Four Ways to Cultivate a Culture of Curiosity
September 22, 2013 Editor 0
HopeLab is a curious place.
The California-based nonprofit researches and designs video games and other technology products for kids. But they don’t create ones that involve sitting on a couch, staring at a screen, zapping warriors or aliens. Instead, HopeLab’s games help motivate players to take on healthy habits, to be more physically active (Zamzee) and even help fight cancer (Re-Mission 2).
The organization, a client of The Bridgespan Group, encourages the same sort of exploratory attitude in its employees. So it operates a bit differently than most. There are fun internal tools designed to prompt conversation and reflection. Meetings are positioned as problem-solving opportunities. People always take responsibility for their own actions and mistakes. And employees are given financial and moral support to pursue any kind of learning, from a cooking class to a photography cruise.
“We look at our culture as a product, just like Re-Mission and Zamzee are products,” says Pat Christen, president and CEO of HopeLab. “And we believe a culture of curiosity is key to innovation.”
HopeLab’s methods are replicable. Just consider these few principles:
HopeLab’s products are rooted in scientific inquiry and research, iteration and experimentation. People are told to explore new paths and to challenge their assumptions and themselves. To that end, the company has created tools including a deck of cards called “Questions for Curious Leaders” with 12 categories, including “beauty”, “candor”, “emotions” and “100% responsibility.” Cards can be found around the office, in conference rooms and at desks; people use them on their own and in meetings. One “emotions” question reads: “Am I fully acknowledging and experiencing my emotions, then letting them go?” Another in the “beauty” category is: “Am I enduring, allowing or perpetuating, mediocrity, inelegance or ugliness?”
It can be hard to find time for reflection and conversation. But these tools help. Plus, “work is more rewarding when curiosity and discovery are embedded in it,” Christen says.
Write Agendas as Questions
Employees are more likely to engage in meetings when they know they can affect the outcome. So HopeLab’s agendas are always in the form of questions. For example, “How should we prioritize these projects?” or “What models of engagement might we pursue? Why?”
“Everyone at the meeting is invited into the conversation to help us make sense of an issue, solve a problem or imagine a new area of opportunity,” Christen explains. “We expect people to speak up — to ask questions, share ideas and contribute.” As a result, HopeLab is known for productive, energizing, get-togethers. In fact, visitors from other organizations often ask for how-tos after experiencing a HopeLab meeting.
When an early prototype for the 2.0 version of Re-Mission, HopeLab’s free game to motivate kids with cancer to stick with their treatment regimen, strayed from the feedback provided by young patients, it could have been an opportunity for blame. The organization had already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on development. But instead of fault-finding, Christen assembled the team, took full responsibility and asked for ideas to save the project.
“There can be a ‘villain, victim, hero’ dynamic,” she explains. “But when you recognize you’re in that game, playing one of those roles, you have the choice to step off the triangle,” and instead focus on moving forward. The solution for Re-Mission 2 turned out to be shifting from one big computer game to several online mini-games and an app for mobile phones and tablets — an expensive fix, but far less costly to the mission than a flop.
Avoiding blame doesn’t mean avoiding consequences, however. When Christen found herself in a meeting on a very complicated personnel matter with the VP for staff development, she decided, perhaps not surprisingly, to ask the employee a question: What did he think should be done? “And the person went much farther than I was envisioning,” she says. Having taken accountability, he has since returned to being a highly productive and valuable member of the team.
Assume All Learning Is Good
Employees choose their paths in professional development (PD), too. At first, folks felt compelled to rationalize their requests for PD resources by making them explicitly work-related. But Christen told them, “I don’t need a rationale. Just keep learning things.” Now people feel free to request support for any kind of class they want, and the openness has paid off. The woman who requested funds to pay for a portion of her photography cruise is now the company’s de facto in-house photographer. “She discovered a new interest and genuine talent, and we saved tens of thousands of dollars on outside photographers by supporting that learning opportunity,” says Richard Tate, her boss and HopeLab’s VP of communications and marketing. “If you’re practicing curiosity, no matter what you’re learning, I believe it will benefit the organization.” Other employees have simply come to work more engaged and with more and better ideas.
Christen credits her board, which includes Pam Omidyar, HopeLab’s founder, for encouraging this culture of radical curiosity at the organization. “They recognize that how we show up to do the work we do is a manifestation of the values and the impact we hope to inspire in the world.”
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