The demise of the curious question?

A consultant I know recently asked me to help him come up with an ‘icebreaker’ for a workshop he was running. He’d previously attended one of my ‘Working Live’ improvisation sessions and remembered some of the exercises I’d run as being full of energy and insight and he wanted to learn how to run a short 5 minute warm-up for his delegates.  He was particularly interested in the ‘Yes, and’ game we’d played and asked me if I could talk him through what I’d done.

I talked him through the steps in the process and then explained that the whole point was to give people a lived experience of accepting and blocking and for them to notice the different feelings and responses that the exercise evoked. “That’s great” he said “but what’s the big reveal at the end?”

I looked puzzled so he elaborated “What is it that I tell them they have learnt?”  I came to realise he was asking me to let him into some sort of ‘magician’s secret’ – what was the pre-determined point of the exercise that the participants would suddenly realise at the end? What were the conclusions that he’d be leading them to?  I explained “There isn’t a big reveal. Whilst there are some typical responses from participants and a little informing theory, the point is for people to experience the difference between two opposing approaches of interacting with each other. Whatever they learn from this experience that is of value to them is the point of the exercise.” He looked at me expecting more and, realising there wasn’t a secret formula behind the exercise, asked me for a top tip. “Just be genuinely curious about what happens” I replied.

This conversation has stuck in mind over the last month as I’ve started to realise how unusual people find it in the corporate world when they encounter genuine curiosity. It’s almost as if the way in which we develop our leaders has stifled the habit of simply wondering ‘why?’ and allowing others to do the same.  I’ve noticed a number of similar experiences recently where it seems that the act of being genuinely curious has been perceived with the suspicion that there is a secret formula, a hidden intent or a ‘correct’ answer lurking behind the question.

I asked a question at a conference recently that the speaker found tricky to answer. Afterwards he came up and asked me why I’d asked it and what I’d been getting at. I explained to him that I was genuinely curious as to what his answer might be and that there wasn’t any pre-disposed value judgements hiding behind it. I was simply letting my curiosity guide my own learning.

After running an experiential exercise with a group last week I asked the delegates what they had noticed and then continued to ask “and what else?” to help elicit their broad range of experiences. After 4 or 5 ‘and what else’ somebody in the group asked me “What is it we’ve missed?” assuming that I only continued to inquire because they hadn’t yet said the answer I was looking for.  I explained that I was simply curious in hearing their insights, however few or many that there were.

I’m currently running a series of experiments as research for a book on creativity and people are surprised or become dismissive when I tell them that the sole purpose of each experiment is to simply ask the question “What would happen if…..?” as opposed to having any robust or planned scientific hypothesis that I want to prove or disprove.  As I explained to somebody recently “Because I don’t have any real idea where I want these experiments to go, wherever they end up going is wonderful!”

Whilst I do accept that, at a deep unconscious level, I will have some value-laden intent behind all of my curiosity, I am genuinely interested whether our corporate environments are places where we can be deeply curious without triggering a drama triangle, an air of suspicion or appearing dumb and incompetent.

These reflections have prompted me to ask some new curious questions about creativity in the workplace:

Why does the predominant corporate mindset seem to believe that there always has to be a hidden intent or an underlying right answer behind every question?

Why does it feel so risky to be genuinely curious? Does the risk of being perceived as mad, bad or wrong outweigh the possible learning?

Why isn’t ‘What would happen if…?’ a powerful enough rationale for trying something?

Can life and learning not be more like creating an abstract painting and less like a rubbing off a scratchcard?

How can we make it more OK to be more obvious with our curiosity in the workplace?

How might we better use our deep curiosity as a ‘radar’ for our own learning?

A colleague and friend of mine recently shared a wonderful quote from Albert Einstein with me that feels appropriate to end on.

I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious.”