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: