September 24, 2020

Curiosity killed the cat but drives creative business solutions, as COVID-19 has shown us

Inspired by Winston Churchill’s famous quote, “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” I dare you to stop and think about all the opportunities that have presented themselves because of the COVID-19 pandemic. How will you respond?

Are you wallowing in the negative effects of the pandemic on your home, family, school or job? Or are you invigorated by the forced change resulting in commutes replaced by remote team meetings, where you’re sporting a combination of nice shirt with comfortable shorts?

If you still find yourself drowning in the “new normal,” you need to wake up and face the reality that change is here and always has been here. It’s not death and taxes, but something in between, and something that can be embraced.

If you feel invigorated, you have likely chosen to explore, experiment and/or learn to navigate these days of social distancing, mask-wearing and obsessive sanitizing. As an educator and researcher, I see this crisis as a catalyst for all of us to rethink our response to any crisis and uncertainty in general — by increasing our curiosity.

Organizations that thrive demonstrate the ability and willingness to respond effectively to changing and challenging conditions (3M, Apple, Nokia). On the other hand, companies with rigid structures and fixed mindsets that tried to live off their early successes while ignoring ever-evolving market and economic changes, now rest in peace (BlackBerry, Blockbuster, Kodak). So, why do we as individuals, particularly as business leaders, ignore or dismiss that change is a certainty and that with change comes uncertainty?

Because we have normalized a problem-solving culture to be all about answers and not about questions. Ask yourself these two questions:

  • Do you focus your efforts, resources and budgets on solving an assumed problem without asking if this is the right problem for your company to solve?
  • Do you ask if the problem your company is trying to solve is actually your customer’s problem?

If you’re struggling with any of these questions, you’re far from alone. Most of us put too high a value on the same approaches to ideas and creativity while expecting that tired approach will pay off. If you’re not already bursting at the suit seams with pent-up questions, it’s time to join the small and growing leadership group armed with curiosity and empathy, crucial ingredients to generating the groundbreaking ideas and processes that deliver creative solutions.

In Canada, we’ve witnessed how curious and creative leaders have responded to this crisis. Big breweries and small distillers converted their existing manufacturing systems to produce hand sanitizer (Labatts, Niagara’s Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers and Vancouver Island’s Victoria Distillers). Research labs rolled out portable testing kits (Ottawa-based Spartan Bioscience Inc.). And a “glocal” fashion brand designed hospital scrubs and patient gowns (Toronto and Winnipeg-based Canada Goose Inc.).

Let’s not forget the companies that quickly pivoted in response to the pandemic, such as Starbucks and Tim Horton’s going from in-restaurant to takeout, or universities quickly moving from in-person to virtual classrooms, with Rotman making the switch in 48 hours. And Telus swapped its regional call centres for fully equipped remote at-home customer support services within a few months.

To creatively respond to the ever-evolving social and economic climate, consider the collective power of “how might we” instead of “how will you.” Engage a diverse team to explore the underlying issues surfacing as a business problem, and then set forth a curious and courageous path forward.

Give yourself permission to ask empathic questions. Are you ready?

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Angèle Beausoleil is an assistant professor of business design and innovation at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and is the academic director of the school’s Business Design Initiative.

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