Seth Goldenberg wants us all to be more curious. The designer and entrepreneur provides design-based principles and issues to a variety of businesses. He runs a design-based management consultancy and has worked with many companies, including Apple and Oprah Winfrey’s OWN, to help rethink their business structures and processes.
Goldenberg, who also runs a Dickensian-sounding bookstore, Curiosity & Co., which doubles as a wine bar and cultural center in Jamestown, Rhode Island, has recently turned its attention to the role of curiosity—rather than just knowledge—in culture, and especially in the way businesses operate. His book, Radical Curiosity: Questioning Common Beliefs to Imagine Thriving Futures argues that the workplace of the future must ask much more fundamental questions if it is to thrive.
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
What do you think is the role of curiosity in the workplace?
It’s central to me. This is the foundation. I mean, the work is certainly turning inside out right now. We need to reexamine the questions we asked that set us on the path to value creation. Curiosity, as a kind of leadership practice, is penultimate in determining what is worth doing at all.
What do you mean by “create value”?
Radical Curiosity is a practice that comes from my studio an epic decade. We’ve had the pleasure of working with companies, organizations in almost every industry, and we’ve found time and time again that there are many ambitious intentions, but that work doesn’t always deliver real, sustainable value, meaning impact in the world, or the purpose we seek. I think many times the transactions of the day supersede and can mask our original intent. In fact, part of the work we do is to help organizations re-engage and embrace the upstream process of why they do the activity they do. We need to return to the questions – we need to embrace curiosity – to question the trajectory.
Can you give us an example of what a workplace that focuses on curiosity, or at least makes good use of it, might look like?
In our studio we “slow down to speed up”. If we believe [businesses] they don’t ask questions or show curiosity, we’re talking about slowing down the process. One of the things we’ve introduced in organizations is a shift from self-actualization to collective actualization. We often think about the performance and idea of separate careers: we often have a learning plan, a career path, a trajectory we are engaged in, as our story. But slowing down to understand the collective updating of teams or departments, or the ways in which the various interfaces and intersections in complex organizations behave, allows us to become a kind of systems thinker.
There are many businesses that need to make decisions quickly. What if they don’t have time to slow down?
I think we may have replaced urgency with value. And I think we need to ask harder questions about the roots of things. Many of us don’t necessarily believe that nationally education as a social system works, but we’ll throw you in jail if you don’t attend for truancy. Wall Street is easier; there are millions of transactions happening per minute. But does it create value? I’m interested in radical curiosity as a kind of manifesto and a kind of urgency to actually create more value or have more impact by slowing down and questioning the very roots of assumptions.
How might curiosity be positively or negatively impacted by what appears to be an increasingly dispersed workforce?
I’ve seen an interesting conversation emerge that turned the Great Reconciliation into this other conversation about the Great Simplification, which I found quite attractive. It just sounds lovely to talk about, but I think human beings need hybridity. We need multiple models for ways of working, for connecting, for creating meaning, and for finding ways to embrace purpose both individually and in teams. The digitization of remote work was, I think, very challenging at first, and people were certainly finding new rhythms to make it work for them. I think we are about to enter a period of experimentation. In the book we talk about what I call a cultural interregnum: this idea that we move from one kind of era to the next era of different social systems. There are these kinds of inherited narratives that work should happen this way, and that’s the kind of inherited normative behavior. And I think in this interregnum era, when we’re going from one model to another, especially with work, we’re going to see probably dozens and dozens of models to iteratively figure out what works. And that will take some time.
You write that “curiosity is the fuel of transformational leadership and value.” how?
I think we are still healing; I’m not sure we’ve fully grasped the full kind of aftershock of how the pandemic will be a catalyst for reorganizing the culture’s operating system. We will need leaders who are full of humility or who are willing to ask questions and perhaps bold questions that have felt untouchable in the past. When you’re faced with an existential threat, things that you thought and assumed were fixed and no longer are, will require adaptive business models, adaptive growth models, and leaders will have to be able to harness curiosity themselves, but also indoctrinate and kind of build cultures of curiosity to encourage their teams to be willing to venture into the unknown.
