The Most Successful Startup Teams are Curious

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in a conversation about startup newsletters with some of GAN’s corporate partners during our yearly Partner Summit. We’d been chatting about newsletters we loved when I went a bit negative and opened up about a newsletter I had a lot of judgments around. In the newsletter, the company sending them (which I won’t name here because I’m not that mean) keeps showing these seemingly lavish quarterly retreats at fancy resorts all over the world with its whole team. They always make me think, “First, how can you afford this? And second, why would you share with your customers that you’re using profits to take your team out like this every quarter?” (Admittedly ironic judgments, given our conversation happened at the peak of a mountain in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where we’d brought our corporate partners together in a similar way).

I got called out pretty quickly, though, when one of the partners asked me if I knew why this company spent so much on quarterly retreats. When I confessed that I wasn’t sure, she told me that the company I’d been complaining about works remotely and these trips are all about getting their team together, in person. Since they see each other so infrequently, they use these trips to do a mix of team bonding and intense work. Which means, in fact, that this company saves so much on the overhead most of us pay for daily rent or mortgage (not to mention other costs necessary when your team offices together, like snacks or cleaning or any number of expenses), and they use those savings to create intentional gatherings.

So what’s off about my judgments? At least a few things:

  1. While the company in question has shared a ton about why they chose their model, I hadn’t bothered to look into any of it.
  2. Which means I made a ton of assumptions and just allowed myself to become further entrenched in my view that the company was “wasteful.”
  3. Which means I wasn’t at all curious. And it took someone else pointing it out to me to recognize what I’d done, instead of just laughing off my opinion as “right” and “normal.”

What is Curiosity, Exactly?

Curiosity is a state of openness that something might not be what you perceive it to be. It’s being open to hearing others’ ideas and viewpoints.

And, if we’re not curious—if we’re only thinking about our own company, and our own team, and our own work, and our own thoughts and opinions—we spend a whole lot of time never really caring about anyone or anything else.

If you take my example about a company’s wastefulness, my lack of curiosity led to a mindset that sounded something like, “I would never take my team on a quarterly retreat! It’s such a waste of money.” I labeled our company model as “right” and their company model as “wrong.” Black and white. No gray, no questions, no budging from my own viewpoint.

What Curiosity Does For Us and Our Teams

In a survey of 3,000 workers in China, Germany, and the United States, 84% of respondents noted a belief that curiosity catalyzes new ideas; 74% said it inspires unique, valuable talents; and, 63% of them voiced that being curious helps you get promoted.

All of that is so great. Yet, there’s even more research pointing to the fact that curiosity also does the following:

  1. Creates more open communication and better team performance.
    Curious people are open to hearing one another’s thoughts. It makes sense that their teams perform better because they actually want to hear what their teammates have to say.
  2. Reduces group conflict.
    By being open to others, curious people aren’t afraid of what others say and think. Hard conversations don’t turn them off. Instead, curious people ask even more questions and tend to be open to disagreement because they know they’ll learn something from it—at the very least, how to relate better to the people around them.
  3. Encourages more innovation and promotes positive changes in both creative and noncreative jobs.
    If people are questioning the status quo and feel empowered to do so, they are much more open to finding new ways of doing things, leading people to enjoy their work more, no matter what role they’re in.
  4. Reduces decision-making errors.
    This is one of my favorites. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but the more open you are to try and experiment (and therefore, the more you’re open to possible failure), the faster you learn. When you believe you or your way of doing things is right all the time, you don’t stop and ask if what you’re doing is actually the best way to do something. Which means being curious actually makes us fundamentally better at our jobs, as we test and iterate on our processes, our programs, and truly everything else.
  5. Improves your sales techniques.
    And, this one wasn’t part of the research study, but I believe it to be very true. Curious salespeople and account managers generate more revenue for a company. Why? They actually care about the client they’re talking to rather than just pushing a product down someone’s throat. They want to hear the struggles on the other side of the table and they ask what clients are actually looking for, instead of being laser-focused on what they’re already offering.

How We Can All Be More Curious

Believe in the business case.
If you’re not naturally curious, which a lot of us weren’t raised or trained to be, it can help to believe that there truly is a business case to being curious. Check out the research I linked to above if you want more data on it. Read some business books on curiosity and innovation—two intimately linked concepts—and study companies you believe embody curiosity. I truly think a foundational belief in the value of curiosity is essential to care about incorporating it into your business and life practices.

Start with “why” and ask it a lot.
In almost every discussion, do the “5 Why” test. You can read more about this practice on a previous blog I wrote, but the basic gist is this:

  • Someone asks “Why?” to a particular issue.
  • Once the person responding gives an answer, you ask “Why?” again.
  • And you just repeat this multiple times.

It seems like something only your three-year-old does when you tell them not to do something, but the goal is actually to get at the deeper thing driving your thoughts, ideas, or behaviors. And, when you see what’s really driving you, you get so much more clarity around whether you’re on the right track, what your real motivations are, or whether something needs to shift.

Model it for one another.
The GAN Partner that pushed back on my assumptions during our conversation never had to share her perspective. But she did, and I’m grateful for it. She asked me if I knew the reason (not-to-be-named company) did what they’re doing. The more that we can all 1) Model inquisitiveness, and 2) Push one another more to think in a way that’s more curious, the better we’ll all be. And, the better our businesses will be in the long-run.