6 mins

Curiosity is a superpower. Here's how to inspire it in your team.

Every day, engineering leaders are confronted with decisions that impact their teams and organizations. These decisions are often focused on how to improve the delivered value and profitability. Possible solutions that come up might include agility, lean management, productivity, return on investment, and more.

But are these approaches solutions of the past? And is curiosity the secret ingredient that can help us uncover better ways of working and delivering value?

A new way of working

In the last 100 years, industry at large has moved from low-complexity standardized work (assembly lines) to complex customized work (software development). But in today’s conceptual age (the age of ideas), we still define work as it was done during the industrial age.

Think about an assembly line worker: their work and the skills they need are defined by their repetitive tasks. Creativity isn't involved. Now think about a software engineer: their tasks (fixing bugs and developing new features) are all unique new problems to solve. The work of a software engineer is to learn: learn about the users, learn new technologies, learn different ways of collaborating. The goal is then to use that knowledge to create solutions to unique problems.

Given this context, the role of the engineering manager is not to help improve productivity – the old industrial style of thinking about productivity is more damaging than helping. Instead, the role of an engineering manager is to help a team and organization improve at learning and creating. Curiosity might just help with that.

What is curiosity?

First, it’s important to understand and define what curiosity is. Curiosity can be associated with many different concepts like learning, exploration, desire to get more information, playing, and more, which can make it difficult to define. One of the definitions that I find interesting is Stefaan Van Hooydonk’s, founder of the Global Curiosity Institute:

 “The intentional mindset to challenge the status quo, explore, discover and learn”.

This definition highlights the direct link between curiosity and innovation. We could almost use the same definition for innovation by replacing, “The intentional mindset”, with, “The actions”. Curiosity is the mindset that leads individuals, or teams, to take actions to challenge the status quo, and therefore, innovate. In an environment where curiosity is encouraged and nurtured, teams will naturally question the ways of working or the technical decisions, leading them to unlock their potential and generate new ideas.

What value can curiosity bring to your team?

The world has never been as connected as it is today. We live in a giant network of communication where millions of pieces of information are generated, sent, and received every day. This is often described as VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity). In such a complex network of information, it is impossible to analyze, anticipate, and even plan what is going to happen. For a team to thrive in such an environment, they need to have adaptability, interest in learning, and self-questioning. Intentional curiosity fosters all these qualities.

Encouraging a culture of curiosity in a team also helps build psychological safety. That’s because curiosity encourages trying new things, interrogating failures with an open mind, and asking questions. Questions are the perfect solution in a VUCA environment. As the world becomes more complex and dynamic, the value of questions increases, compared to the value of answers. Every solution or answer comes with an expiration date, either because the problem it solved does not exist anymore, or because a new technology has emerged and changed the problem. Questions, on the other hand, don't really expire, and drive innovation by allowing us to look at a problem differently.

What’s getting in the way of your team’s curiosity?

Curiosity has three enemies:

1. Lack of time

In our day-to-day jobs, we don’t have the space to reflect and ask questions. We are constantly required to attend meetings and reply to emails or direct messages. This leaves us no time and energy to be more curious. 

2. Fear of asking questions

Asking questions can require showing vulnerability, as we’re admitting that we don’t know or understand a certain topic. A fear of asking questions is quite common, and can be ground into us in cultures where question-asking isn’t welcomed.

3. Knowledge

Finally, the third enemy is knowledge. The more we know, or we think we know, about something, the less curious we become. Knowledge or expertise makes it more difficult to adopt a different point of view or to think outside the box and challenge the status quo.

How to develop curiosity in your team

Finding more time and space to be curious is challenging and requires being intentional about it. Here are a few strategies to help counter the above enemies:

1. Run curiosity-driving events

A good way to start could be to have a book club for your team, or have a monthly hack day to let your team explore and discover new things. Encourage your team to share what they have learned or explored during these days.

2. Encourage questioning

This can be challenging at the beginning, but small steps can change the culture and  make questioning feel safe:

Adopt the attitude, “Don’t bring me solutions – bring me problems!” This is the opposite of the classic phrase. Ask your team members to bring you problems, and encourage them to challenge the status quo.

Start having question-storming sessions in your team. Think of these as the opposite of brainstorming sessions. While brainstorming focuses on finding solutions, question-storming focuses on finding problems. During a question-storming session, the goal is to come up with as many questions as possible about a defined theme in a specified amount of time. For example, “Our users' subscriptions are down 10% year over year. You have 15 minutes to come up with as many questions as possible.”

Use the, “Why, What if, How?” framework with your team. This framework helps us understand a challenge or problem (“Why”), generates different ideas (“What if”), and finally starts solving the problem (“How”). This is interesting because people tend to start with the “How”, without having a good definition of the problem, and without having considered different ideas or perspectives.

3. Foster diversity

Finally, diversity is a big factor in increasing curiosity in your team. The more diverse your team is, the more different point of views and cultural backgrounds you have, which is extremely valuable, and helps to challenge the status quo.