How Leaders Can Foster Constant Innovation

Francesca Gino

18 May 2020
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Maintaining a sense of curiosity is crucial to creativity and innovation in an organization.

When Adriano Olivetti took over his father’s role as CEO of Italian typewriter manufacturer Olivetti in 1938, he introduced some drastic changes. They included a much more efficient production system and investments in Olivetti’s workforce that were unusual, especially at the time. He had new factory buildings in the Northwest Italian town of Ivrea built almost entirely of glass so that the workers could enjoy the views of mountains and valleys, and to let those outside see what was happening inside. He also extended lunch hour from one hour to two: the first hour to eat lunch, the second to consume culture by visiting the library he had created with hundreds of books or by participating in an event like listening to a novelist, a poet or a musician that he had organized regularly.

Cultured, sophisticated and community-minded, Adriano was an engineer fascinated by art, design and architecture. He drew on these interests in his corporate role and encouraged his employees to explore their curiosities as well. By putting innovation at the center of his company’s production strategy, he fostered a highly creative environment for his staff. 

Olivetti went on to become the oldest and largest technology company in Italy. Its products range from personal computers and typewriters to fax machines, cash registers and inkjet printers. Its emphasis on design and innovation, rooted in a tradition established by Adriano, are the keys to its success. 

Adriano valued curiosity in every interaction he had. At times, this meant giving others the benefit of the doubt and always asking questions. Take the case of an Olivetti worker who colleagues “caught” leaving the factory with a bag full of iron pieces and machinery. The colleagues accused him of theft and suggested the company fire him. The employee protested that he wasn’t stealing, but rather taking the parts home to work on a project over the weekend because he didn’t have enough time to do it at work. When Adriano heard the story, he asked to speak with the worker directly. At their meeting, the worker explained that he had a plan to build a new calculating machine. Intrigued, Adriano put him in charge of the production process for the new machine. Not long after, the electric calculator, the Divisumma—the first to offer automatic calculation of all four basic mathematical operations—was built. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Divisumma sold well across the globe. Adriano promoted the worker who’d come up with the idea for the product to the position of technical director. Giving the worker an opportunity to play with his curiosity reaped astounding results.

Adriano believed that by giving employees ownership over the manufacturing process, investing in their well-being and encouraging them to be curious, the company would succeed—and he was right. But Adriano may be the rare leader who invests in the curiosity of his people, despite abundant research evidence of a link between curiosity and innovation.

We all differ in how curious we are by nature. But no matter our natural level of curiosity, our organizations can nurture our curiosity for everyone’s benefit. Leaders can encourage curiosity throughout their company in many ways.

1. Be more inquisitive and curious yourself. The inspiration that led to the Polaroid instant camera was born from a question that the 3-year-old daughter of its inventor, Edwin H. Land, asked in the mid-1940s. Her father snapped a photo, and she waited impatiently to see it. As her father explained that the film had to be processed first, she wondered aloud, “Why do we have to wait for the picture?” 

Asking such questions helps foster curiosity in organizations. But curiosity needs champions, and that needs to start at the top. Whether in brainstorming sessions or regular firm meetings, leaders can set a good example by asking “why?” and “what if?” and by encouraging others to do the same. As a culture of curiosity grows in a workplace, good answers will likely follow. 

Outside of company meetings, leaders can stress the importance of curiosity in other ways. For instance, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg publicly sets new personal learning goals for himself each year, inspiring others inside the firm to do the same. In the last few years, Zuckerberg’s goals included learning Mandarin, reading a book every other week, meeting a new person every day who doesn’t work at Facebook, and visiting and meeting people in every state in the United States. 

2. Encourage employees to explore their interests. When Adriano Olivetti was presented with a “thief,” he recognized a talent who needed the time and resources to explore a great idea. Other successful leaders and organizations take a similar approach. Since 1996, the manufacturing conglomerate United Technologies (UTC) has provided up to $12,000 in tuition per year to employees seeking advanced degrees on a part-time basis, no strings attached. Employers are often leery of training their staff, fearing they might decamp to a competitor with their expensively acquired skills. But Gail Jackson, UTC’s vice president of diversity and inclusion, doesn’t worry about this risk. “We want people who are intellectually curious,” she says. “It is better to train and have them leave than not to train and have them stay.” 

3. Acknowledge the limits of your own knowledge. People are more likely to show curiosity when they realize leaders do not have all the answers and would benefit from learning from others. Leaders can do so with a simple “I don’t know—let’s find out,” or by highlighting the inherent ambiguity of a decision the company is facing. At one company I visited, employees were asked to come up with “what if?” and “how might we?” questions about the firm’s goals and plans. As a sign that questioning would be supported and rewarded, employees and management chose the best of these questions to display on banners on the company’s walls. 

Ed Catmull, co-founder and former president of Pixar Animation Studios, worried that Pixar’s success would inhibit new hires form challenging existing practices. To address his worry, during onboarding sessions he shared examples of bad choices the company made in the past. He stressed the simple but often overlooked fact that we all make mistakes and that Pixar is not perfect. His unusual candor gave new recruits the license they needed to be curious.

4. Let employees know curiosity is valued. Think of one of the most beloved characters in children’s literature: Curious George. The little, high-energy monkey who lives with the Man in the Yellow Hat dives into every situation he comes across eager to explore and experiment. The Man in the Yellow Hat is always ready to bail George out of the sticky situations he gets himself into (for instance, flying by in a helicopter just when George floats too high on a bunch of balloons). George enjoys his new experiences and discoveries because he’s never punished for pursuing his curiosities. 

Too often, there’s no room to be a Curious George in the workplace. People whose explorations fail to pay off are usually punished rather than praised for their experimentation. But there are leaders who make it clear that they value curiosity. When Satya Nadella joined Microsoft as CEO in 2014, for instance, he added an evaluation of how well employees learn from their colleagues, share ideas and apply their new knowledge to the firm’s performance review. 

Maintaining a sense of curiosity is crucial to creativity and innovation in an organization. By relying on these strategies, leaders can retain the same curiosity they had when they were little and help their employees do the same.

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This post is sponsored by Colorado Christian University. CCU can help you promote continued learning through a unique partnership opportunity that offers tuition discounts to employees or members—helping them save thousands on the cost of a degree program. CCU Online offers more than 70 online degree programs designed for working adults, including programs in leadership, business, project management, enterprise agility and more. Visit CCU’s website for more information.

Francesca Gino

Francesca Gino is a behavioral scientist and the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She is the author of the books Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life and Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan. She is also a veteran Leadercast speaker and joined our stage at Leadercast Women 2019. Connect with her on Twitter.

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