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Can Curiosity foster Strategic Thinking?

Updated: Apr 3

If a trending chart were to be drawn on the number of questions asked by an average human from kindergarten to corporate life, the graph will be a startling downward trend much to our dislike. But that’s how the human brain works as we grow from childhood to adulthood.

As we grow, our ability to “reason” with what’s happening around us is heavily influenced by our own biases, assumptions, skills, beliefs and judgement.

If we need to think strategically, one of the key behavioural aspects to enable in ourselves is to “zoom out” and question the status quo.

Questioning the status quo in a healthy manner is often a great way to self assess your products and services and how they are being received by your customers. When a curious mind questions the way things are, it seeks to find alternatives to existing assumptions and biases. When you accept assumptions and biases, our belief systems on maintaining status quo solidifies and we fail to see the downside implications of our actions.

James Dyson was so frustrated with the suction power of conventional vacuum cleaners that he refused to accept any of the existing products in the market as a good standard and went about understanding math algorithms to improve power of suction. He found his inspiration in a saw mill that created a “tornado” effect to separate fine particles and we now have Dyson vacuum cleaners that are a league above the rest of the products in the market.

When Marico industries was looking to setup their own manufacturing facility for their famous “Parachute” brand of coconut oil, they went against status quo and market perceptions to setup the factory in Kerala. The rest as they say is history with Parachute being the unmatched numero uno in its category.

Not everyone may have the infectious energy levels of James Dyson or Harsh Mariwala. If you are looking to go a step above the competition and develop strategies to help you serve your purpose, there are several tools and frameworks available. Blue Ocean Strategy approach has a set of tools that can be used to elevate one’s thinking and reflect on what you are doing currently. McKinsey’s three horizon approach can be considered to differentiate governance approach across business units and therefore not accept a one size fits all approach.

Dutch researcher Late Geert Hofestede did some pioneering work on culture and how it varies by regions across the world. He aggregated his research findings into 6 dimensions of culture. One of the dimensions he speaks about is called “uncertainty avoidance”. This dimension is essentially about an organization’s ability to deal with uncertainty or ambiguity. When there is no clarity on market potential, what do you do? When there is an imperfect product, how do you pitch it to your first customer? When you don’t have answers to all the questions thrown at you, do you sit with your palm on your forehead or do you smile and initiate a few experiments to learn from the experience and find answers?

Organizations that thrive in ambiguity tend to do experiments as a means to find solutions to the causes of ambiguity. This ability to experiment and explore fosters innovation and results in creation of great products and great services. The western world, according to Hofstede’s research has high tolerance for uncertainty. Companies such as 3M, Google, Dyson, Tesla are all examples of organizations from the western world that have a high innovation culture.

From Hofestede’s research, Japan (and many Asian countries) and Germany have low tolerance for ambiguity and hence have high “uncertainty avoidance index” scores. This does not mean that they are less creative. They put in place process, measures and expertise to enhance the ability of the organization to deal with the unknowns. The manufacturing world has greatly benefitted from Toyota’s management principles and Bosch has some of the best engineered products in the auto industry.

The western world as well as Asian countries have both dealt with ambiguity differently. The key takeaway is that there is organizational readiness to deal with ambiguity and different strategies are evolved to deal with the same.

A key contributor to thinking strategically is to build that capability in the team rather than just 1 or 2 individuals developing the ability to do so. It’s important in today’s networked teams to leverage the wisdom of the crowds. Allowing everyone in the team to “think” and speak their mind is a great enabler to higher team output. It also rubs on each other and encourages everyone to speak up. What better way to achieve that than creating an environment of safety. Does the team feel psychologically safe to work without intimidation.

When such an environment thrives, the team is free to think radically differently and contribute to ideas without fear of being ridiculed.

In a study titled Project Aristotle, done by Google around 2012-13 on what influences team effectiveness, Psychological Safety came out as the top contributor that drives higher team output.

In summary, to build strategic thinking ability,

  • stay curious and question status quo

  • experiment and explore to deal with ambiguity

  • build above two in your teams by creating a psychologically safe environment


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