Cultural marker #1: we are curious and we learn

Curiosity vs. innovation

Innovation has become a mantra for our times. Many company directors and commentators even consider it an end in itself, endlessly referring back to “disruption” as if it were a silver bullet. Conversely, we often have an unfortunate tendency to forget what lies at the root of true technological and cultural disruption: curiosity, which remains the fundamental basis of both individual and collective intelligence[1]. Yet curiosity in its essence has no specific purpose.

A million miles away from the imperatives of quantification and target figures, curiosity is a quality that is difficult to exploit, stimulate, and channel. It gives pride of place to chaotic effervescence, workings that lie beyond our control, and changes of direction. It runs directly counter to organizational routine and habits. Leading change, waving the banner for transformation, is no mean feat — and particularly in a country like France, where we tend to prefer specialization, technical detail, and a narrow vision of logical rationality.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that curiosity has traditionally had bad press in the West. Associated with an imbalance of the mind by Plato, it was also considered a vice in the Middle Ages[2], hence the foreboding warning that ‘curiosity killed the cat’. While mindsets have changed over the centuries, a form of wariness still persists around curiosity. In 21st-century companies, it is not necessarily valued the way it should. Paving the way for us to be “fooled by randomness”[3], and synonymous with serendipity, curiosity eludes strategic planning and rigid processes.

Three disruptions to foster collective intelligence

The current climate forces us all to be curious. For companies, this quality has become key to performing and surviving, in the sense that it allows collective intelligence to be fully expressed. It also gives companies the potential to adapt to our society’s mindsets and overcome the three major social disruptions that have taken place over the past few decades.

The age of diversity

Firstly, “the age of diversity” in its broadest sense has dawned. Individuals now have the opportunity to embrace their cultural, ethnic, spiritual, sexual, and generational differences, a trend that has emerged as the apex of over two centuries of evolution: since the start of the Enlightenment to the end of the society of orders, individuals have tirelessly sought to emancipate themselves and break free from the old world. A relaxing of customs and ethics, political struggles (the American Civil Rights and women’s rights movements) and aspirational emancipation rose to the surface in the 1960s, loosening social strata and traditional constraints[4]. We now find ourselves at the end of a cycle in which the individual has gained in freedom, independence, and awareness of their own choices.

In this context, companies have now come face to face with a much broader set of behaviors than before. Whether internally or externally, several generations now rub shoulders, all consuming the same products. In order to offer an item or service that is simultaneously universal and personalized, incorporating this idea of diversity is crucial, as is drawing on collective intelligence. Remaining isolated in an ivory tower results in an inability to respond to the aspirations of 21st-century individuals.

This is where the strength of design thinking lies, a concept developed in the late 1960s by the economist Herbert Simon to describe a particular way of thinking, in a shift away from those for whom design is first and foremost about lending form and shape to physical objects[5]. In the 2000s, this approach was further developed by Stanford researchers and entrepreneurs, and met with huge success. It has now become essential. Underpinned by co-development alongside distributors, consumers, and a wide variety of participants as well as multi-disciplinary teams, design thinking aims to get as close as possible to the end user’s expectations through the power of collective intelligence.

The revolution in educational paradigms

Secondly, spurred on by technological disruption, the major educational paradigms have been overhauled. Prior to the rise of the Internet and social media, knowledge was practically a monopoly, a resource guarded by an elite. The family unit and State education systems were the primary vectors for sharing knowledge. The Internet and search engines brought instant access to information and knowledge, and the value of working memory and ‘learning off by heart’ decreased. There is no longer any one single ‘classic’ culture, but a multitude of cultures in step with each individual’s uniqueness. We shifted from a sector-specific, compartmentalized view of knowledge to universal, instantly accessible knowledge instead. This has naturally led to new issues, such as how to handle information overload, our ability to remain free from the mirages of instant availability, and the need to analyze information to protect ourselves from fake news.

But on the plus side, this requires each and every one of us to be curious. In a company setting, employees now need to draw on different intellectual reflexes, learn how to handle instantly available knowledge, develop their abilities to filter data, exchange ideas with their peers, and remain open to everything going on outside their own organization. A ‘behind closed doors’ mindset, hyper-specialization, and company secrets have become redundant. This movement naturally requires a new approach to management and leadership within companies.

