Curious about Curiosity
I have been wondering about curiosity lately. This strangely circular activity feels a little like the sensation you experience when you step between opposing mirrors and see an infinite array of reflections bouncing off each other.
I have used the mirror metaphor when advocating reflective governance practices before, acknowledging that it has limitations. When we reflect on our effectiveness in governing nonprofits, we are not looking for infinite repetitions of one perspective. Instead, we seek to discover something; to learn something new; to understand a hidden cause behind an effect or an appearance.
Such insights require us to step out of the flow of normal work, and deliberately ponder various questions.
As directors, the questions we ask about conformance and performance are framed in different ways depending on our purposes, goals, scale, skills, and field of endeavour. Most of us are seeking more than mere accountability. We are curious about how we can add value to the work we do. What improvements can we make? What new or additional benefits can we offer to our constituencies and stakeholders?
When we say that we are seeking to appoint directors who are curious we mean something like the ‘interested but objective’ curiosity of a dedicated scientist or researcher, rather than the ‘inquisitive prying’ of a neighbourhood gossip.
The curious director reads widely and does not simply speed-read their board papers. They look for patterns, anomalies, variances, and gaps in the information provided to the board.
Acting in the best interests of the organisation, the curious director is searching for ways to support the mission. Their motivation is intrinsic, rather than borrowed from some external authority. ‘How can I make a positive difference?’ rather than ‘How can I impress an audience?’ The type of curiosity we seek is humble and sincere rather than transactional or performative.
Curiosity of this kind involves more than merely asking a few questions during a board meeting (see header chart above). Amongst other things, the curious director:
- engages with stakeholders and is interested in (concerned for) their needs and priorities
- remains informed and alert to the trends and emerging issues in the organisation’s field of activity and in the broader community
- demonstrates intellectual humility, recognising that a willingness to tolerate some uncertainty or ‘discomfort’ encourages a more exploratory and potentially innovative approach
- pays attention to the work of similar bodies, noting ideas and approaches that might be adaptable for the benefit of their own organisation
- reads their board papers with an eye to noticing areas that may benefit from closer scrutiny, deeper analysis, or exploration of other alternatives
- where appropriate, uses the ‘5 Whys’ method to better understand the contributing factors and root causes underlying incidents, issues, and problem situations
- uses skillful questioning of management, expert advisors, and other stakeholders to explore the benefits, risks, and trade-offs involved in proposals and initiatives
- wants to know the quality of evidence supporting contentions and arguments for and against decisions that are before the board
- is committed to continuous improvement of themselves, the board, and the organisation
Conversely, a lack of curiosity may result in:
- complacency and disengagement
- missed opportunities to add value or achieve meaningful impact
- advocating answers to the wrong questions (e.g., solutions looking for a problem)
- the underperformance of fiduciary and oversight roles
Selected curiosity models and reflections
The collection of charts below offers a range of concepts and models about the nature and elements of curiosity. These may be of interest to those thinking about the motivations of the curious person, the styles and forms of curiosity demonstrated by different people, and the value and importance of the concept.