I have worked with over 40 different organizations during the past few years that have embarked on a journey to transform the way they engage their B2B customers. All made significant investments in retraining their customer-facing teams to engage differently, deliver value and to focus on the thing of their customers care most about: business outcomes. But not all have seen their investment bear fruit.
Why should their levels of success be so variable? Countless business books have been written about this very subject. And whether it’s organizational change or business strategy, almost every one identifies the same reasons: business leaders typically do a poor job of leading change, be it due to competing priorities, lack of knowledge or poor application.
But if we know these reasons, why do leaders and their teams still struggle? In last month’s Harvard Business Review, Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes and Charles Sull put this failure down to a consistent breakdown in leaders’ ability to execute their business strategies ( Why Strategy Execution Unravels - and what to do about it). And while that is often true, I believe the authors overlooked a more fundamental issue that plagues almost every organization.
Leaders lack curiosity.
In particular, they lack:
- The curiosity to become better leaders
- The curiosity to learn what good looks like and to share best practices with others
- The curiosity to develop or learn why team members struggle with new skills
- And vitally, they lack curiosity about their own and their customers’ businesses.
Simply defined, curiosity is, “the desire to learn or know more about something or someone.” It is the starting point to every great idea, invention and new business. It is what makes some businesses wildly successful while others are just average and it’s the real reason why some leaders and their teams succeed, while others fail.
As Jeff Bezos put it, “You have to say, ‘Wait a second. Why are we doing it this way? Could it be better? Could it be different?’ That kind of curiosity, that explorer’s mind, that childlike wonder, that’s what makes an inventor.”
Take Sir Isaac Newton. He’s best known for his law of universal gravitation, a concept famously inspired by seeing an apple fall from a tree. So why Newton? Apples and other objects had been falling from trees and various other places for millennia. But Newton had the curiosity ask the fundamental question, “why did the apple fall?”
The same happens in business every day. Leaders fail time and time again to understand the situations, people or customers they are engaging with because they simply aren’t curious about them and feel more comfortable not leaving their comfort zones to find out.
The authors of ‘Why Strategy Execution Unravels’ argue that organizations fail at execution because they don’t adapt quickly enough to changing market conditions and that most leaders solve problems by trying to reduce them to single dimensions. And while that’s true, what they really lack is more fundamental. They lack Business Curiosity.
Thriving in a complex and volatile business environment requires leaders who approach every day, every problem and every opportunity with an inquisitive spirit. It’s this curiosity that drives leaders to learn their companies inside and out and to never stop looking for ideas to improve.
This thirst for knowledge and wondering ‘why’ enhances their ability to spot trends, anticipate changes and tackle challenges. As Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of video-game company Atari and author of Finding the Next Steve Jobs says, "Being able to problem-solve is more advantageous than just knowing the right answer."
Business Curiosity is the skill of looking at your (or your customer’s) business differently and uncovering ideas and opportunities that disrupt the thinking, processes and practices which your company (or your customer) has grown accustomed to. Business Curiosity starts with deep listen listening, and it requires continuously asking “why?” without being satisfied by superficial answers. Answers don’t change the world; questions do.
Business Curiosity requires leaders to challenge the processes that made them successful, that are used by their organizations and by the customers they serve. Only once the beliefs, expectations and presumptions that underpin why things are done a certain way are uncovered can leaders start to reshape thinking, actions and outcomes. And it is at this point that they can start to capture and create more value for the businesses they lead.
In 2014, Forbes contributor, Micha Kaufman, listed 10 Traits of Great Business Leaders. Six of these have direct ties to curiosity. Whether it is passion, vision, persistence, having an eye for talent, fearlessness or an unwillingness to take ‘no’ for an answer, understanding “why” allows you to think differently, to learn from mistakes, and to understand what makes people and organizations tick.
Get out of your way
Almost every business leader will say that one of the biggest challenges they face is managing time. Leaders get pulled in countless directions at a pace that would make a Formula 1 race feel like a Sunday afternoon stroll. But in reality, most leaders spend far too much time on low value, under-productive chores, which at best create only incremental value to the business and the teams they lead.
In coaching workshops I have asked over 300 business leaders to measure the time they spend working with direct reports. The results are both eye-opening and troubling.
Assuming 240 workdays per year, most only spend between 30 and 60 days per year directly engaging with team members - that’s less than 20% of their time. The rest is frittered away in internal meetings, on processes and immersed in ‘status quo thinking’, all of which erodes their ability to exercise the curiosity that inspires new ideas and pushes the thinking of those around them.
Yet time utilization is only one symptom of a deeper malaise. Organizational behavior, specifically the systemic inward focus of most organizations, is the real root cause. Mitch Little, Vice President, Worldwide Sales for semiconductor giant, Microchip, sums it up this way: "I think the biggest hurdle to developing curiosity is simply history and past beliefs. We have been groomed leaders and sales people for generations to think one thing... our products, their benefits, their features and the competition. Our legacy is the biggest impediment to our future. It is time to think different! I believe that once it is understood and unleashed, the natural curiosity of our childhood can be brought out again."
Breaking this inward focus requires alignment at all levels. First, leaders (and their bosses) need to prioritize time differently, focusing on customers (their people and end users). And they need to block time to do this, regardless of what’s going on around them in their own organization.
Next, leaders must take a curious interest in the skills and goals of their team members and they must be willing to have tough conversations to really understand what is limiting personal performance and getting in the way of their success. A leader who purposely spends 60-80% of their time traveling and engaging with their team for three months will be amazed what they will learn both about their team and about themselves.
By clearing the biggest obstacle to progress - YOU - leaders give themselves permission to learn more and engage differently with both team members and customers. They actually give themselves a chance to become more curious.
building business curiosity
Leaders can develop business curiosity personally and in their teams by expanding their Curiosity Quotient (CQ). CQ differs from IQ (intellectual horsepower) and EQ (emotional maturity), as it relates to an individual’s ability to have a hungry mind, and a thirst for knowledge and understanding.
It is not as widely studied as IQ and EQ, but as another HBR article, Curiosity Is as Important as Intelligence, revealed, people with higher CQ are more inquisitive and open to new experiences. They find novelty exciting and are quickly bored with routine. They tend to generate many original ideas and are counter-conformist.
Evidence suggests CQ is just as important when it comes to managing complexity. First, individuals with higher CQ are generally more tolerant of ambiguity. This nuanced, sophisticated, subtle thinking style defines the very essence of complexity. Second, CQ leads to higher levels of intellectual investment and knowledge acquisition over time. Knowledge and expertise, much like experience, translate complex situations into familiar ones, so CQ is the ultimate tool for leaders and their teams to devise simple solutions for complex problems.
Developing a high CQ takes time and practice, particularly because it far more about changing your behavior rather than learning a new skill. Here are four ways to get started:
Be a Curious Learner: Spend at least an hour per week learning about business, the markets you serve, and your customers’ businesses.
Become More Curious: Ask better questions in every conversation whether at work or outside of work. Listen for how you respond to conversations and hold your urge to respond with your own story.
Disrupt the Status Quo: With your team and with other leaders, discuss what status quos are holding back your company and your customer’s business, preventing you both from reaching your full potential today.
Dig Deeper: Try to understand the underlying beliefs, experiences and assumptions that are underneath current business processes and practices. Dig for the “Why” and understand why you (and they) do business the way you do business today.
Remember, CQ can be developed and doing so will unlock something incredible in you, your organization and your team. As Albert Einstein said: “I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted…I am only very, very curious”.