The collaborative processes boom

Thirdly, the digital world has been a boon for collaborative working processes and connections between people. Collective intelligence has developed at lightning speed. With WhatsApp, Facebook, Zoom, Teams, and Slack, personal and professional interpersonal communication tools are burgeoning, with exchange, curiosity, and learning — the pillars of progress within human societies since homo sapiens[6] — all encouraged, fostered, and taking on a new dimension[7]. Once relegated to the confines of a tribe, village, neighborhood, city, or country, individuals can now connect with the entire planet, and plug into a kind of universal curiosity.

This multiplication of collaborative tools results in a “new power” — deftly analyzed by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms — which operates “like a current […] made by the many. It is open, participatory, and peerdriven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it, but to channel it”[8]. Knowledge, wisdom, intuition and ideas are free to rub up against one another and interact in a huge creative melting pot. Even strategic information is more accessible than it once was.

What applies to companies applies outside them, too. Information-sharing in medicine, for example, enables professionals to resolve cases that would otherwise go solutionless. Just look at the Netflix documentary series Diagnosis, a new take on Dr. Lisa Sanders’ New York Times column, in which she describes the difficulties experienced by patients suffering from mysterious conditions, and collects thousands of readers’ accounts in return. This feedback information helps find solutions to her patients’ problems and is the perfect illustration of the power of collective intelligence.

This example also illustrates the fact that curiosity is not preordained. In part linked to chance, it is closer to what the analytical psychologist Carl Jung termed “synchronicity”: the emergence of a series of happy coincidences that trigger life events, encounters, and discussions. In contemporary terms, we would describe this as “the planets aligning”: the moment when each individual’s intelligence and initiatives converge, giving meaning to each person’s questionings, and lending weight to innovative projects, original ideas, and fruitful transformation. If everyone within a company works together and demonstrates curiosity, concrete positive changes always end up occurring.

Managers, leaders, and the quest for curiosity

Setting up democratic processes

For company directors, this shift in cultural paradigm must translate into radical transformation in management and leadership methods. Faced with an unprecedented question or issue, the priority is to amass collective intelligence, and establishing democratic corporate processes is crucial to doing so. This goes well beyond mere freedom of speech. The goal is to involve human capital in developing and delivering a product or service, by creating a sounding board representative of the diversity of the outside world.

When new business challenges or opportunities arise, managers and leaders shouldn’t hesitate to set up voting and discussion systems to approve plans, find pertinent solutions, and draw on a diverse range of profiles and skills. This forms an echo chamber of the end client’s aspirations. Being curious implies getting everyone involved, irrespective of their job description. Introducing these democratic processes emerges as all the more important as these organizations are confronted by the rising power of Millennials and iGenners[9], teenagers and young people who were born into the digital age. These new generations no longer accept being kept outside of decision-making. They reject autocracies, and processes devoid of any meaning.

Putting working method above hierarchy

Less pyramidal and top-down than previously, companies today must reject an obsession with hierarchy in favor of working methods based on permanent questioning. In this sense, the Lean method is a useful philosophy for adapting to the end consumer’s needs, and benefiting from the development of collective intelligence. Often misused and reduced to a mere optimization process for reducing costs in line with the Toyota factory method, the Lean method paves the way for a state of continuous improvement, in which clients’ shifting aspirations are considered. When underpinned by continuous learning, it requires permanent curiosity with respect to stakeholders.

Although the Lean method goes hand in hand with frugality — increasingly pertinent in light of environmental challenges –, it aims first and foremost to satisfy consumers by remaining attentive to their needs and expectations. In 2011, American entrepreneur Eric Ries offered up an insightful glimpse of this approach in an essay in which he encourages companies to get out there and quickly launch beta versions of their products (the famed MVP, Minimum Viable Product), while adjusting or even changing their value proposition depending on customer feedback and the lessons learned through their mistakes[10]. A shining example of curiosity at its best.

More generally, the idea is to encourage a working method that fosters learning and curiosity within an organization. There are three approaches to this. First, there is “happy exploration”: a taste for new discoveries, the pleasure of learning, and the quest for thrills are all key soft skills for 21st-century companies, expressed all the more easily when company directors instill a ‘fun-focused’ culture among teams[11].

