I was working with a CEO and his team last week. They’re a great team with incredible accomplishments under their belt. Of course, they are the kind of team that is never satisfied and always looking for the next opportunity to add more value for customers, be more efficient and effective internally, or to create a more rewarding employee experience. Making the shift to big blue-sky thinking didn’t come easily. The problem is, the behavior that makes you good at executing the existing plan can run completely opposite to the behavior you need to generate the new plan. Production mode can be antithetical to innovation mode.

Be Curious

In execution mode, you’re not curious, you’re busy. When you have 17 things to get done before you can leave the office, you’re really not looking for some bolt of lightning to take you off your game. You’re looking for ideas and issues to converge as quickly as possible so you can get to work on the solution. You’ve got sh*t you need to get done! When you’re executing the plan, problems are a nuisance. They must be lassoed, reined in, wrestled to the ground, and worked into submission.

When you’re envisioning a new plan, problems are your friend. You seek them out, stand still and admire them from different angles, make friends with them, and sit down to spend some quality time together. If you’re in execution mode, you might run right past a problem that could be the source of many new opportunities.

Too Busy

How bad is it? Tell me, honestly. Have you got to the point where you’re writing things on your to-do list that you’ve already done, just for the satisfaction of crossing them off? I get it, I find myself in that mode sometimes too. What I know is that, when I’m in that mode, there’s no way I’m going to be writing an article, or working on a new toolkit, or doing anything that requires me to put myself in your shoes. When I’m so busy trying to put one foot in front of the other in my own life, I’m not curious and I’m sure not creative. (Which is why I always write these posts on the weekend, when I can think, and ponder, and play.)

What about your team? How bad is it there? What is your average agenda item per hour rate? Once you get into the 4 or 5 items per hour range, you’re not opening up to divergent thoughts, you’re careening past diversity and feeling frustrated by dissention. When your team is in that mode, it’s not the time for a wide-ranging discussion on how the rise of influencer marketing poses an opportunity and a threat to your business.

If you need to strengthen the curiosity muscle in your team, try the following

Make Time

Set aside a time of no less than 2 hours

Focus (a little)

Give your time a title. Make it short and sweet, like “Millennials,” or “Shipping,” or “Main Street.” With this title, you’re framing the general area where you’d like to slow down and thinking differently. For example, last week, I had a 2.5-hour drive across Florida. I decided to make it thinking time. I titled it “Tools,” to focus me on the tools I want to create to support my upcoming book launch.

Provide Fuel

Provide food for thought. Think of yourself like a biologist trying to create a petri dish of budding ideas. You need to provide some food for thought. In a petri dish, the medium is often agar, a sugary substance that feeds the growing organisms. What’s your agar? Here are some ideas:

  • 3 data points from your operations chosen because they portend a different future than what you’ve been assuming.
  • 1 white paper released by a think tank or a consulting firm
  • 10 transcripts from customer calls into the call center
  • 2 contradictory analyst reports about the future of your industry

It doesn’t really matter what you use as fuel as long as it’s novel information that will support open and curious thinking.

In my example, I had just spoken with two YouTube experts, so I was armed with really interesting data about the length of the most popular YouTube videos (over 9 minutes, surprisingly) and the most common search terms (over 50% of YouTube searches start with “how to”). These data really surprised me and gave me something new to think about.

Ask Questions

A test of a good curiosity session is how many questions it generates, not how many answers. Use broad questions to get the ball rolling.

  • What is going on there?
  • Where are we getting traction?
  • What might be causing (or accelerating) that?
  • When will that trend become mainstream?
  • How could we think differently about x?
  • Who is being underserved at the moment?

For each question, accept no less than three possible answers. Remember, you’re trying to diverge, not converge. You want to consider myriad possibilities. In fact, the best questions don’t lead directly to answers, they cause you to ask another question, like “What about…” or “What if”… or “For whom.” Now the flywheel is really starting to turn.

For my Florida curiosity session, I was wondering, “What are the most common conflicts that erupt on a team?” “What is the root of most arguments?” “What are people most worried about in having conflict at work?” and “What do people need help with?”

Shift Perspectives

Just as everything is starting to heat up, stop and think about what perspective you’ve been using to ask and answer questions. Then deliberately choose another perspective and continue on with that inspiration instead. Give your original perspective to another teammate and see what they come up with.

For me, I know my bias. I often work with very senior leaders in an organization, so my thinking is often skewed to their realities. If I’m going to help more levels of leaders, I need to stop and shift perspectives. “How would it be different for a front-line manager?”

End on a Plan

Curiosity sessions are great for developing divergent ideas but they’re NOT the place to be making decisions. If you’re generating ideas profusely, you’re probably getting well beyond your expertise and getting into the realm of conjecture. That great! It’s just not the time to make a decision. You don’t have the data you need in the room.

Instead, end your curiosity session with a plan for how you’re going to move forward. Who do you need to talk to next? What ideas are worth pursuing and which are you going to archive for later? What data could you use to test the hypotheses you formed? Ironically, the best end to a curiosity session is to let yourself shift back into production mode. Set follow-up tasks, assign who will do when, specify when you want the next steps.

I hear people claiming to be highly strategic, but I really don’t see it in their actions or in their thinking. There’s too much action and too little curiosity. Try these tips to bring a little creativity back into your team.

Further Reading

A Sure Path to Snuffing Out Innovation

What’s Missing from Executive Teams Today

Fast or Agile: Which are you Really Looking for?