How Curiosity Drives Innovation

Costa Michailidis -
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The culture of an organization can support innovation, economic policies can incentivize it, but ultimately individuals must make innovation happen. When we ask what kinds of individual actions and attitudes lead to innovative outcomes, and then we ask again until we come to the core of it... eventually we arrive at curiosity.

Photo of a curious kid looking through a telescope

(Photo By Teddy Kelley)


Do you go to work and solve problems all day?

Haa, me too : )

Most of our work lives are consumed by problem solving, almost by definition.

Much of the time, we know how to solve the problems we face, but sometimes a new problem shows up, or an old solution breaks down and we need a new one.

Developing new solutions is the realm of innovation.

This is one simple way to think about innovation. More ways at »


When we develop new solutions, we face a landscape of unknowns. We don't know if our new solution will work, what it will cost, how reliable it will be, if it will have side effects. We may not fully understand the context that surrounds the problem either. Whose problem is it? Why is it a problem to them? How do they cope with it? Who else is involved? When did this problem originate? How? Et cetera...

When we set out to develop a new solution in a landscape of unknowns, we will find ourselves attemping things we've never done before, and if you're going to do something you've never done before, you're bound to make mistakes.

Mistakes are a kind of truth serum. How people react to mistakes reveals their motives.

Let me demonstrate with a story.

Achievers vs Scientists

I attended an event at the United Nations in New York a few years ago. The subject of the event was innovation, and the panel consisted of the heads of various divisions of the UN.

They each spoke extensively about the innovation efforts underway in their divisions and the methods and approaches they were taking. They said everything a consultant in our field like myself would want to hear. Design Thinking, Agile and all the rest.

They're doing great, I thought to myself, but then... well, the world could be in better shape. After rolling it over in my head while listening to the rest of the presentations it struck me that they had the how of innovation nailed, but perhaps the why of innovation was off somehow. They hadn't talked about motivation or purpose very much.

After the talks, the moderator collected questions from the audience back to back, and offered them to the panel buffet style.

I managed to get my question in there, It seems like you all have a great handle on the how of innovation, but perhaps the why of innovation is getting less attention. What is the driving motivation to innovate for the individuals in your divisions? What is their Why? and to my surprise all the panel members chimed in.

They spoke about goals and outcomes and the importance of what they do in their answers. The work they do at the UN tugs directly on heart strings. It can be inspiring. One word stuck out. They all said, achievers, achieving, or achievement.

It made perfect sense. If you're working at the UN, on special projects at that, you're probably an Ivy League grad, a straight A student, an achiever! Or, an overachiever even.

And, that's where mistakes reveal motives. A mistake to an achiever means failure. It means they did something wrong, something they shouldn't have.

Contrast that to the mind of a scientist. Minds, that I had gotten to know incredibly well in the innovation facilitation work that I had been doing with our sister company, Knowinnovation.

To a scientist, a mistake is indistinguishable from a result. They're both outcomes of experiments with equal worth. Now, to be fair, not all scientists are purely curious seekers of truth, but a great many are, and it's wonderful to experience!

The Role of Curiosity in Innovation

The early stages of an innovation effort are full of experiments; a set of activities that helps the innovator map the landscape of unknowns, and in this act of exploration nothing is a greater asset or a greater gift than curiosity.

Curiosity does a number of things that guide the innovator through those early stages:

  1. It keeps the focus on learning, which is where it needs to be early on.
  2. It keeps the innovator humble. The bigger the innovation, the more humility needed to stay the course.
  3. It expands the innovator's perspective on the problem.
  4. It encourages creativity, another driver of innovation.
  5. It pushes aside concerns about status and politics, and encourages collaboration.
  6. It allows the process of learning to be fun, and not painful.
  7. It rewards risk instead of punishing it. More on failure and risk at »

Curiosity does all this and much more. We're still discovering for ourselves how creativity, curiosity, other attitudes, and a world of skills help individuals to be more innovative.

It is profoundly difficult, crud even, to ask the folks at the UN, working on humanitarian crises and the like to treat mistakes as opportunities to learn, especially when lives are at stake. We don't pretend to know what's best in situations of that magnitude. What we can contribute is an understanding that when doing something that's never been done before, it's important to be open to learning, perhaps most so in the early stages of innovation efforts.

I'll leave you with another story about the power of curiosity to drive innovation. This one is over 100 years old.

The Wright Stuff

In 1901, early in their experiments with powered flight, the Wright Brothers went to Kitty Hawk with a new glider they designed based on data from an inspiration of theirs, a German flight enthusiast who had died in a gliding accident.

As it turned out, the data was wrong. It was completely unreliable and the brothers had wasted a trip to Kitty Hawk. In 1901, needless to say, there were no direct flights from Ohio to North Carolina. They had to pack for six months, take several trains. They built a shed on the beach where they lived and worked. They battled clouds of mosquitoes. It would have been totally reasonable to be upset, to quit, to leave the dream of flight to someone else…. But reasonable people don't change the world. Unreasonable people do.

Instead of wallowing in frustration they thought to themselves, “Well if those wing shapes were wrong, what might the right ones be?” They built a wind tunnel, tested over a hundred wing shapes at thousands of angles of attack and discovered some of the foundational principles of modern aviation. Planes are still designed by these principles today.

They could have quit, but their curiosity outweighed their frustration. Their courage was greater than their doubt. So they carried on, and changed the world forever.

Will Wright circles the Statue of Liberty in 1909