You probably think that your expertise—in whatever area it exists—is the primary reason behind your success. But you’d be wrong. In a knowledge economy powered by Google and social networks, one in which facts and figures are but a mouse click away, it’s not what you think but how you think that sets you apart. And the how is greatly influenced by your degree of curiosity, because that’s the characteristic that motivates people to find new solutions to old (and new) problems. In other words, curiosity is the key to success for you personally, as well as for your company.
This is the theme of The Power of Why by Amada Lang, co-host of CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange and senior business correspondent for CBC News.
Lang fills her book with many interesting examples about companies of all sizes that have harnessed curiosity to drive success. From startups like SawStop, a company that has developed and markets an ultra-safe table saw, to giants like IBM and DreamWorks Animation, Lang writes that having the curiosity to ask the critical question “why?”—and to ask it over and over—is one of the most important things any leader can do.
She describes a great example with Canadian Tire, demonstrating how one of its research teams, in its constant striving to understand “why,” cracked the code on what’s important to men. The results affected the entire company, from advertising to merchandising to the corporate culture.
Lang spends considerable time talking about the best ways to harness curiosity. She starts off with some absorbing anecdotes and advice about identifying the “right problem” in the first place. The latter is tougher than you’d think. Lang then talks about the innovative breakthroughs that can occur when business leaders ask “why” questions, as happened with investment bank Gordon Capital in the 1980s and Lululemon more recently.
She also touches on the process of creativity, debunking the common myth that groups generally come up with more creative solutions than individuals do. Lang argues that this is true only if you use specific approaches and include specific people. Outsiders, in particular, can offer huge benefits by asking new questions and offering new perspectives.
Lang hammers this point home by describing the dilemma of a maker of computer servers. This company was struggling to convince the all-important internet service providers (ISPs) to buy its servers. Then, one of the firm’s management consultants (i.e., an outsider) went on a sales call and talked with a prospect to figure out why. The reason, it turns out, was because the plugs connecting the servers to one another in a stack were located on the back of the machine instead of the front. This was a key buying consideration for ISPs, which often need to change individual servers within a stack quickly and efficiently when they go down.
This seems so trivial. Yet no one had noticed the simple fact that putting the plug on the back had made it harder to swap out a malfunctioning server—until an outsider asked why.
Lang rightly points out that when looking for answers to complicated “why” questions, a company is bound to experience some failures. She writes that it’s important to frame these failures as “just part of a natural process of elimination that clears the path to success,” as Siemens CEO Peter LÃ¶scher put it. Lang concludes this theme by reminding the reader that you can learn from your mistakes only if you actually analyze them—and, even then, only if you separate this analysis from a search for blame and fault.
To find innovative solutions to complex problems, she advises looking at companies in sectors unrelated to yours that have already solved similar problems. Lang shows how General Mills increased its sales by studying how various retailers, from RadioShack to a pet store, stocked their shelves and packaged their products.
She also demonstrates that curiosity is a strong contributor to employee engagement. Without it, a company is left with employees who do the bare minimum to get by and who negatively influence those around them. One study that Lang quotes showed that only 14% of employees are engaged, with 24% disengaged and 62% just showing up for a paycheque.
One way Lang suggests managers can leverage curiosity and get more engagement is through the flocking theory: when birds fly in a flock, the inner birds take their cue from the ones on the periphery, which have the best view of where to find food and water and of predators to avoid. Applying this theory to business, firms can empower those on the periphery (i.e., front-line employees) to influence those on the inside (i.e., management) who are responsible for making major company decisions.
Lang cites Whole Foods as a success story that follows this principle. The company gives its employees at individual stores full access to company data so they can provide front-line input into decisions about product placement and pricing. True, many businesses may not be prepared to go that far, but having senior management regularly spend time on the front lines is a good starting point.
The Power of Why is filled with engaging anecdotes that leaders of any stripe will be entertained by, and presents a number of valuable business theories that many readers will discover for the first time. However, by the end it does seem as though the cat is batting about the same mouse, just in different ways.
That said, if this book doesn’t peak your curiosity to learn more about how curiosity can help you and your company succeed, it may just be a matter of time before your company’s fate is relegated to the more traditional effect that curiosity has on cats.
Garrett Taylor is the chief difference officer (CDO) at Big Diff, a Toronto-based business consultancy that helps entrepreneurs and leadership teams define and communicate their company’s “B.I.G. difference.” In his down time, he’s always reading a business book, whether a current bestseller or a well-thumbed classic.
More columns by Garrett Taylor