people collaborating on experiments
PHOTO: STEMShare NSW

Modern workplaces love a process. Processes control how we reach an outcome. They are repetitive and easy to monitor (although not always easy to follow). So isn’t a it a paradox that we try and apply a process to innovation when by its very definition, it’s something novel, something that isn’t repeated?

Once we have an idea, a process is essential. Ideas simply die if we don’t have a means to develop, pilot and release them into the world. But innovation starts before we come up with an idea. It starts with connections, creativity and spontaneity. All of which is turbo-charged if we are curious in our work. 

Curiosity opens our minds, it makes us more likely to find a way of connecting two previously unconnected things, of creating something new, or of being spontaneous.

Except, we’ve got that report due at 4pm. We’ve got 25 unread emails. We’ve got another crap meeting to attend. These regular work practices control how we work. Combined with "best practices" that provide a framework to replicate how we work, it’s no wonder it’s hard to innovate. We don’t have the time, nor even the permission to be curious.

This curiosity is the fuzzy front-end of innovation. It’s the place and time where we are not necessarily working on a problem or an idea but are more open to experiences and knowledge that will connect this to a problem, a need or indeed a half-formed idea. If we want a culture of innovation in our organizations, then facilitating curiosity is a great place to start. The trick is to not manage innovation initially, but empower us to change habits and perhaps break a few rules.

Related Article: Innovation Is No Laughing Matter

Bringing in Tactics

To hack the repetition, we need to create rather than follow. It’s about exploring the "what if?" or simply broadening the focus of our work. The best part — we don’t have to break the entire organization as we try new things — there are some simple and very achievable ways to freshen up the day-to-day work.

Meetings, for example, are ripe for disruption. How often do we keep discussions within our team or immediate circle? Bringing in outside speakers into meetings and online groups changes our perspectives. It’s also so easy to do. I’m staggered at how often we have meetings about our stakeholders, but don’t bring them into the conversation. Or how we talk about clients, but don’t engage with them. Its another way of exploring and being curious, rather than navel-gazing or providing status updates.

Curiosity and novel thinking also stem from breaking rules. Providing safe spaces to experiment with breaking or bending rules is something we can all do. We don’t actually have to break things (yet), but by giving permission to explore concepts, create future scenarios and begin conversations on these is a way to at least change our mindset. Having a virtual group or a facilitated workshop on breaking existing rules or on challenging the status quo will take us to places not obvious to us if we follow process and best practice.

The key in all of this is abstraction. We take ourselves away from the tasks and explore more abstract or novel concepts. Facilitation, storytelling, challenging assumptions — all of these are powerful tools to help us get there.

Related Article: Why So Many Large Organizations Stink at Innovation

Don’t Forget Our Habits

The biggest barrier to curiosity at work, and indeed at home, though simply lies with our habits. We all have habits that block curiosity. Habits that repeat what we do, blocking the potential for something new to happen. Whether it’s sitting at our desks emailing colleagues rather than getting off our backsides and speaking to them or seeing only the same people every week.

Often the first step in creating a culture of innovation is to find the habits in our teams that block discovery and find ways of overcoming them. Find the processes that force us down the same alleyway. Change expectations on how staff think they need to work. Give permission for them to break these expectations and get away from our desks. We are creatures of habit, requiring a nudge here and there.

But if we really want innovation to stick, we need more than curiosity. As organizations, departments or teams we need to understand why we need to change. If we don’t know why, then all the good ideas in the world won’t make one jot of difference.  Knowing this and articulating it to the workforce as a clear vision is actually the starting point. Ensure that we know why we need to change, and that we all have permission to do so. Otherwise, curiosity will only kill cats (or, more accurately in digital workplaces, share pictures of them).