Here is what I suggest for 2021. Let your organization recruit for curiosity. Let your organization recruit for good questions. Within innovation let your organization consider junior and senior profiles with the quality of curiosity as the most relevant profile. Let your organization look for students and experienced profiles that not only accept that they do not know, but also show real interest in knowing more. Recruit the profile that is focused on what to explore and learn, rather than explaining what they bring to the table.
For 10 years I had the privilege of spending my professional time asking specialists questions and producing commercial ideas out of the answers. Essentially, this is an occupation that is driven by curiosity and asking the right questions. And lately in this field, I have had a need for clearing up an important misconception.
I often hear that students are accredited with the competence of asking good questions, because they are not institutionalized with the mass psychoses of a given organisation – yet. And vice versa that senior profiles in a company, often do not possess the ability to ask good questions. And I think this notion has some dangerous consequences in recruitment. I notice that very few profiles within innovation and start-ups are above 50 years old.
In practice there might be some truth to that conception. Sometimes a fresh perspective helps, and students can sometimes come with that. And sometimes senior profiles have become too stuck in their ways of thinking. But I think it creates a dangerously oversimplified conception. I think it lacks proper logic and granularity. You simply can’t say that young equal curious and old equal stuck. If you use that logic to recruit, or any other important organizational choices, I argue, you are basically making an unsubstantiated generalization.
I have tried to visualize the logic that I see being used in the oversimplified conception beneath:
It seems we somehow manage to equate high level of knowledge in senior profiles, with low level of curiosity and vice versa.
But I think that is mixing up two dimensions: Level of knowledge and curiosity. Instead of equating the two axes, let’s separate them. This creates four overall distinct profiles.
Let me run through them one by one and try to give examples of each.
- The first one is the ignorant and arrogant person who has a low level of knowledge and arrogantly does not try to develop this level with curiosity. This is a person who – no matter what they meet of new information – does one of two things: Either disregards as “fake news” or says that this information exactly demonstrates his or her point. This is also known as “confirmation bias” which wiki describes as “the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values”. This is the person that is impossible to have a discussion with, since this person simply wants you to agree with his or her point and denies all other potential perspectives. In my perspective this could for example be a bigot and racist.
- The second profile is the novice learner who accepts low level of knowledge and tries to learn more. This is where a person within a given field is humble to the fact that he or she is currently a novice and looking to learn. This could be a person trying to learn a new language or playing an instrument. This can both be a young student, but it can also be a senior citizen. But for both it goes, both the student and the senior citizen, that they both can be and stay curious about learning new things.
- The third profile is the arrogant expert who has specialized in a field and decided enough was enough and stopped learning. This is a person who has a lot of knowledge within his or her field. They have spent time specialising within the field and now experience having all the answers. This can both be an arrogant newly graduated student from business school (I have met a lot of these, including myself) and a senior manager. This is a profile that shares a lot of similarities in attitude with the ignorant and arrogant segment, but this segment has a vail of competence and answers to cloak their lack of curiosity. Problematically, we live in a world that favours these profiles. We live in a world where knowing is more celebrated than trying to learn, which I consider one of biggest cultural resistances to innovation.
- The last profile is the expert learner, who has spent years specializing in a field and is still trying to learn more – a life-long learner. They know a lot within their field, but they insist on learning more. They are still curious. They have recognized that the more they learn, the more they understand they do not know. They have the explorer’s mindset, despite and because of all they have already discovered. My conviction is that these profiles are and will be the future of leadership positions in successful innovative companies. Without them you easily end up focusing on incremental innovation – harvesting existing product platforms. They are the ones that drive radical innovation – moon shoots.
When we mix up the two axes, we miss the granularity, which exists. This leads to confusion about who can deliver the good questions that lead to innovation. We look to students because they supposedly ask good questions. As if they have a sort of license to questions, which experienced people lack. But in that logic, we forget that being a newly graduated student does not necessarily make you profile 2 or 4.
I have seen plenty of graduates from business school that were category 3 profiles. And likewise, we miss the important point, that the profile who is an expert and curious, will often be better equipped to ask the right questions at the right time. As I heard a clever person say the other day: Talent is overrated, training is underrated.
I would like to change the idea and notion that seniors have license to operate and graduates have license to question. I think that within innovation, license to operate and license to question should be two sides of the same coin. And the curiosity side of the coin can both be lacking and present within a junior and senior profile alike. It is a question of whether that mindset and skillset have been incubated and trained.
So here is what I suggest for 2021.
Let your organization recruit for curiosity. Let your organization recruit for good questions. Within innovation let your organization consider junior and senior profiles with the quality of curiosity as the most relevant profile. Let your organization look for students and experienced profiles that not only accept that they do not know, but also show real interest in knowing more. Recruit the profile that is focused on what to explore and learn, rather than explaining what they bring to the table.