Imagining the Power of Transgressive Curiosity: Chris Nichols

I think we all know what curiosity is – an eagerness to find out, a will towards knowing something new. We certainly see a lot written about curiosity as a desirable thing – it’s become a looked-for corporate attribute and crops up increasingly in competency frameworks. On a grander scale Barack Obama even claimed it to be an essential American value.

But I’m a bit sceptical.

Is curiosity always treated as a desirable characteristic? Do organisations or society really want and support it?

I think the answer is “up to a point”. Curiosity is usually welcome when it is “within the frame”. Sufficiently close to the organisational or societal comfort zone to be accepted. When it strays into more transgressive territory, curiosity is often unwelcome and driven out. That’s a shame, because we need it, and we need it in quite a radical form if we are to address the massive systemic challenges now on the agenda in our boardrooms and our social institutions.

It’s worth starting with Francesca Gino’s work on corporate curiosity, for example, set out in her TEDx talk. This is an application of curiosity that is very much “within the corporate frame” – curiosity as instrumentally useful to organisational effectiveness. In an HBR article, Gino makes a compelling case for the many benefits curiosity brings. But even here she notices how power can shut it down. Her research finds that CEOs talk about wanting more curiosity, but often act in ways that impede it. She has some practical tips for opening that up: listening more, asking better questions, hiring curious people, and nurturing practices that make curiosity more welcome. All of these are good, but I think we can add to her list.

In our writing, Philippa Hardman and I frequently talk about knowing the difference between Navigation and Exploration. Some organisational issues are navigable – you know where you stand. Your existing experience and expertise provide a “good enough” map.  But some issues require exploration. These issues defy solution from within existing knowledge. Such issues demand curiosity. In our experience the very act of identifying an issue as calling for exploration is a radical act. It signals the limits of knowledge, and it invites and legitimises curiosity. We’ve written a lot on how to explore well – and I don’t have space to cover that here. You can find plenty about it in our book Disrupted!

There’s also a place for extending the range of curiosity to stretch beyond the usual verbal and logical forms common in organisations. The language of organisational life is often just too small to address the questions we face – we can’t see enough of the system, and we can’t imagine enough of what may be possible, by looking through the verbal-analytical lens alone. That’s why we harness the power of richer ways of knowing, in all our work. In addition to our business experience and strategic skills, we also address organisational questions using art, music, bodywork, drama and story. These aren’t used as icebreakers or “edutainment”: they’re used as sources of data. In our view you can’t see enough of the system if your ways of seeing are too thin. If you can’t see enough of the system, you can’t manage risk and you can’t grasp possibilities. Richer curiosity matters.

It’s also crucial to develop or deepen mindful practice.  If we want to harness and nurture curiosity, then knowing your mind matters, both as the inquirer and as a leader in an organisation seeking to support this work well. The AIM methodology that Michael Chaskalson and Megan Reitz developed describes an infrastructure for curiosity. We’ve written widely about the organisational application in AIM in our series for The European Business Review. Each of those articles explores an application of AIM to an organisational challenge through the lens of curiosity.

But I have a bigger ambition for this work, because I think there is a bigger need. Everything I’ve mentioned so far could be used “within the frame” – simply used as a way to make organisations work well, to make products and profits.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but it isn’t enough. We need to rethink the future of work and the very purpose of organisations. We need to find ways to develop companies that are earth-intelligent, wise to the need to support human and more-then-human life.  We need to find ways to live well on a finite planet. These issues demand an application of curiosity that is “beyond the frame”. I call that transgressive curiosity.  It is not at all clear that organisations like and support transgressive curiosity. Many will find it challenging and unsettling.  Nonetheless we need it, and we cannot address the future of life on this planet without it.

That’s why the work I’ve outlined above really matters. The harnessing of exploration, the embracing of richer ways of knowing, the awareness of the benefits of mindful practice, all have their part of play in allowing a bigger curiosity to become tolerated, then welcomed and finally celebrated.

One day I hope to see radical curiosity take its place in shaping the boardroom agendas of the FTSE 100. I’d love to see the questions raised by Manfred Max-Neef become raised by every marketeer. What is the real human need that we are serving? Is our work genuinely a deep satisfier of need, or is it a substitute, a pseudo-satisfier, a violator of those needs? What a radical act it would be to focus organisational agendas on the meeting of genuine need.

One day I’d love to see the work of Joanna Macy taken seriously in the corporate world. What if your organisational risk committee sometimes met as a Council of All Beings? Asking, what do the strands of the web of life have to say to us, to our plans, to our investments? What if we dared to explore corporate decisions through the lens of deep time, or with a keen eye on the Children’s Fire? I suspect we’d make some very different decisions if we had the courage to ask.

Some of this feels far off. But one lesson I’ve learned from the past 40 years is that things that one day feel far fetched can very often come to pass. I expect that sometime in the next 25 years these practices will find their way into boardrooms, maybe sooner.  But the groundwork is taking place right now. I see the work of Michael and Megan on encouraging MindTime, or the work of Megan Reitz and John Higgins on encouraging speaking up and activism, and I feel hopeful.

The work of exploration, of richer knowing, is already in hand. The more of us that join in and use our curiosity to take that work into the world, the more hopeful I become.


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