Next, there is diversity of talent: organizations will need to move away from hyper-specialization in their recruitment process, focusing instead on a range of different profiles who can facilitate coming up with new solutions. An army of clones from the same training program or school can only lead to conformity and stagnation.

Finally, there is uncertainty and risk tolerance: some people don’t like to self-reflect, out of a fear of challenging what they know, or getting out of their comfort zones. In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world[12], this type of behavior is a barrier to development. The key to remaining agile over time lies in reflecting on alternative ways of taking action and embracing a change in perspective when faced with unusual situations. Mistakes must be tolerated if curiosity and open-mindedness are to be stimulated. If members of staff are not given permission to sometimes get it wrong, they are discouraged from embarking on initiatives that might wander off the beaten path.

A magpie rather than a prophet: the rise of the curious leader

Company directors themselves are now required to rethink their approach to leadership. The leaders of tomorrow are not prophets, hammering home their own certainties based on nothing more than personal intuitions. Instead, they are more like magpies, quick to listen to others, pinching their ideas, combining and fusing themes, and pooling talent. They collate knowledge that can lead to inspiring projects and qualitative leaps in their market.

Their profiles are similar to that of the ‘zebra’ as theorized by psychotherapist Jeanne Siaud-Facchin[13]. Attuned to signs of weakness and tuned into all information, these leaders think horizontally, not vertically, with a flexible outlook that allows them to navigate the shifting intellectual waters of our times. 21st-century directors and their teams will need to embrace these psychological frameworks. This revolution is now emerging as inescapable: the three major social and anthropological disruptions that give pride of place to collective intelligence will force the entire planet to think differently.

We are witnessing the end of a world dominated by rigid social, hierarchical and sequential structures that no longer meet the needs of civil society. Whether public- or private-sector, bureaucracies and organizations straitjacketed by archaic ways of doings things are destined to disappear, victims of planned obsolescence that are unequipped to handle changes within both the individual and the collective. The Covid crisis has demonstrated this only too well, as some of our elites’ systems have broken down.

Now more than ever before, we need a new generation of leaders with their finger on the planet’s pulse, primed and ready to learn from the people across the table from them, and open to the world. This is an inescapable shift that must take place in order to seize the opportunities offered up by digital civilization and jump headfirst into the age of curiosity.

[1] Perry Zurn, Arjun Shanka, Curiosity Studies. A New Ecology of Knowledge, University of Minnesota Press, April 2020

[2] Ibid.

[3] Nassim N. Taleb, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, Penguin, May 2007.

[4] Olivier Jaillon, The Intangible Age. How Insurers Are Building A Better World, Débats Publics, February 2021.

[5] Herbert A. Simon, The science of the artificial, MIT Press, January 1969; Gamba Tiphaine, “D’où vient la “pensée design?”, I2D — Information, données & documents, 2017/1 (Volume 54).

[6] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind, Vintage, April 2015.

[7] The economist William Bonner describes just this when he explains that cooperation is superior to violence and conflict and has been a driving force for civilization over the ages. William Bonner, A Modest Theory of Civilization: Win-Win or Lose, Bonner & Partners, 2019.

[8] Jeremy Heimans, Henry Timms, New Power How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World — And How to Make It Work for You, Doubleday Books, April 2018.

[9] Jean M. Twenge, iGen. Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us, Atria Books, September 2018.

[10] Eric Ries, The Lean Startup. How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses, Currency, September 2011.

[11] David J. Disabato, Fallon R. Goodman, Todd B. Kashdan, Carl Naughton, “The Five Dimensions of Curiosity”, Harvard Business Review, September-October 2018.

[12] This is the VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) world as described by US Army strategists to analyse the lay of the post-Cold War land.

[13] Jeanne Siaud-Facchin, Trop intelligent pour être heureux ?, L’adulte surdoué, Odile Jacob, March 2008.

EM Lyon/SDA Bocconi/INSEAD but who cares ?!😄 Chief Executive and Enablement officer @Wakam, Board member @Tezos Foundation. Outside of the box thinker

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store