In the new world of work, shaped by the opportunities provided by digitalization, life-long learning becomes more and more important. Future innovations will not be driven by technology alone, but particularly by the people using the technology, and the way they work with each other.
See my post “Innovation through collaboration”.
Thus, people need new skills to deal with it. Or in other words: Enabling our employees to make the most of their respective possibilities and to develop new ideas with creativity and curiosity is one of our main objectives as leaders.
Curiosity is a major stimulus for learning new things, both in and out of our workplace. And curiosity fosters learning and job related knowledge, which are important requirements for job performance. If we empower our employees to express curiosity, this will increase their productivity and they will come up with innovative solutions. This is not only my experience, but also scientifically proven by Todd Kashdan, a U.S. psychology professor and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University in Washington, D.C. He partnered with Merck to analyze last year’s „Curiosity report“, which was published by Merck in October. As our CEO Dr. Stefan Oschmann says:
“Curiosity fuels business development and enables companies like ours to maintain our competitive edge.”
Curiosity as source for innovation
In fact, we at Merck have been trying to push curiosity for centuries. We have always taken great joy in finding the answers to difficult questions. And our curious mindset has continuously guided our way towards making great discoveries – be it medicines to cure diseases or performance materials that are a main component of digital and mobile gadgets. To put discoveries into practice and to drive technological, environmental and social progress is only possible if we stay curious. We therefore support and encourage our people to take calculated risks and to bring curiosity to life. And we try to hire especially curious people.
Merck is not alone with this approach: Successful companies in the field of digitization also put their focus on hiring candidates with intellectual curiosity, making them capable of thinking beyond the position they are hired for. Curious employees are likely to learn and perform better, to be more adaptive to change, work better in teams and might come up more likely with innovative solutions. But it’s not just start-ups. Curiosity should be a fundamental business driver for larger corporations as well.
Providing the perfect climate for curiosity
In reality, in fact, it is often not so easy to establish a climate that is ideal for curiosity and creative ideas. In our “Curiosity report” for instance, we found out that more than eight out of ten employees from Germany, the United States, and China agreed to the statement “A curios person is more likely to bring an idea to life at work”. But even though curiosity seems to play an important role for them, only 20 percent of the respective employees identified themselves with this quality. And 67 percent of workers said they had encountered barriers to practice curiosity in their environment.
What can we do to foster curiosity at the workplace? If you are discussing this topic with experts, several aspects regularly come up to establish and maintain curiosity in offices, workplaces and in the company culture:
- Reward employee questioning
Encourage questioning, because curiosity (and all science, by the way) starts with questions. “Why are things being done the way they are?” should always be the starting point. Leaders must allow time for exploration. And keep in mind: There are no wrong or dumb questions.
- Establish a culture in which a reasonable risk of failure is understood to be normal
Reward people who show curiosity – even if their ideas aren’t successful. Controlling risks is not everything. If you want to realize the full potential of your teams, encourage them to take risks and don’t punish failures. A reasonable risk level has to be understood as normal.
- Create workspace environment to support curiosity
Curiosity grows, if you expose employees to many different ideas of other people. Therefore, foster cross-team-communication either by physically opening offices and labs or by using new communication channels.
- Empower all team members to be curious
Motivate also the shy ones, people who usually don’t speak up. In every meeting, remind the team that there are no barriers. Teams should be staffed with people of diverse interests, strengths and skills. They should have different backgrounds as well as work and life experiences.
- Curiosity needs role models
Start with yourself: Always listen to smart people in your peer group and tell others about it.
- Encourage outside interests
Encourage employees not only to be creative in their spare time, but let them talk about it in a designated sharing time at company meetings.
Personally, I try to employ these tactics as often as possible – in order to learn new things myself or to motivate others to ask questions.
And in the end, all leaders have to choose their ways to come to a new level of curiosity on their own. You have to determine, what makes sense within your team, within your company, within your industry.
But just do it! Be open! Explore the unknown! Be curious! That’s an important (though not totally new) contribution to the future of work, too.