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Curiosity in Action: Employee Engagement

I was recently invited to a forum on Engaged Team Performance by one of the managing partners of Implementation Partners, Roland Cavanagh. I first met Roland two years ago, when I interviewed him for a research project.

The forum consisted of two presentations, one from a client and the other a company built from a similar vision,  about how they view employee engagement and how their efforts to apply Engaged Team Performance resulted in highly engaged, creative, even joyful, company cultures and enhanced the success of each company.

The two companies were, in some ways, very different. One was a relatively small, stand-alone company that was built from the beginning on its model of structure-supported creativity and interaction; this company’s story reinforced my belief that small companies have the potential to test theories and practices that can change the world.

The other company was a newer subsidiary of a much larger, older organization. As part of this larger, older organization, they had to overcome entrenched attitudes and habits: Speaking up and thinking creatively were not encouraged. Questioning was not encouraged.

For example, when looking for ways to streamline a particular process, they could have just automated it. Instead, they worked with the team members to investigate why things were done a certain way. Why do we do it this way? Does it have to be done this way?  How else might we accomplish this? What are the risks and benefits of making a change? Then they came up with a plan, one that was based on answers to questions, not generally accepted assumptions.

Within a larger culture of “Ours is not to question why, ours is but to do or die,” this took some getting used to. It required trust-building.

But as they became more comfortable with this questioning approach, and with the follow-through on the answers, they questioned more and became more creative in their proposals for how they might do things differently. They implemented changes to the process that resulted in time savings that benefited the customer and freed up resources. Rather than cut head-count, they applied those human resources to other projects and initiatives, giving people even more opportunities for creative problem solving. It was more fun for them, and both their customers and the organization enjoyed the benefits.

It struck me, as they were describing this, that what I was hearing was a perfect demonstration of the importance of developing and applying curiosity. By creating a safe space and encouraging team members to exercise their curiosity, they became more comfortable with it and it became part of their culture. They were then able – and eager – to apply that curiosity to additional projects and creative endeavors.

When I brought this up and commended the presenters from this client company during the Q&A period, I was reminded by their blank looks that Curiosity is taken for granted and overlooked in most situations as the integral secret sauce that makes such initiatives successful.

In fact, “secret sauce” probably isn’t the best term to use. Curiosity isn’t a process or a methodology that needs to be learned. Instead, it is a muscle that every person brings with them, and organizations with engaged members encourage, even expect, those members to exercise that muscle.

I don’t think it was an accident that the presenters described environments that encouraged curiosity as part of their successful efforts to build Engaged Team Performance, even if they never used that term. I also don’t think I am looking for something that wasn’t there. But I noticed it, because I pay attention to this subject.

I’m looking forward to reading Building Engaged Team Performance, the new book by Roland Cavanagh and Dodd Starbird of Implementation Partners. Based on the case studies presented at this forum, I expect it to be a very interesting read – even if they never use the word “curiosity.”

What do you think? What role does curiosity play in engaged organizations (large or small)? What is the impact of the absence of curiosity or, worse yet, its being stifled?

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