How Curious is Your Organization?

I recently was asked by a customer how he could encourage his organization to be “more curious.” I think as leaders we can all imagine the positive outcomes from any organization that is “curious” – less insular, more listening, faster sensing. I would go as far as to say that any organization trying to become adaptable, agile or execute just plain faster in today’s hyper-connected markets requires a strong dose of “curiosity” baked into its culture. I think an argument can be made that the ability to adapt may be proportional to one’s capacity for curiosity.

But how do you create a curious culture? I struggled with this question until the January 2013 issue of National Geographic landed in my mailbox with this cover theme: “Why We Explore.” Inside was a fascinating article called “Restless Genes” written by David Dobbs. The article ( ) provided panoply of scientific evidence as to why humans explore.

The compulsion to see what lies beyond the far ridge or that ocean – or this planet—is a defining part of human identity and success.” – David Dobbs.

The article helped me conceptualize a framework for enabling a curiosity-based culture inside an organization. I learned three things about human behavior that encourages us to explore – why we are curious – and what we as leaders can do to unleash some of it our organizations.

First, I was stunned to understand that about 20 percent of human beings have a mutated gene called DRD4-R7. Those of us with this gene tend to be more curious and restless; we take more risks in exploring new places, food and ideas. Remarkably, Dobbs says people with this “explorer’s gene” who lived a settled lifestyle within the confines of a village tended to “wither” and become malnourished. Dobbs went to great pains to point out that a gene alone does not make someone an explorer. In the right environmental conditions, however, those with the gene flourished and the societies around them benefited from the bounties of their exploration.

Here is what I think this means to us as leaders: We must institutionalize a system to identify and engage the explorers inside our organizations. In Cisco, we have a select group of men and women called Distinguished Engineers – a tiny fraction of Cisco’s engineering team, but these “DE’s” as they are called, are the Internet’s original explorers who invented the standards and products powering the mobile, social, visual and virtual world we all take for granted today. But truthfully Cisco did not always know how to engage these DEs in our day-to-day engineering innovations – I guess you could say that for a while they were “settled” and undeniably restless. To his credit, Cisco’s President and COO Gary Moore recognized this gap and over the past two years has re-engaged the DE community and many are now serving in CTO roles across the engineering organization. The lesson: Formalize a system to recognize your explorers and ensure they are consistently engaged in your team’s innovation paths.

A restless person may thrive in a changeable environment but wither in a stable one; likewise with any genes that help produce the restlessness.” David Dobbs.

The article identified a second trait about human explorers that I already knew: the extended childhood of a human is unique among our closest genetic neighbors. What I didn’t grasp is the impact of childhood on exploration. What’s uniquely human is the many years we get to play, fail and succeed at games that help us grasp the possibilities and rewards of exploring. (Ok, I can admit it, I was one of those kids who stood in the driveway facing his basketball hoop with this imaginary game going through my head, Ricci has the ball…five seconds to go…he takes Earl “The Pearl” Monroe left… he fakes…he shoots…he scores!!!) These years as a “child” and the games we play as children are vital in learning the value of exploration and its rewards.

It’s completely possible to create “play” inside organizations. At Cisco, one of our leadership development disciplines focuses on experiential learning, where leaders play roles and different personas in solving real-world Cisco problems. Nothing is at stake, other than perhaps a bruised ego of learning an important lesson – we call this “action learning.” Another example of “play” inside an organization is the use of “knowledge markets,” a structured form of crowd-sourcing where ideas to problems compete with each other in a “market.” Cisco has leveraged knowledge markets for a wide range of applications; we once used it to identify the top five questions on the mind of Cisco’s leadership team about the company’s strategy. Dobbs says that as we get older, we tend to play less. The lesson: “playing” may have to be manufactured, encouraged and rewarded to model the lesson of taking risks, failing and learning.

We do less of this (play) as we get older and become less willing to explore novel alternatives and are more conditioned to stick with familiar ones.” Alison Gopnick, quoted in “Restless Genes” and author of The Scientist in the Crib.

I already knew that human hands with our five fingers, including a thumb, were a competitive advantage for Homo sapiens in the battle for resources. In the final lesson from the article, what I didn’t’ know is that societies tended to develop mythology around those people who excelled at “clever hands,” as author Dobbs refers to innovations created by those hands. Mythology made it “cool” to be “clever”; a little like the adulation the Steve Jobs’ of the world receive today. The marine vocabulary of the Polynesians conferred great status on ship builders; as Dobbs says, “Like today’s astronauts.” This social standing was a motivating force to continue exploring. I recently visited Cisco’s customer briefing center in Tokyo and, as I walked down the hallway past a bank of Cisco equipment, I stopped because I saw a box that was a different color from all the others. It was white with red lettering on it. I knew right away when my eyes focused specifically on this box that I was looking at a Cisco “AGS” router, the product that was used in the first-ever commercial Internet connection. A group of us just stood there for a few minutes and talked about what this AGS box meant to Cisco – and the world. It is not an understatement to say the AGS changed the world. I’ve always believed that culture is built on the backs of important symbols. The mythology around the Cisco AGS router is every bit in our vocabulary as the sail is in the Polynesian marine vocabulary. The lesson: Nostalgia is what keeps an organization from moving forward, but the myths of what symbolizes the great accomplishments of your organization should be celebrated and must be front and center in your team’s culture.

When you set sail to find new lands, you became mythologized – even if you didn’t come back.” National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis quoted in “Restless Genes.”

