” five consecutive times. This will eventually lead you to the root cause of the problem and allows you to fix the real problem instead of just trying patch the symptoms.

While the method might not be perfect, it’s a great way to make people think for themselves and to become curious about the deeper connections between issues.

To operationalize these kinds of methods, you could for example ask the “Five Whys” to be performed at every project post-mortem.

5. Hiring for Curiosity

Even though most of us are naturally curious about certain things, the target of the curiosity might be different. Some are more curious about the latest technology trends, others about politics and many about the latest gossip in their social circles.

Despite your best efforts, curiosity at work is of one of the traits that can be hard for many people to adopt if it’s not something they currently possess.

So, one of the most effective ways to improve curiosity at the organizational level is to emphasize its role in hiring, which is what some companies and CEOs already do.

For example, when asked which attribute was considered most important for future success, Dell founder and CEO Michael Dell answered: “I would place my bet on curiosity.”

google recruitment billboard

Google is also famous for having used an anonymous billboard with just a mathematical puzzle on it. If a passer-by was intrigued by the puzzle and able to solve it, they were invited to apply for a job.

Remember, curiosity leads to learning and new insights. When combined with creativity, those insights turn into ideas, which are key for unlocking more of the innovation potential in your organization.

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Jesse NieminenJesse Nieminen is the Co-founder and Chairman at Viima, the best way to collect and develop ideas. Viima’s innovation management software is already loved by thousands of organizations all the way to the Global Fortune 500. He’s passionate about helping leaders drive innovation in their organizations and frequently writes on the topic, usually in Viima’s blog.

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