What makes you curious? Have you ever noticed how happy you are when you pursue a curiosity? Imagine what it would be like to work on a team where every person is encouraged to pursue curiosities that advance the organization’s mission. There is no doubt in my mind human curiosity plays an important role in building healthy, vibrant organizational cultures
This week I have been thinking about human curiosity because I have read about Alan Turing, Larry Page, Airbnb, and visited a unique college-alternative in Amesbury, Massachusetts called InventiveLabs. At the center of all these stories is curiosity.
Alan Turing. Most people have never heard of Alan Turing. This week the movie The Imitation Game opened in theaters, and it tells the story of how Turing’s curiosity to invent a machine that could out-think the human mind helped win World War II.
During the war, the Germans had invented and were using a special mechanical machine called the Enigma for enciphering and deciphering secret messages. This machine used a number of random computations to mix up letters so that messages and orders could be sent from German leaders to their field commanders without the British and American forces being able to break the code. The randomness of the Enigma’s coding made it appear unbreakable, and it was for many years. But thanks in part to the genius and curiosity of Turing, who invented an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine and secretly break the codes, we learned in advance what the Germans were going to do. And, according to Winston Churchill, Turing’s work shortened the War by two to four years.
Larry Page. This month Fortune magazine named Larry Page, the CEO and one of the founders of Google, its Businessperson of the Year. While we have all read about the creative work environment at Google, I think Page’s infectious curiosity is what drives its success. Page’s mantra “Dream it, then go build it” encourages individuals on the Google team and in its “moonshot factory” to be curious. The article points to projects like high-tech balloons, nanoparticles, and robots. Often, the larger a company gets, the less employee curiosity is encouraged. So far at Google, it is still flourishing due largely to Page’s curiosity leadership.
Airbnb. Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia were curious one day back in 2008. Strapped for cash, the two wondered if they could rent-out floor space and air mattresses in their apartment to convention attendees in San Francisco. Knowing their low price would attract budget conscious attendees, they used e-mail and a quick website to test their idea. Shortly thereafter they, along with another tech saavy friend of Gebbia, Nathan Blecharczyk, upgraded their website. They targeted a large tech convention in Austin and the Democratic National Convention in Denver and had modest success.
Still curious and strapped for cash, they got involved with the start-up incubator Y Combination and received good advice – go focus on New York City. The rest is history. Airbnb this year matched 10 million curious visitors with homeowners with space to spare. Their website now has 800,000 unit listings and, according to Inc. magazine,who named Airbnb Business of the Year, they are larger than any hotel chain in the world.
InventiveLabs. College is not for everyone, and a small start-up in Amesbury, Massachuetts knows it. The founders had a unique idea for those high school graduates who decided college was not for them: come here and be curious. Located on the top floor of a remodeled mill, InventiveLabs has all the space and tools for young people to explore their curiosities and, hopefully, create ideas that can be developed into small businesses. If you are curious how one of the founders displays his resume, you can see Tom Bergeron’s resume “map” here.
This morning on the Today Show I saw a story about a curious cat that found its way into a family’s moving box. The family sadly couldn’t find their cat and had to move thousands of miles away without it. Then, some 36 days later, when the family unpacked a box at their new home, the cat appeared – alive and pretty well.
So, curiosity does not always kill the cat.
As I visit our teams and company clients I am now looking for how organizations effectively harness the power of personal curiosity. I hope you will look as well and share examples you see of innovative curiosity in your organizations.