Creating Curious Teams

by Lawrence Brock and Laurence Haughton

Does curiosity matter?

Consider Canadian multinational Blackberry, who almost doubled their sales revenue every year between 2003 and 2011.

So what happened in 2012? It wasn’t the arrival of Apple’s iPhone. That was released in 2007.

In 2012 Blackberry’s lack of curiosity caught up with them. Founder, Mike Lazaridis famously said, “Try typing a webkey on a touchscreen on an Apple iPhone, that’s a real challenge.” (Steve Jobs didn’t care. “Your thumbs will get smarter,” he said) Blackberry were overconfident, due to their history of success, that they had no curiosity about the iPhone. Within a few years they were a niche player and today they no longer make phones.

Blackberry isn’t alone — only 60 companies that appeared in the Fortune 500 in 1955 exist today. The average lifespan of a top US corporation has halved over the last 30 years.

Success can turn into a death spiral if you stop asking questions and insist you already know the answers.

There’s a fascinating study, in “Why Leaders Don’t Learn from Success”, where students worked on two decision-making problems. After submitting their solutions to the first problem, the participants were told whether they had succeeded. They were then given time to reflect before starting the second problem. Compared with the people who failed at the first problem, those who had succeeded spent significantly less time reflecting on the strategies they’d used: Those who succeeded on the first task were more likely to fail on the second. They had stopped being curious.

Survival depends on an organisation’s ability to be customer obsessed, strategically aligned, quick and adaptable, purpose-driven and highly collaborative. The skill common to all these attributes is curiosity.

Everybody on a team (not just the C suite) needs to be noticing and understanding the sometimes subtle changes in their ecosystem. Curiosity is fundamental to an enquiring mindset.

How do you encourage your staff to be more curious?

There are different kinds of curiosity:

Perceptual — noticing something has changed e.g. “Can I smell smoke?”

Epistemic — directing our interest toward learning e.g. “What could I do to be better?”

Diversive — deciding to shift our attention e.g. “What is happening over there?”

Encourage your team to remain open to new or unexpected possibilities, and guide rather than direct their reports. If they move too quickly to solution mode or dictate how people should work, your managers will stifle curious behaviour. Consider where each member of your management team fits within the curiosity matrix:

The Authority

Is most comfortable being the source of knowledge and providing constant, clear instructions. This manager places a high value on knowing the correct answer and is quick to apportion blame when there is failure. The solution is always clear from the outset to The Authority and the team will remain disengaged.

The Vacillator

Believes in the divine efficiency of hierarchy but accepts the world is ambiguous. The Vacillator wants to appear decisive but changes their mind based on the latest information. Often found with a perfectionist streak, this manager values decisiveness and at the same time, tries to stay open to new possibilities. The result is a very busy manager and a team bouncing off the walls.

The Manipulator

The manager who delegates to their team but retains an iron-grip on the shape of the solution, resulting in their team feeling deceived. The tighter the manager holds on to their detailed vision of success, while also encouraging their team to explore new ideas, the greater the sense of frustration when they find those ideas blocked.

The Explorer

A manager who encourages their team to try different approaches and provides support as needed to ensure their success. This can feel risky but is actually the safest quadrant.

Here are four practical ways to encourage your team’s curiosity skills.

Bake curiosity into your processes

Review all processes and add a questioning stage if one is missing. Ensure all future processes include at least one type of inquiry step, such as identifying risks or information gaps. Project or initiative reviews are another important way to check that the right questions are being asked. Rewrite meeting agendas into a series of questions. Celebrate curiosity — people will remain curious if it is safe to be so.

Reward curious behaviour

Recognise people who ask good questions. Reinforce the importance of taking an open, non-judgmental, inquiring position by rewarding good examples with public recognition. Protect individuals who ask questions as they try to understand. There may be others who don’t want to wait and who shut down the line of inquiry since they believe momentum is more important. Remind them there is no such thing as a dumb question.

Use the scientific method

Since the Middle Ages, the cycle of hypothesis, prediction, testing and questioning has been the gold standard for accelerated learning. How you do this will depend on your organisational culture, however it is important to remember that humility is the foundation quality of the scientific method. “Inquiry regards itself as fallible.”


Inspire your people to keep an open mind. Expose them to different viewpoints and sources of creativity. Challenge them to argue from an opposing view. Be alert to topics or tasks the team finds boring and show them how an inquiring mindset makes everything more interesting.

As you encourage their questioning, watch your own speech — for example your selection of adjectives. Describing someone’s actions as “impulsive” is quite different to saying they are “instinctive”. Words carry judgements whether we mean them to or not. And when the boss speaks, everybody is quick to read between the lines.

Show the importance of identifying assumptions — especially when they are accepted as ‘common knowledge’, ‘best practice’, or ‘the wisdom of experience’. There is nothing inherently wrong with assumptions (they might be correct) but they remain risks until validated.

Get your people comfortable with asking questions. Help them understand that questions are more powerful than statements demonstrating capability.

Here’s a method you can teach your team, the ‘Count to Three’ rule of conversations:

  1. There are points in a conversation where you can add your own experiences or opinions. Your colleague might say “I could never move to the provinces, I’m a big city person”, and you can immediately think of close friends who moved to a regional town and loved it. But instead, you count ‘one’, and ask “What is it about city living you’d miss most if you moved to a smaller town?”
  2. Your colleague says, “It took me much longer than I expected to find a new job…” While you could sympathise by recounting your own stories of job seeking, you count ‘two’ instead, and ask “Which recruitment companies do you think did the best job?”
  3. Your colleague says “My favourite movie last year was The Florida Project”. Instead of telling them Willem Dafoe is one of your favourite actors, you count “three” and ask, “What did you think of the ending?”

