If you spend time with children, you know that they ask a lot of questions. They are curious by nature, and that is how they grow. At some point, however, we adults exchange our drive to learn with an effort to be right. Certainty is more desirable than curiosity because it reinforces your beliefs and does not force you to change.
Seth Goldenberg, author of Radical Curiosity: Question Common Beliefs to Imagine Thriving Futures, calls curiosity an endangered species. “We like stability and we like to know the variables, but that’s not how real life works,” she says. “It’s not about how you can scale progress or positive impact.”
If there was a good outcome to the pandemic, Goldenberg says it shook us to the core and forced us to question the various operating models we’d been using for so long that we couldn’t conceive of disruption. He led to the Great Renunciation and a great reinvention of ourselves and many of our social systems.
“We’re at a rare moment where we’re seeing the system in a fundamentally new way,” says Goldenberg. “The world has become quite complex and we are experiencing what we call a ‘society-level OS reset.’ The values we live by are being rewritten. Culture is undergoing an OS reboot, such as a reinstall of Safari. And a rebirth comes after an existential crisis.”
Still, Goldenberg wonders why people don’t stop to ask more questions. “Why isn’t curiosity more prevalent?” he asks. “Curiosity is fundamental to the human condition and we are wasting it. Much of large-scale organizations, businesses, and social systems are still filled with predetermined responses. It’s fascinating how uncomfortable we are asking questions.”
ask essential questions
Goldenberg says that great questions can generate extraordinary value. In fact, all innovation and all important transformational ideas start from a big question. He developed a methodology to help leaders ask essential questions, which he calls being radically curious.
“’Radical’ from the Latin root of radicalis, which means the roots of things, to question our assumptions,” he says. “Radical curiosity starts with asking better questions.”
For example, the United States spent $4.1 trillion, about $12,530 per citizen, on health care in 2020, more than twice the per capita spending of countries like Sweden, Austria, and Germany.
Instead of asking how to pay this bill, an essential question might be: “Why do we spend more than $3 trillion each year on something that generally doesn’t produce great results? Answering this question requires defining what exactly it means to be healthy in the 21st century,” says Goldenberg.
“Essential questions invite us to revisit ideas we have taken for granted,” says Goldenberg. “They challenge us to reconsider what we know, to look at the familiar with fresh eyes to see something new.”
Essential Questions also challenge us to get to the root of why things happen rather than what happened, allowing for a broader range of contributing variables. They push us to look for unexpected connections that can unlock transformation. They are the basis of curiosity.
Being action-oriented is often adopted as a badge of honor and expressed as a good thing. But if you jump into action too quickly, you may not even have asked a question. Essential questions require you to slow down.
“When presented with an opportunity or directive, many of us jump into action and look for a solution,” says Goldenberg. “We don’t stop to say, ‘Where does this come from? What is the context? What is the key question that is driving this? What are the assumptions that limit how to solve the problem?’ The mistake is moving too fast and not removing those assumptions. Action is not always the best thing to do. Sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing right away.”
At Goldenberg’s innovation consulting studio Epic Decade, his team has a saying: “Slow down to speed up.” This reminds them that “slowing down is a way of speeding up because you get closer to the real underlying question,” he says.
Ideally, leaders should model and ask more essential questions to instill a culture of curiosity. Yet it’s a role that anyone in a company can and should take on, says Goldenberg.
“One thing that has happened in rethinking the employee experience is that employees now see that they have more power than they thought they had before,” he says. “It can’t be chaos, but I think the best and most determined organizations are welcoming the co-creation, the co-authoring, the cooperative architecture of what’s coming next for their future.”