(Lack of) Curiosity Killed The Cat

Not many kids have the kind of problems that Richard Turere, a young boy in Kenya had growing up. In the Maasai community where he lived, the lions posed a big threat to their cattle. At age six, he was curious: how can I protect my family’s cows from these lions? He tried to scare the lions away with fire, even scarecrows, but nothing worked. After several experiments, he had an epiphany: lions are afraid of moving light! And he cooked up a brilliant solution using car batteries and solar panels — just from things lying around his house — that scared the lions away every night. He kept working the details until it worked. It worked so well that his neighbors quickly adopted it, and eventually it became the de facto solution across Kenya to protect cattle from predators like lions, leopards, and everything else. Here’s an inspiring TED talk from Richard describing his story.

To me, Richard’s story is a metaphor for something bigger — something that works as much in corporate life as it does when we are kids.

Success at most things requires being curious and delving deep into things, not just staying at a surface level of understanding. And not just things that are directly “our job”. In fact, sometimes it’s important to step back, “unlearn”, and start from scratch to understand things far from our immediate comfort zone

As kids, we look at everything around us with wonder, we question everything we’re told, and we try to make sense of things in new and innovative ways. We go deep. But as we grow up, we build up a cloud filled with knowledge, experience and wisdom. This supposed body of “learning” creates perspectives and opinions that can sometimes blind us to the need to be constantly curious and learn new things. And we keep relying on our “knowledge” to get us through situations because we convince ourselves that “we already know the answer” when in fact what’s really going on is that we have lost our sense of wonder, curiosity and the intensity needed to learn new things.

Let’s get specific.

A new associate I knew during my McKinsey days was assigned to a lean process improvement project at the Emergency Department at a hospital in Virginia. He knew nothing about hospitals or EDs the Friday he was assigned — yet, when he showed up at the client on Monday morning he knew a ton about triage, stat, hospitalist processes, boarding, the whole nine yards of how an ED worked. Apparently on Saturday morning, his 2 year old woke with a fever and he had to take her to the ED — so he decided that he would visit 3 different EDs to understand how the process worked, how long he had to wait to be seen, what the steps seemed to be — and that was the basis of his new found enlightenment. I am not sure that his wife would have been excited to know that their baby daughter had been inflicted with 3 separate ED visits in the same day, but he clearly had the passion to learn. He went on to a successful career as a partner at McKinsey, a senior executive at a global electronics firm, and is now a managing partner at a private equity firm.

It works in every field. If you’re into product management or product design, curiosity is your secret weapon too. It’s the only way to delve deep into problems and behaviors and develop inspiring world views, visions, and roadmaps. Good PMs start from the user and problem — they are curious to understand why users have a problem, what their alternatives are, and what a good solution should look like. They use that knowledge to frame a solution that resonates with users. They are also curious about the tools, technologies and skills available to their engineering team to pull together the best solution for the problem. A lot of product management is in fact experimentation — you start with a thesis, and continuously validate it with as little effort as possible. Having curiosity is key to selecting the right experiments and iterating quickly.

If you’re a sales leader, yes you are trained to build relationships and understand customer needs. It’s great if you can be the elder statesman in the room. That’s not enough. In today’s world that’s just table-stakes — you have to do better. You have to be curious about the in-s and out-s of your customer’s specific issues, and equally, if not more importantly, be able to relate the details of the product you are selling at a very specific level. Only then do you stand the chance of convincing the savvy buyer that of all their options your solution is the best. In fact the best salespeople end up being decent product managers — they not only help customers understand their product and be successful, they help the product team understand customer pain points at a reasonably detailed level. They are always curious to understand how things work end to end and over time develop a good sense for how things should work — both from their customer’s perspective and their own solution or product.

Curiosity is life blood for engineers. No amount of training or practice can make you a better engineer. The only way to become good at what you do is to be curious enough to understand how things work. By browsing code, by debugging, by testing, by tinkering, by just breaking things and fixing them. Without the curiosity to understand how things work, you cannot grow as an engineer. The best engineers don’t limit themselves to coding, they make an effort to understand the product, the market, and the end to end customer flow. They’re curious to know how customers discover the product, why they use it, where they spend time on, and why they stay. They look at the big picture.

If you are a data scientist, the more curious you are about the problems your company solves, the real issues facing your users, the market you are playing in, the more likely you are to use your skills at developing scripts and solutions that matter. The more curious you are about what the rest of your team does — how PMs work and what they do, how your script will be wrapped in code for users to use, how it will be experienced in the design framework your team has put together, the more likely you will be able to solve problems in ways that work.

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck explains two mindsets — the “fixed” mindset and the “growth” mindset — that widely exist in people. A fixed mindset is based on knowledge and belief from your past learning and restricts your thinking. A growth mindset is based on curiosity and learning and expands your thinking.

“People with a fixed mindset think they know what they’re good at and what they’re not, and are afraid to get out of their comfort zone. People with a growth mindset look at everything they know and have as an asset, and look for ways to build upon their knowledge with experimentation and new learning. What sets them apart is a belief that they can develop any skill with effort, and every failure is merely a data point to learn and grow from.” — Carol Dweck

Here’s how I identify intelligent people: Not by their IQ on a test. Not by their ability to solve complex abstract problems. I believe that intelligence is the ability to understand new concepts and situations quickly and go into some degree of depth. Being able to do so comes from curiosity. You can identify intelligent people simply by discussing a concept or situation they’ve never been exposed to and see what kind of questions they ask. I find intelligent people engage and quickly ask the right questions. They’re curious to get to the gist of things. A ten minute conversation with them will leave you deep in thought — often with questions you may not have thought before. You walk away enlightened and energized — not because you got answers, but because you got some good questions to think about.

So no matter what your role is, be curious. Think about how and why things work the way they work, and try to get to the bottom of things — build out the jigsaw puzzle in your head and get facile enough to know how things relate to each other. Toyota’s 5 Why’s framework is a good way to structure it — it’s a simple framework that helps you get to the bottom of problems. Start by asking why, and answer it with a grounded fact. Then, ask why recursively until you’ve asked 5 why’s. That will help you separate symptoms and problems. Don’t attempt to solve problems until you’ve fully understood what exactly the problems are. In many cases, you’re likely solving symptoms and not problems.

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.” — Albert Einstein

If we approach the world with preconceived notions and theories that rely on our fixed body of knowledge as the lens to view it from, we often end up solving the wrong problems and with the wrong solutions. Worse we can come across like empty suits. Approach the world with childlike curiosity. Like the 6th grader approaching a fun new problem. Like Richard Turere.

Sanjeev Agrawal is president and chief marketing officer of LeanTaaS iQueue. Sanjeev was Google’s first head of product marketing. Since then, he has had leadership roles at three successful startups: CEO of Aloqa, a mobile push platform (acquired by Motorola); VP Product and Marketing at Tellme Networks (acquired by Microsoft); and as the founding CEO of Collegefeed (acquired by AfterCollege). Sanjeev graduated Phi Beta Kappa with an EECS degree from MIT and along the way spent time at McKinsey & Co. and Cisco Systems. He is an avid squash player and has been named by Becker’s Hospital Review as one of the top entrepreneurs innovating in Healthcare.