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‘The Power of Curiosity – you will never guess what I heard…..’

This is the best message you can leave on a voice mail if you really want someone to actually call you back…. Why?Question

We are born curious and it is this primary emotion that drives us to learn and to listen. Why is it then that so much of the training we attend and the presentations we endure in the corporate world seem to ignore this key driver. I am constantly amazed at how presenters and trainers default to ‘spoon feeding’ their audiences with content heavy transmissions and then wonder why they are facing audiences distracted and with glazed eyes. As leaders we have to learn to harness the power of curiosity if we are to engage, influence and effectively lead.

Sugata MitraI came across the work of award winning Education Scientist Sugata Mitra who works at my home University in Newcastle Upon Tyne and his work with child centered education and I found his conclusions fascinating. If you have a spare 17 mins then you should check out http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_the_child_driven_education.html I can guarantee you will find this a good investment of your time. In essence Sugata proved with his extensive research that children can learn a lot more when their curiosity is piqued and they are left alone to explore. They do not need teachers pushing facts at them. Create the right environment and they will learn.

This conclusion I have noticed for some years with my work with senior leaders. I tend to start any session I run with leaders with some form of simple competitive exercise without ever telling the audience why we are doing it. Even the hardened cynics always do the exercise, they can’t help themselves as they want to know what is going on and curiosity is such a prime emotion it is difficult to switch off. In these exercises I regularly point out that it is amazing what you can get people to do if the environment is right. Food for thought perhaps?

Radical Action Conversations Once the environment is created and participants are in the right ‘state’ we can then bridge into the real value adding activity. In sensei we coined the phrase ‘Radical Action Conversation’ some years ago. It means a conversation that gets to the heart of the matter, one that is future enhancing and carried out between people who trust each other enough to show humility, genuine uncertainty and are open to seek help and support. Unfortunately these are not common characteristics in many executive teams and creating the conditions for such conversations to occur is a real leadership challenge.
Once the conditions are in place however it is remarkable what can be achieved. Stripping out transmission style presentations and opinion based posturing and replacing them with radical action conversations can cut through the noise and produce a great return on time and real progress can be made.

To do this well in an established leadership team requires courage and the capacity to break free from the rituals and routines that plague most executive team meetings. Once achieved however the sense of liberation is palatable, as curiosity once more enters the room replacing cynicism, distraction and boredom.

Is curiosity powerful enough to break habits and change embedded behavior? If you are in doubt then take a look at this 2 minute clip on Youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lXh2n0aPyw
The piano stairs in Stockholm proved most people are naturally attracted to something that piques their curiosity. It can change behaviour, the holy grail for managers trying to lead change. As leaders we need to harness piano stairsthis emotion far more than we do at present as it is a powerful driver for change. Which in short means we have to stop transmitting so much and engage in real dialouge and open conversations.
In my coaching work I often stop executives fretting about the relative merits of the various solutions they have devised, and get them instead to think about the questions they should be asking. In the time pressured world we all live in, it is all too common to skip past the question and start to work on the answer, only to find the question is not the right one in the first place.

In sensei we have developed a number of what we call ‘killer questions’ that can get radical action conversations started. A great example of which is – ‘What is the gap between aspiration and reality and is this a knowing or a doing gap?’ This usually gets the juices flowing….

In our strategy work we have found the use of cartoons can dramatically increase engagement. Nothing beats a leader standing in front of a storyboard telling the story of the journey that lies ahead using pictures rather than just words. Remarkably it does not require ‘story telling skills’ we all have the capacity to tell a story we have created, we have been doing it for generations. We explored this aspect of more in our December 2011 Leadership Conversation ‘I see what you are saying the power of visual stories’
To conclude, a quote from Stephen Wright made me smile: ‘Curiosity might have killed the cat but for a while I was the suspect’ And perhaps more insightful a quote from Albert Einstein:
‘It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.’ As leaders we need to remain curious to fuel our own learning journey but perhaps more importantly we need to tap the curiosity of the people we lead so they are attracted to the journey that lies ahead. There is a real leadership skill here to be mastered…..

Malcolm Follos, March 2013