New results require new questions.

The current issue (September/October 2018) of Harvard Business Review is called Why Curiosity Matters and I highly recommend it to anyone creating a change-oriented culture. 

The three main articles: The Business Case for Curiosity, From Curious to Competent and the Dimensions of Curiosity show how curiosity is vital to an organization’s business results and offers dozens of specific practices that are effective at developing curiosity in yourself and your teams. 

At ESInc, we partner with leaders to create effective work cultures. That almost always involve driving significant and meaningful change, but many team cultures are naturally resistant to a shift from the familiar—even when the familiar is ineffective. 

When helping to design a more change-oriented culture, we are focused on 4 key disciplines:

  ◦  Research – Innovative teams are curious teams. They are far more interested in what others know than what they already know themselves. New knowledge is the foundation for new results.

  ◦  Retreat – Innovative teams build in time to take a step back so they can take a bigger step forward. They take the time to explore new ideas and perspectives. They find ways to pull out of the hectic day-to-day world of execution so that they can recalibrate and aim for bigger leaps.

  ◦  Realize – Change oriented teams focus on possibility. Change-resistant cultures focus on flaws and dismiss possibilities. When new opportunities emerge, change-oriented teams are naturally inclined toward action, collaboration, and prototyping.

  ◦  Reveal – Change-oriented cultures actually do something with their new ideas. They embrace risk, they don’t avoid it. This sort of work requires a culture that supports vulnerability and deals with mistakes in productive ways.

HBR’s look into Curiosity taps right into the first of 4 Disciplines we believe are the hallmarks of a change-oriented culture.

(Side note: If you’re interested in an assessment measuring how innovative your culture is, check out our 4 R’s Team Assessment.) 

At Employee Strategies, we call this discipline of intentional curiosity that the Harvard Business Review explores Research. It’s one of the four disciplines – including Retreat, Realize and Reveal -- that I’m discussing in blogs this fall. 

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

—Rita Mae Brown

So often, leaders tell me how frustrated they are that their teams keep having the same conversations over and over. Despite their efforts and various attempts at solutions, they keep reverting to the status quo. They’ll tell me that they just haven’t found the right solution yet, when the truth is that they have yet to find the right question.

Research in our model is about taking the time to ask questions and find root causes rather than jumping to conclusions. It’s about adopting a learning mindset. It’s about holding off on forming an opinion and collecting as broad and deep a pool of information and perspective as possible.

In a past professional life, I was named Chief Operating Officer of a mid-size nonprofit after more than a decade running the programming side of the organization. Suddenly, I was responsible for managing a multi-million dollar budget, producing and delivering financial analysis to our board and grantors, managing a benefits program, managing vendors and all the other operational functions. While I had many years of experience contributing to budget planning, I had no formal experience with major accounting and finance practices. I immediately went into learning mode.

I met with my predecessor, our accountant, other COO’s and Executive Directors I knew. I found opportunities for training and education. I shifted my reading diet. 

It was overwhelming and intimidating at first, but as the months passed, all those bits of information made more and more sense. By the end of the year, I was receiving accolades from both the board and our CEO for bringing an unprecedented level of insight and analysis to the role. My depth of institutional knowledge from my previous positions was an incredibly valuable advantage, but would never have been enough to lead to success. I had to pair what I already knew with what I had yet to learn.

Barriers to Curiosity

But despite the obvious benefits of curiosity and Research, many work cultures don’t actively support it. Team members are not encouraged to ask questions and learn—instead, they are expected to know and act. The trap here is inevitable.

Recent research by Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School shows that “while managers may say they value inquisitiveness, too often they stifle it. In a survey of some 3,000 employees across a wide range of firms and industries, Gino found that just one-quarter reported feeling curious on the job regularly, and 70% said they faced barriers to asking more questions at work.”

Typically there are two barriers that get in the way of a Research Culture:

First, in many organizations, people receive the implicit message that asking “Why?” “What if …?” or “How might we …?” is an unwanted challenge to authority. They are subtly or directly encouraged to focus on their work without looking closely at the entire process or overall company goals. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to create a culture that allows for curiosity and in exchange, you will solve customer experience, entangled “micromanagement” and process improvement issues much more effectively by hearing the questions and solutions from everyone. 

Second, when we’re overwhelmed with our day to day responsibilities, we stop taking in new information. We feel like we don’t have the time get curious. Especially for people who are well established in their careers, it’s possible that we may be over-relying on our past experience and what we think we already know. We live in a time where the rate of change is growing exponentially. The same things that have helped us succeed and thrive so far just might not be the things we need to continue to do so. Everyone needs to take time to research ways to work better.

The Bridge to New Learning

Here are practices that I encourage any leader wanting to build a more curious and Research-oriented culture:

  •  Model a Research approach when working with your team to solve problems. Defer sharing your opinion and ask more questions.

  •  Regularly solicit perspective from customers, partners, employees, and peers.

  •  Encourage team members to invest in learning experiences. Designate a budget for learning conferences, trainings, classes, books.

  •  Read. Listen to audiobooks and podcasts. Some companies I work with have even started book clubs that meet for lunch and discuss how to apply their learnings to their work.

  •  Check in on your competition. Instead of regarding them as foes, think of them as teachers. What can you learn from what they are doing?

Great breakthroughs don’t start with brilliant answers, they start with the right question. So what are you most curious about now?


Andy Zimney is a Senior Culture Advisor and Team Performance Coach at Employee Strategies, Inc., a boutique firm that partners with leaders to develop highly effective cultures that drive outstanding results. Contact ESInc to learn more about how they can assess your current culture and help design customized and effective culture development plan for your team.

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Andy Zimney is a Senior Advisor and Team Performance Coach at Employee Strategies, Inc., a boutique firm that partners with leaders to develop highly effective cultures that drive outstanding results. Contact ESInc to learn more about how they can assess your current culture and design customized and effective development experiences for your team. Or reach out to Andy directly.