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Agility and Curiosity – The Essential Soft Skills for Teams

Curiosity is the intrinsic motivation to learn, the desire to know about something or someone. It is that spark in our brain that leads us to investigate something because it is interesting or unusual – a vital intangible that enables us to continuously evolve.

Curiosity inspires the questions that generate the answers we don’t yet have access to.

The trait of intellectual giants such as Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, it transforms innovation from being an end in itself to a daily way of thinking and operating. When we are curious, there’s a lot going on cognitively.

A fascinating study published in the neuroscience journal Neuron by Matthias Gruber, Bernard D Gelman, Charan Ranganath, explores the mechanisms by which intrinsic motivational states affect learning, and suggests when we become curious our brain chemistry changes. The authors explain that a circuit in the brain energises people to go out and get things that are intrinsically rewarding, and that this circuit lights up when we get money or candy. It also lights up when we are curious.

“We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.” – Lloyd Alexander

There’s a mountain of evidence to support the benefits of nurturing curiosity in teams, spanning everything from wellbeing and love of learning to diversity and social inclusion, while mitigating negativity and despondency that inhibit a thriving culture. Consider that Albert Einstein declared, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” His extraordinary discoveries prove curiosity is a potent catalyst for experimentation, innovation and invention, and yet, when considering effective strategies to elevate team performance, curiosity is not an immediate solution leaders reach for.

The mind is like a muscle, and like any muscle it gets stronger with use. Similarly, the mental exercise associated with being inherently curious can lead to higher brain function and, possibly, make the mind stronger. But here’s the thing: even if you continuously ask questions and challenge the status quo, being inherently curious is not enough on its own to forge long-term sustainability.

Curiosity needs an adaptable counterpart – agility.

Being agile is about speed. It’s about having grace under fire and the capacity to move quickly and decisively in anticipating and taking advantage of opportunity, while collaborating to avoid negative and even catastrophic consequences of change. An example of this ‘power combo’ is how the world’s leading scientists mobilised to fast-track and achieve the extraordinary – the development and rollout of a viable Covid-19 vaccine in less than one-year.

When curiosity and agility come together the game changes. It’s like a murmur of birds in continuous and purposeful flow – the X-factor of emergence.

As a leader, how do you foster curiosity and agility in your team?

According to the fifth principle of the Agile Manifesto, build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done. In my 2017 book, Emergent, I first presented this idea as ‘collaborative autonomy’, suggesting that self-organising teams who are both agile and curious become a powerful risk-reducing mechanism that can help eliminate bottlenecks and unhealthy codependency on leadership.

Ask critical questions rather than giving answers:

· What is the problem you are trying to solve?

· What options have you considered?

· What are the pros and cons?

· What is your hypothesis?

· What tests or experiments have you conducted?

By asking critical questions we generate collaborative problem-solving moments that result in positive reinforcement, engagement, and ownership.

What are some of the ways you inspire collaborative autonomy in your team?

Until next time…

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