The Power of Impatient Learning

What happens to our curiosity as we grow up?  As soon as we are born we are asking questions of the world. Before we can talk we are looking at, touching and (in the case of my children) tasting everything around us. The moment we can string a question together we ask incessant mostly unanswerable questions to our irritated parents. But then we go to school and something happens. We are rewarded for answering questions from an ever-decreasing corpus. No credit is given for asking great questions. By the time we enter the work-place, all curiosity has been beaten out of us. We enter a world of work where everyone seems to be an expert and asking questions becomes an act of personal courage rather than driven from a sense of wonder. Yet curiosity is what drives innovation. Challenging questions provoke better decisions. We all have innate curiosity yet the companies that employ us are suppressing it rather than utilising its boundless power.

The problem is partially created by the corporate structures that have evolved over decades. For example consider how funds are allocated for business initiatives. An idea is promoted by a business leader who will pull together a business case which at best is a guess based on a set of unspoken assumptions but is often an overly spun work of fiction. We then assign accountability to the business leader to deliver the business case. Her bonus will depend on the outcome and therefore she will spend all her energy demonstrating that the original idea remains a good one despite any emerging contradictory evidence. There is strong pressure to avoid the challenging questions and curiosity is suppressed.

Therefore companies find it hard to stop investments that are not working.  Riskier bets are avoided as it means someone has to stake their career on the outcome.

A large part of the key to unlocking curiosity therefore is to re-invent the structures that suppress it. For example here are three elements of an alternate approach that replaces the career threatening business case with a curiosity driven approach.

  1. When considering how to improve an aspect of business performance, define the desired outcome very precisely. Identify the exact measure that you will use to measure attainment of the goal. This can be financial e.g. revenue from new customers over the next 3 months or a customer goal e.g. improvement in the App Store rating over the next 10,000 downloads.  Then specify the 3 to 5 drivers that you believe have most impact over the outcome and you can influence. For example salesperson training or the response time of the app. Ensure that outcomes and drivers can be baselined and measured. What you have is a simple model of your business and your strategy. Interestingly, the choice of drivers and outcomes is often at odds with a previous stated strategy.  
  1. Build an understanding of the causation between the drivers and the outcomes by running a series of experiments. As opposed to pinning all hopes and reputations on untested assumptions, set out to learn what are the most impactful drivers. List out the hypothesis, construct the experiments and look at the results. There should be as much celebration if the hypothesis is proven to be incorrect as if it is correct since you will have avoided wasted effort. Through experimentation you can learn whether you have the right drivers and become increasingly granular in your understanding of the relationship between driver and outcome. This approach is of course based on the scientific method which has been the basis of scientific learning, but shunned by the vast majority of businesses, for centuries.
  1. Change the way business reviews are conducted. Other than help remove obstacles, senior managers reviewing such an approach to improving business performance should focus on 2 questions during a business review

    What do you expect to learn from the experiments that you are running next week?

    What did you learn from the experiments you ran last week?

This approach forces a conversation based on curiosity and soon the focus of the team will pivot to question how to increase the rate of experimentation so that the learning can be faster. They will have developed the habit of “impatient curiosity” which is one of the six essential habits of transformational leadership.

Following this approach means that accountability for outcome remains but is not fixed to a set of assumptions that cannot be adjusted. 

I covered “insistence on improvement” and “intellectual humility” in my recent posts and in my next I will dive into the fourth essential habit of transformation leadership. 

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