In Times of Uncertainty, the Curious Win 

We are going through some ambiguous times right now. Not only is it an election year, which finds America’s future in a state of unpredictability, but the Coronavirus is knocking organizations all over the world off of their tracks and requiring them to adjust to the rapid and unforeseen changes.

Some companies are breaking their rules and making quick changes in order to meet the new and different demands of their customers. Let’s take a look at what a few companies have done so far in reaction to this widespread virus:

Lyft, the ridesharing company, is planning to compensate any of its drivers who are affected by the virus for the entire incubation period of 14 days. Walmart made the same announcement for its 1.4 million hourly workers.

The food delivery service Postmates now offers customers the option to have their food dropped off without the ordinary contact between deliverer and recipient. This benefits both its customers and its employees.

Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian sent an email to Delta customers saying the company has expanded its cleaning and disinfecting guidelines and is putting hand sanitizers on all ticket counters, boarding gates, and more – plus is waiving change fees so customers can adjust their travel plans as suits their needs.

The University of Washington Medical Center in North Seattle is now offering drive-thru coronavirus testing for its employees and students.

Florence, Italy’s Uffizi Gallery is now showcasing its art via the internet.

Princess Cruises is pausing all trips for the next two months.

And this is not to mention the innumerable Chinese companies that had to figure out ways to allow their employees to work remotely.

In times of great unknown like this, when peoples’ habits change drastically and companies’ business models expire overnight, it is crucial to remain agile. To try things out. To become a curious explorer of the situation unraveling in front of you and to make some decisions – and fast.

The problem is, not a lot of people or companies operate this way. They find it hard to break all the rules and truly get curious about what’s in front of them, and instead often fall back on what has worked for them in the past.

You already know this, but that strategy has long since expired. In times of great unknown like this, the curious companies are the ones that will endure. The airline that wonders what would happen if they waived all change fees, and the food company that asks itself, do we really need to hand off peoples’ lunches, person to person?

It’s the detachment from the norm that enables companies like this to make moves quickly, learn, and adjust accordingly.

Agile organizations model a lot of their behaviors after organisms. In this HBR article, author Francesca Gino says curiosity is an evolutionary advantage. “Curious animals were more likely to survive because they learned about their environments; a forager that occasionally skipped a reliable feeding ground to explore might find an even better place to eat,” she says.

In the same vein, companies with leaders embracing their curiosity are more likely to survive. This is because, as Gino goes onto say, curiosity creates a brain state that amplifies learning. So the curious are not just more interested; their brains are wired to learn more. Her article has some great strategies leaders can employ to embrace curiosity. We’ve added a few of our own ideas here:

Make mandated exploration time

At Studio/E we carve out 10% of our time for exploration. Each week, we expect our team to spend about four hours (or 12 hours monthly) getting curious and learning something new. Making exploration mandatory empowers our team to read and learn and experience new things without apprehension or discomfort.

Carve out a budget for personal development

This is something else we like to enforce at Studio/E. Each year when we set new goals for ourselves, one of the goals is always personal development. It is up to the individuals to identify opportunities that would benefit them personally and professionally. With a nominal budget, employees can do a lot of learning, like online classes and workshops, attending conferences, or even investing in books for development.

Ask questions

It’s one thing to encourage questions; but asking questions yourself, as a leader, is of the utmost importance. Ask questions like, what would happen if we turned all of our in-person programs into digital experiences? What if we offered drive-thru virus testing? We don’t know how these big decisions were made for COVID-19 action plans, but odds are they began with simple questions.

In this captivating New Yorker piece about curiosity and equality (if that combination doesn’t make you curious, we don’t know what would), author Atul Gawande says, “Once we lose the desire to understand—to be surprised, to listen and bear witness—we lose our humanity. Among the most important capacities that you take with you today is your curiosity. You must guard it, for curiosity is the beginning of empathy.”

And this is what we’re seeing everywhere regarding COVID-19. Times may be scary, uncertain, unsteady – but it’s comforting to see the curiosity and empathy emerging all around us.

Now is a good time to ask ourselves, are we being curious enough to survive?

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