Laura, an IT vice president at a midsized energy company, was excited to spend some time with her teams, hold a few skip-level meetings with her direct-reports’ teams, and see their new system in action. Her team had been holding calls every week to discuss the users’ experiences, and all the feedback had been positive. She hoped to collect some great stories to share with the CEO about how the new system was making things easier for the customer service reps and, ultimately, for their customers.
Before her first meeting, Laura sat down with a customer service rep and asked, “Can you show me your favorite part of the new system?”
The rep attempted to pull up the first screen. But after five minutes they were both still staring at an hourglass and waiting for the page to load. The rep looked apologetically at Laura and said, “I’m sorry to waste your time. This usually takes a while.”
Laura’s jaw dropped. The vendor had promised the new system would be seven times faster—not slower. “Can you show me another page,” she asked.
She sat through another slow load time. She turned to the rep, “Is it always like this?”
“Oh, yeah. We’re used to it at this point, but the system has some other nice features.”
Laura thanked the rep and hurried to a quiet conference room where she could call IT. After ten minutes of testing, they realized that the centers’ servers didn’t have the capacity to run the new system. Hundreds of reps had been suffering through a ridiculous wait that wasted their and their customers’ time.
Week after week, supervisors had sat on user-experience calls, fully aware of the issue, and hadn’t said a word. No one had ever raised the issue.
After replacing the server and ensuring everything was back on track, Laura went back to the reps on the user experience team and asked why they had never brought this up.
Well, no one ever asked us about the speed. Our boss told us that we needed to be “change agents” and model excitement for the new system—no matter what. Under no circumstances were we to be negative. So we just smiled, sucked it up, and dealt with it.
We opened Courageous Cultures with an assortment of quotes from frustrated executives who, like Laura, were perplexed at seemingly easy situations that didn’t work—even when everyone involved was reasonably competent and cared. These cultures were characterized by safe silence. The next step to shift the culture from silence to consistent contribution is to Cultivate Curiosity.
Cultivate Curiosity means to intentionally seek out ideas, engagement, and solutions. In organizations with a strong Curiosity culture, executives ensure that infrastructure and training encourage micro-innovation, sharing ideas, and advocating for customers. Leaders at every level ask courageous questions to uncover new ideas, and employees consistently look for ways to make things better—and then share their discoveries.
Laura’s situation is far too common. The “no one asked” reply might be frustrating, but it is one of the most frequent obstacles to a Courageous Culture. Recall the leading reasons people don’t share ideas:
It becomes obvious that asking can help overcome these challenges (number two most obviously). As an engineering design manager shared with us, “When people don’t share, they’re probably afraid or they just don’t know how to get there. They don’t feel like they have a good execution plan or know if their idea is even something we could do.” When people are asked regularly and see a response, they feel valued for their ideas and gain the confidence to share.
Cultivating Curiosity isn’t simply a matter of asking more questions. That helps, but it’s not just that you ask. In Courageous Cultures, leaders ask regularly and skillfully. You ask in ways that draw out people’s best thinking, new ideas, and customer-focused solutions. Everyone knows that when you ask, you sincerely want to know and are committed to taking action on what you learn. Three qualities distinguish how leaders ask questions in a Courageous Culture: they are intentional, vulnerable, and action focused.
Cultivating Curiosity starts with intention: you must ask—a lot. Your leaders have to ask more than might seem reasonable. This kind of asking goes way beyond an open-door policy. In fact, most open-door policies are a passive leadership cop-out. “I’m approachable. I have an open door” puts the responsibility on the team, not the leader. That’s a problem because most of the ideas you need will never walk through your open door. There’s too much friction to overcome: time away from their normal work, not knowing how their manager will respond, or not even realizing they have an idea to share. John Dore, senior executive programme director at the London Business School, explains that permission isn’t enough. “Don’t permit innovation, expect it. Whenever we hear something is ‘allowed’ or ‘OK’ human beings have a natural tendency to become sheepish.” To overcome these hesitations, ask with intention and build systems that make sharing the norm.
Have you ever watched a leader ask for feedback and then defensively justify their decisions and shoot down objections? We have too. In fact, we’ve done it ourselves. As Lorenzo, a talented manager, told David early in his first senior leadership role, “You asked for my perspective and now you’re telling me all the reasons it’s wrong. Why should I waste my time?” Cultivating Curiosity requires leaders to approach their work with confidence and humility. If you’re not vulnerable enough to admit that you can grow, that the current situation can improve, or that there might be a better way, you’ll never get the ideas you need.
We’ve sat through strategic planning sessions and focus groups during which leaders asked questions and everyone in the room knew that the answers didn’t matter. Sometimes, even when the leaders had good intentions, they lacked the ability or willingness to act on what they heard. That’s one reason that mastering the Clarity phase of the Courageous Cultures Cycle is vital: you gain credibility with your team that you can make good ideas work. To Cultivate Curiosity, people need to know that you will act on what you learn. Action takes many forms. It might be that you implement the idea, that the feedback informs your decision, that you take it all in and then respond with next steps, or maybe it’s simply releasing the team to take action on their ideas.
When we looked at the kinds of questions that are intentional, vulnerable, and focused on action, a theme emerged: the questions themselves were courageous. They were very different from the generic improvement questions that average leaders ask. We’ve called these courageous questions and they are your number one way to Cultivate Curiosity.
Courageous questions address the concerns your people have about whether you want to hear what they’re thinking and whether you have the confidence and competence to do something with the answer. A courageous question differs from a generic “How can we be better?” question in three ways. When you ask a courageous question, you:
One of the most powerful courageous questions to Cultivate Curiosity starts with only three words. When your team is stuck between conflicting goals or constraints, the question that will help them get unstuck and generate ideas is “How can we?” This question
starts with the confidence that your team can succeed. We can do this. But it also includes the humility to recognize you don’t have the answer yet. We can do this—but it will take all of us to figure it out.
When you ask “How can we?” it’s often useful to follow up with finding the and between two seemingly disconnected or opposing goals. Recall Karin’s data team: their concern was a classic “How can we…?” question: “How can we sell small business plans and sell data?” The answer propelled the team to massive success. “How can we” works because it focuses your team on solutions. Rather than focus on roadblocks, obstacles, and constraint, you’ve guided the team to look for what’s possible. That’s a totally different energy and will help even your most stodgy team members to move from objections to solutions.
In our conversation with Jason Fried, cofounder of Basecamp, he observed that leaders who are frustrated when people don’t creatively solve problems should pay attention to workload. Creative problem solving, he said, “requires time to think, consider, and marinade. In most companies, there’s no time for that. Calendars are chock full and leaders don’t understand that they’ve spread people too thin.” There are no easy answers to how you can build in margin for reflection, but to start making this shift, consider how you would react if you encountered a productive team member standing at the window, staring into space. You ask, “Hey, what are you up to?” and they were to reply, “Thinking.”
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