What are these bold questions that have never been asked before?
For example, cities are saying, let’s have a community-wide conversation about what safety is. It is not “to fund or not to fund the police”. It’s, “Let’s have a forum for civic imagination and procedure and process to collectively examine us, redefining what policing can be and the role of policing in our community.” That’s very constructive. For me, civic imagination goes far beyond a kind of critique and begins to experiment with models that seemed impossible before. So what does equity look like? What does help look like? I often use the example of Obamacare. To me, a lot of Obamacare was a debate about who paid for what, who got the health care bill, but we weren’t really having a conversation about what we meant by health. Do we want to live to be 100? Do we want a model where 90% of our dollars are spent in the last 5% of our lives? We should have, in this wonderful moment when we do this operating system reboot, very basic questions about the human condition: What is learning? What is safety? What is a trip? These are all these questions that we just assumed were on autopilot. There’s an exciting moment where we have to say, what do we really mean by these things? We kind of skipped over those things and just got down to how to move the invoices into the procurement system.
What you say seems to apply to certain leaders in certain industries at certain times. Is that across the board or is it more of a seasonal thing, at a certain point in the life cycle of a business or enterprise that curiosity needs to be a key value?
I think it is true that questioning everything cannot be at the expense of action. But I think there’s probably no time in an organization that embracing curiosity would leave a net negative legacy. Questioning our commonly held beliefs within the organization, in our sector, about our audience or customers about how we create impact and value; that to me is always healthy and almost a precursor to just great leadership and value creation. Maybe there’s a sub-question in your question that’s maybe not so much the life cycle of where an organization or business is, maybe it’s the life cycle of where the culture is. I just think that in some ways the pandemic has kind of ushered in a requirement to reexamine our assumptions. I think a lot of people say it’s not so much a return to normal. The question is what do we want to learn from it and project what a new normal might look like. Any organization that doesn’t ask radical fundamental questions may have a period of time where they do well, but it will come back to haunt them if they don’t embrace such deep questions sooner rather than later.
How would radical curiosity change the way we learn?
I would argue that this is a time where the future of work depends on how learning enters the organization. An organization can be a full-time learning identity – and embracing learning as part of everyday work in the workplace can actually, ironically, bring a sense of awe and wonder and purpose that feeds that curiosity and can be the antidote to the great reconciliation.
what do you suggest More of these training modules teaching me not to let the Gremlins come and steal my data?
The world is full of all kinds of fantastic learning experiences. They are simply unaccredited. I think one possibility here is to break the typical authentication format. Every day, 500 learning experiences happen somewhere in New York that Fortune 500 companies don’t know about. I think that finding a way for these two realms to speak to each other – the corporate goals of professional development and the extraordinary world of culture and the arts and all the discoveries that happen in the real world – for these languages to see be connected again can reveal an extraordinary, much more open, real-world curriculum.
What would you say to that businessman who says this is too pointless gratuitous?
In my experience, money and profit are the result of creating culturally meaningful value, and it is very difficult to create culturally meaningful value if an organization is fundamentally disconnected from the active culture. Think about it from a multi-stakeholder perspective: If your employees are disrupted, if your customers are disrupted, if your brand is disrupted, it’s going to be very difficult to make money. We all know examples like this – whether it’s global blockbuster videos or organizations losing billions of dollars in market capitalization due to their fundamental disconnection from the cultural zeitgeist.
Where have you seen great examples of radical curiosity?
I’m very inspired by the sea and avalanche of social entrepreneurs that I think are emerging and will emerge as a kind of restorative movement of this moment. I think there’s this kind of fascinating era of re-treatment and re-arrangement that’s already unfolding, and I see it picking up speed. It turns out that if you want to make a billion dollars, you may have to ask social questions like what is the future of water? And how are we going to feed 9 billion people? Actually Maslow’s more basic ones hierarchy of needs questions, to me these are the big opportunities. And there’s not necessarily one company, but I think there’s a persona of radically curious challengers that question those foundations.
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