In 1973, Steve Jobs got curious.
He was a dropout still hanging around Reed College in Portland, and he began noticing that every poster on campus was beautifully hand-calligraphed. He wanted to learn how to do this, too, so he audited a calligraphy class. In that class he became fascinated with the art of great typography—and this all came back to him as he designed the first Mac a decade later. Jobs credits the Mac's beautiful typography, a unique selling point, to this single class.
If he hadn't gotten curious about some posters, the Mac—and Apple itself—might've turned out very differently.
The lesson here is that great insights often can't be planned. They happen by chance when someone's curiosity leads them down a new path. To keep your team innovating, you're going to need curious employees. Here are three ways you can foster curiosity on your team.
Encourage people to work on side projects
It's hard to follow your curiosity if you have to be focused on your current assigned task at all times. Letting everyone explore projects is much better than assuming that the team's current priorities are optimal—because side projects don't always remain on the side.
Consider Crew, whose CEO, Mikael Cho, said, “side projects saved our startup.” The company, which connects projects to freelancers, was struggling until they hired a photographer to take new photos for their homepage. They only used one photo, so they decided to create a site, Unsplash, to make the rest publicly available. It became a huge success, and one little backlink generated a huge surge in traffic to the main Crew site.
And even if these side projects don't end up overhauling your company, or even being completed, they can improve your team. A San Fransisco State University study from 2014 found that workers who pursue creative activities have increased levels of creative problem-solving on the job.
How to encourage side projects:
- Set aside a portion of each month to work on side projects: The most famous example of this is Google's 20% time policy, in which employees were encouraged to spend 20% of their time outside of regular projects working on what they thought would improve Google the most—two of which became Gmail and Adsense.
- Provide the space and resources to make ideas possible: Vigit, the engineering and design company, has a “Pointless” lab for experimenting and Microsoft has a “Garage” for employees to build their own projects. Even if the end product doesn't work (or isn't even owned by your company), employees gain new skills and insights that they can apply back to their regular jobs.
- Create new projects that anyone can choose to join: The design firm Ideo routinely calls for task forces that any employee from any department can join, called “white space projects.” This way, people have a chance to work on something they're interested in that may not have anything to do with their daily work.
- Allow lateral movement: When the only way to move up in a company is through your specific department, there's no incentive to develop other skills. But when lateral movement is possible, people have a reason to reach out and explore other parts of the company, lending a fresh perspective. Wistia supports lateral movement and has pointed to personal examples—like a customer happiness director moving to the product team and increasing user-focus—as proof that it can improve a company.
Foster inter-team communication
As your company grows, there's going to be some siloing. It simply isn't feasible to know everything that's happening across teams.
But this siloing means that employees don't have access to projects they're not a part of, even if they might be able to provide a much-needed alternative perspective. Without inter-team communication, employees can't explore and be curious about each others' work.
This is a huge problem when you're trying to create a cohesive product. An engineering team could put a whole lot of time into expanding a feature that the customer success team knows users hate. A design team could waste a week detailing an idea that just isn't feasible given the size of the engineering team.
Many have hailed Satya Nadella's decision to break up the Microsoft's sales silo last year as a positive turning point. Beforehand, the Microsoft sales division was so disconnected from the engineering and product teams that sales reps didn't understand the products they were selling. And there was no channel for getting customer feedback back into product design.
When teams are expected to take an interest in each other's work, however, these problems can be mitigated. When teams work together, they create solutions that take everyone's needs into account.
You shouldn't just hope that individuals on different teams will reach out to each other on Slack. And all-hands meetings aren't always enough to spur curiosity in everyone else's work, especially if your company is large. Instead, you can think about having a dedicated time on the schedule where different teams can co-mingle—like an inter-team lunch outing or coffee break.
What inter-team communication can get you:
- Company-wide spread of information: By switching which teams are paired each week, each team will gain an understanding of what the rest of the company is up to.
- Full participation: In large meetings, time is always monopolized by a few people. By having co-mingling opportunities between just two teams, everyone will be able to participate.
- Idea generation: Having the time to fully engage in another team's work will spark curiosity, then questions, then new ideas.
Empower everyone on your team to investigate data
When the only people who can query data are the members of your high and mighty data team, no one can learn anything from your product unless they go through them. it could take a few days to communicate with a data specialist, and then an additional 5 hours for them to carry out the query.
If people can't get answers without putting in a lot of time and effort, they'll stop asking questions. People don't stay curious when they know the data team will have moved on to a new topic by the time they have a new question. People are constricted by the need to formulate the perfect question; they aren't willing to bother the always busy data team with questions that seem insignificant, or tangential, or only half-formed.
And when your people don't get their questions answered, they operate with less information. They can't make informed decisions. They can't understand user behavior either, like what triggers users to increase activity, or what gets them engaged in your product.
With tools like Interana, everyone can dig into user and device behavior—not just the data nerds. Our living dashboards let you flip through charts and instantly explore anything that peaks your interest. Perform or alter queries in seconds without any code—and receive results in seconds too. That way, once you have a partially-formed idea, you can quickly iterate on the query composition until you have exactly what you need.
Once you empower everyone to investigate data, their curiosity will be freed, not stifled. When you can easily get answers to your questions, you'll be a lot more interested in asking them.
WHAT YOUR DATA PLATFORM NEEDS:
- Speed: You can't have a time lag if you want people to query the data often. Forget about people iterating based on the responses they get if it takes more than a few seconds to get them. And no one would bother shooting off ideas until they wasted a lot more time perfecting them.
- No coding: If there are any coding requirements, you're automatically excluding some of your employees from using your data. You need a platform where queries can be built intuitively.
- Easy sharing: If data queries can't be shared with the click of a button, there's going to be wasteful overlap between multiple people. You'd also be missing out on one person's query results inspiring someone else.
Curiosity will future-proof your company
In today's world, markets change constantly. You can't just rely on previously successful strategies to keep your company thriving, or even afloat, in the future. Measurement and innovation are key.
Unfortunately, innovation can be pretty hard to plan out. You can't simply instruct your team to come up with brilliant ideas on the spot.
But what we know does help with fostering innovation is curiosity. Curiosity leads teams down paths management never thought to instruct them to go down. You have the power to build a curious team by providing employees with the tools, time, and teamwork to exercise their curiosity.
Curiosity brought us to the moon. It can bring your team to the future.