Only after substituting three questions for comments, do you allow yourself the option to contribute an opinion.

Time to Decide

by Lawrence Brock and Laurence Haughton

Decision making is risky. Go too slow and you risk the nearly irreversible costs of delay like missing a big opportunity (see how Apple squandered a 3 year lead with Siri) or looking timid, hesitant and very unleader-like. Go too fast and you risk the cost of wasting time and money by getting it wrong (see Waikato District Health Board finally admits defeat with their SmartHealth venture) or looking impulsive and unreliable (also very unleader-like).

There are good arguments for not moving too fast. Books such as Wait suggest that putting off decisions to the last possible moment, gives us more time to gather and analyse information, and create strategy. In our experience waiting sometimes allows problems to solve themselves. “Don’t just do something… sit there,” has been great advice.

On the other hand, there is a lot to be said for deciding fast. It’s the most powerful prescription for neutralising organisational resistance to change (kaizen blitzkrieg), it’s an awesome competitive advantage (grow fast or die slow) and when you can tell everyone “We blow through speed-bumps” you become irresistibly attractive internally and externally.

So how do you choose? When is it better to go slow, or fast?

Here are four tools for different decision making situations that help:

1. Every decision is a door

This is first because it’s simplest. Jeff Bezos (annual letter to shareholders) imagines each decision is a door.

Door 1: This door locks after you pass through — you can’t reverse the decision if you discover you don’t like what’s on the other side. These decisions should be made methodically, with great deliberation and consultation. They take longer and involve more people.

Door 2: A two-way door lets you back in if you don’t like the consequences. Because you can change your mind, these decisions can be made faster and usually involve fewer people.

However, Bezos argues strongly against ‘one-size fits all’ decision making which he thinks is a significant and all too common brake on organisational speed and inventiveness. This is a good reminder to become comfortable with several models for structuring your decision making.


The Observe — Orient — Decide — Act loop is a decision cycle developed by military strategist John Boyd to improve competitive advantage by deciding faster than your opponent. Boyd used OODA as a combat instructor to take his F-86 fighter from complete disadvantage to complete advantage in forty seconds!

While his model has military origins, it would be a mistake to assume it relies on command and control. (Boyd rebelled against the slow-moving brass again and again.) Modern military doctrine favours bottom-up decision trusting commanders on the scene will appreciate local conditions best, and are competent to make independent decisions consistent with their commander’s intentions.

Note the ‘guide and control’ sub-loop which has echoes of Management by Objectives’ requirement for ‘monitoring and supporting’ teams. The OODA loop method is great for moving fast but be careful not to leave people behind or expect blind obedience.

3. Hypothesis Driven

This is similar to diagnostic decision making used in the health sector. You are presented with a problem or opportunity and start looking for data to diagnose what might be happening. Once you have an evidence-based hypothesis you can begin to consider the most appropriate treatment.

I find this model excellent for dealing with one-to-one situations such as individual coaching or HR issues such as someone getting negative feedback from the rest of the team.

Most people would describe this as how they make decisions, albeit in a slightly more informal manner. However, the strength of this model lies in completing each step before moving on and closing the loop with the follow-up.

For example, within the diagnosis formulation step, it is essential not to grasp the first hypothesis so tightly that no other possibility is considered. The inner cycle of formulating a diagnosis and collecting data should be repeated to ensure you have considered multiple options before moving to the solution planning step. And solution planning should consider all the solutions, and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, before advancing.

4. Design Thinking

Design Thinking may seem a strange process to apply to decision making because it is best known for solving product and service design problems. I find it particularly strong for checking you’re solving the right problem in the most effective manner. This makes it an excellent framework for making decisions when the root cause of a problem has been difficult to establish.

The following description talks about ‘problems’, but it is just as easily applied to ‘opportunities’.

The first half of the process focuses on determining the true nature of the problem. Don’t assume: look at the evidence. Use techniques such as ‘The Five Whys’ to create a proof for your problem definition.

Then develop ideas that might solve the problem. You might start with the question “How might we…?” Or “What is the riskiest assumption…?”

The deliver stage usually involves a series of tests to check if our proposed solutions work. The use of prototypes can mean initially accepting imperfectly formed answers but further iterations will achieve an optimised solution.

This method is a good way of approaching a decision you feel fits Jeff Bezos’ Type 1 door metaphor. You benefit from knowing the core question giving rise to the problem or opportunity, and you discover a proven path to your desired outcome. This can be critical to convincing senior stakeholders or engaging a large cross-functional team in the decision making process.


These are four methods that have worked for me in a variety of settings, but I’m keen to hear about other decision making models that have helped you.

The models I’ve used all make use of:

  • Iteration, each approach has a closed loop structure, encouraging faster moving, self-correcting activities.
  • Data collection and analysis helps avoid cognitive biases and unvalidated assumptions.
  • Generating alternatives forces us to use comparative option-taking which improves the quality and consistency of decision making.

Always review your decisions with the people who have been involved or impacted. Post-match analysis will happen with you or without you. Formally, or informally, your managers, peers and staff will evaluate your decisions and it is in your interests to focus these conversations on the agreed mission objective. There are commonly multiple sets of expectations and the best way of ensuring alignment is to work to an agreed outcome from the outset. You can then use the desired outcome at each step of the process to focus the analysis and measure the final result.

Be careful when helping review other people’s decisions. Daniel Kahneman captures this beautifully in Thinking Fast and Slow, saying: “Because adherence to standard operating procedures is difficult to second-guess, decision makers who expect to have their decisions scrutinized with hindsight are driven to bureaucratic solutions — and to an extreme reluctance to take risks.”(emphasis mine) In other words, when judging the decisions of others, don’t be a Captain Hindsight.