Cisco CEO John Chambers frequently says culture is the responsibility of leaders. Curiosity may kill the cat, but it may be the most important attribute of a resilient organization in a constant state of evolution to win in today’s markets. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to set curiosity free inside our organizations, in the same way the great human explorers dared to go places that others feared but few ventured.

“…for the larger powers we gain through culture…it gives our malleable genomes, imaginative minds, and clever hands the power to transform even the strongest forces in our environment — wind, water, current — from threat to opportunity.” David Dobbs.


This article is also posted at Switch and Shift:

Inside the Collaboration Crystal Ball: Four New Year’s Resolutions to Speed Up Your Organization

Organizations of all types enter 2013 with one key priority:  how do they move faster and execute with greater agility while still remaining flexible and adaptable to the rapid changes in markets? 

CEOs around the world are looking to collaboration as their top strategy to increase the speed of their organizations. Why?  Because collaboration eliminates the friction that slows organizations down – whether that friction comes from people or processes. 

The amount of friction in your organization is directly proportional to your ability to speed up your team.  Friction is sometimes purposeful, such as passive-aggressive behavior.  Other times friction comes from processes that create decisions without any clarity or a clear definition of success.

Here are four New Year’s resolutions for all leaders to curb their organizational friction and speed up their team’s execution with collaboration:

1.) Take a holistic view of collaboration. Collaboration does indeed deliver transactional value, such as Telepresence, which eliminates the need to travel.  But the transformative value of collaboration comes from looking at your organization holistically – by leveraging culture, process and technology in combination. My Cisco colleague Carl Wiese and I wrote The Collaboration Imperative with this end-to-end perspective in mind.  You can read a sample chapter of our book that here outlines this holistic approach to collaboration.

2.) Embrace the behaviors of a collaborative leader. Of all the strategies available to leaders to create speed in their organizations, none is more important than the behaviors of the leaders themselves. This is because nothing slows an organization down more than a culture of internal competition and the executive behaviors that encourage it. Collaboration encourages a culture of shared goals as it minimizes hoarding and competition by creating an environment that shares information, diagnoses problems, raises concerns, coordinates efforts and identifies possible initiatives and transition points – all which ratchet up the pace of an organization’s ability to execute. Read more about the four behaviors of collaborative leaders here.

3.) Invest in your collaboration persona. Leadership is how we “show up” every day in front of our teams.  But how do we show up as leaders in a world where work is increasingly done on a mobile phone or tablet, or using a video chat, web conference or Telepresence? This is one of the greatest leadership challenges of this hyper-connected world. As a leader you will need to know what I like to call your “collaboration persona” – that way in which your leadership style shows up when you’re not in the physical world. We all have to learn to be virtual stars in our own, authentic way.  You can learn more about how to understand and embrace your collaboration persona in this blog.

4.) Make clarity and decision making synonymous.  At each stage in the chain of decision-making in your organization, ambiguity looms as the enemy of clarity. In worst cases, ambiguity leads to conspiracy theories and people actually work against each other. In most cases, work simply slows down while people seek out answers. I’m convinced that most people don’t wake up in the morning trying to second-guess decisions. Ambiguity is your enemy as the leader of a team. You can transform your team’s natural curiosity into a powerful source of discretionary effort – all it takes is a little clarity.  Read here for ways to increase decision clarity on your team.

Good luck with your own new year’s resolutions.

Follow me on Twitter at @RonRicciCisco


GREAT WORK’s Michael Bungay Stanier Interviews Ron Ricci

by Michael Bungay Stanier of GREAT WORKS

For more than a decade, Ron has worked at Cisco as the vice president of executive and customer engagement to develop and nurture a culture of sharing collaborative processes. Ron’s work lays out in 21st century terms the increasing need to have global reach and connect with teams around the world. He is co-author of The Collaboration Imperative, a beautifully designed book that is very accessible, fun and engaging. In it, he weaves both his experience at Cisco as well as other organizations to understand and encourage new approaches to teamwork. In this interview Ron and I discuss his perspective on collaboration, including:

  • How to take a holistic approach to collaboration
  • The shiny object syndrome
  • Three meeting formats to help you stop wasting so much time
  • Understanding different decision-making styles

Listen to the audio interview here:

Collaboration: The Business Opportunity of the Decade

It’s clear from our conversations with customers around the world that we’re in the early stages of a fundamental shift in business. It’s the decade of collaboration. A time of flash communities and knowledge accidents. A time when video, virtualization, social media and mobility influence everything we do. A time when employees from any remote corner of an organization can provide the spark for your next important innovation.

But only if you set the stage for collaboration.

Building a collaborative organization isn’t easy. It takes a transformative approach to culture, processes and technology—and an unwavering commitment from top to bottom. Do it and you will be rewarded with an energized organization that can adapt quickly to changing markets and deliver tangible results.

That’s why I recently partnered with my colleague, Ron Ricci, Cisco’s Vice President of Corporate Positioning, to write The Collaboration Imperative, a book that dives into the culture, process and technology dimensions of successful collaboration. It offers practical tips and strategies for making companies more collaborative and looks at how some of the world’s leading companies are sharpening their collaboration edge.

We also introduce some surprising facts. For example, did you know that….

  • The biggest barriers to collaboration are not technical—they are cultural and organizational in nature
  • Collaboration can’t be deployed; it must be embraced
  • It’s not enough to change roles; you have to change rewards
  • Collaboration requires stronger personal communications skills
  • Although collaboration is about decentralizing, it has to start at the top
  •  The average return on collaboration is four times a company’s initial investment

Leave a comment to  share your experiences as you embrace collaboration. Which best practices are you most proud of? What issues are you facing? And what lessons have you learned? Let’s keep the conversation going…