Building a Curious Corporation

Tom Peters

“What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant curiosity of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult,” Freud once wrote. Sad to say, he’s got a point.

In advanced societies, knowledge is the basis for almost all value. Corporations that wish to become “knowledge-intensive” must invest heavily in training and electronic networks. But to become knowledge-intensive as a matter of course calls for something that goes far beyond bits, bytes and hours in the classroom. Perhaps the management issue for the ’90s, largely avoided by gurus and practitioners alike, is unleashing imagination.

The question: How do you and I, as independent contributors on or off someone’s payroll, stay curious? And how do chiefs keep organizations imaginative?

* Hire curious people. How can you tell if people are curious? Easy. They’ve consistently avoided the mainstream: took a year off without pay to work in the inner city; keep bees as a lifelong hobby; set aside six weeks each year to travel abroad. If curiosity isn’t on a person’s resume, don’t expect it to bloom tomorrow in your business.

The corollary is obvious: Don’t hire incurious people. If they boast the solid gold resume (right school, right grades right first job, right year for first promotion), watch out. Honest!

*Hire a few genuine off-the-wall sorts—i.e., collect weirdos. In addition to seeking curious people in general, try to implant a few real head cases into your joint from time to time. Bankroll them until they can invent a wacky project that will spark the whole organization.

* Weed out the dullards. The fact is, you can’t afford to have the incurious on your payroll. (This may include yourself. Think about it.)

* Insist that everyone takes vacations. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Worry if Jack doesn’t want to take a vacation; his eye may be too glued to the brass ring. In short, curiosity doesn’t flourish among the burned-out, greasy-grind types.

* Support generous sabbaticals. If you haven’t shifted gears wildly in the last three or four years, you’re headed for trouble. As a corporate leader, make such gear shifts policy.

* Foster new interaction patterns. Space management is a potent tool. Create a physical environment that (a) allows project teams to gather at a moment’s notice, (b) lets people clearly express their personalities, (c) encourages getting together and hanging out, and (d) aggressively ignores traditional functional groupings.

* Establish clubs, bring in outsiders, support off-beat educational programs. Expose everyone to break-the-mold activities: Encourage like-minded hobbyists to form clubs that meet at work. Start a “lecture series,” not with business gurus, but with principal dancers from the local ballet, politicians and chefs from top restaurants. Vigorously support any educational desires, including those that are not job related.

* “Measure” curiosity. It’s time for semi-annual performance reviews. Consider having each employee submit a one-page essay on: (a) the oddest thing I’ve done this year off the job, (b) the craziest idea I’ve tried at work, or (c) my most original screw-up, on the job or off. Using the answers to such questions, deal curiosity directly into the evaluation deck, near the top.

* Seek out curious work. At Britain’s Imagination (a marketing consultancy, more or less), founder Gary Withers, dubbed Britain’s Walt Disney by some pundits, says he won’t take assignments that don’t provide an opportunity to outdo the firm’s zaniest prior performance. Beware of taking on the big, prestigious job assignment that is as dull as can be. Boring clients make for boring companies (which is not to say that you can’t find a way to spruce up assignments that, superficially, look dull).

* Model the way. If the chief isn’t curious, then the troops aren’t likely to be (and that’s an understatement). Body Shop founder Anita Roddick is as curious as they come—and it rubs off on employees at more than 725 shops around the world.

* Teach curiosity. Brainstorming is not the answer to creativity. But it is an answer. There are techniques that can milk people’s wackier ideas. Invest heavily in making them centerpieces of your firm’s approach to solving all problems, mundane or grand.

* Make it fun. Not to have fun at work is a tragedy, bordering on the criminal. Curiosity and fun are handmaidens. Go out of your way to make laughter a workplace staple.

* Change pace. Go to work next Thursday and declare it miniature-golf day. Hey, why not? Showing a training film this afternoon? Order popcorn for every participant. Curiosity has a lot to do with looking at the world through slightly cockeyed glasses.

“Strategies are OK’d in boardrooms that even a child would say are bound to fail,” said turnaround artist Victor Palmieri. “The point is, there is never a child in the boardroom.” Try these ideas, and you may end up with at least a “virtual child” or two in that boardroom—and in the mailroom, too.

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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