Published on 29 Oct 2018

​Curiosity Does Not Kill The Cat: What Can Jack Ma and Steve Jobs Teach You About Competitive Advantage?

Ma Yun and friends were googling for beer when he realised he could not find Chinese beer. It prompted him to create a home page in Chinese.

By Tan Joo Seng

​Jack Ma and his friends were once googling for beer when he realised that it was difficult to find Chinese beer on the internet. It prompted him to create a home page in Chinese. Within five hours of posting the page, he received five emails from various countries, including US and Germany. The power of Internet surprised him - one which he harnessed towards building Alibaba, a Chinese giant specializing in e-commerce, retail, Internet, AI and technology.

On 17 December 1903, the Wright brothers, with no formal training in engineering, defied gravity with their manned airplane flights, ushering in the era of flight.

After observing how apples always fell straight to the ground, Isaac Newton spent several years working on the mathematics showing that the force of gravity decreased as the inverse square of the distance.

If we closely look at similar moments of breakthrough, insight and innovation in life or in business, one characteristic stands out. Curiosity is at the core of all of them. They did not start out with an end goal in mind. They were just curious. Once piqued, they kept exploring things which intrigued them, which I call “explorative curiosity”. Often these were unrelated topics. In the end, the pieces that came together, bore fruit. You could say that curiosity connected the dots.

In today’s VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment, where nobody knows what might be around the corner and what the next big thing could be, curiosity is a key quality leaders and corporations need to have to stay ahead of the curve.

Curiosity knits the lattice. Louis Mobley, founder of the IBM Executive School in 1956, says curious people share one trait: an inexhaustible curiosity on everything from “NATO to Plato.” The more they learned, the more connections they saw… from history, psychology, philosophy, science, literature, and poetry that produced their greatest creative business insights. What we might dismiss as irrelevant and therefore uninteresting, a genius like Steve Jobs sees as pieces in an unfolding interwoven jigsaw puzzle. Pieces to be continually sifted until the piece that fits the problem finally emerges.” In the world of business, the Jack Mas and the Steve Jobs cobbled together bits of information they had chased and pieced them all together to create breakthroughs.

Executives agree on the importance of curiosity. In a 2015 PwC survey of more than 1,000 CEOs, a number of them cited “curiosity” and “open-mindedness” as leadership traits that are becoming increasingly critical in these challenging times. Curious leaders are more open to new experiences, more tolerant of ambiguity and are more likely to nurture curiosity in their organisations.

Yet, curiosity is lacking and not given due attention. According to MERCK's 2016 State of Curiosity Report, while 80% of workers agree that curious colleagues are most likely to bring ideas to life, only 20% of workers actually self-identify as being curious.

Most companies will argue that they have programmes to encourage innovation or funds for innovation projects. However, it is not enough to rely on programmes or funds if curiosity has not been aroused and awakened in the team. A lot has been written on innovation, but not much on curiosity. Curiosity has to start from the top. Leaders lead by example. This critical capability - leadership curiosity - comprises three key components: self-curiosity, interpersonal curiosity and environmental curiosity.

It starts with the self-curiosity - a desire, even obsession, to find out more. At 13, Jack Ma woke up at give 5am, walked to Shangri-La hotel to chat with tourists and take them sightseeing. That was how he learnt to speak English. He did this for nine years; learning along the way, Western ways of doing things. When Steve Jobs started studying calligraphy and the practice of Zen Buddhism, he had no idea it would lead to the design simplicity of Apple computers. He was only being curious.

Personal curiosity is crucial to success because a naturally curious person is more likely to learn from mistakes, try new things, explore new ideas, engage more deeply, be more adaptable, take risks and embrace change. In today’s digital age and Industry 4.0, where technological change is happening at an unprecedented speed and scale, and where disruptions and black swans abound, personal curiosity is critical in closing the gap between the human capability to change and the exponential change in technology.

A leader must also be curious about others. This interpersonal curiosity is the desire to learn about other people, including their life experiences, their thoughts and motives. When you are curious about what your customer's experience with your products or services, you develop greater empathy and a deeper understanding of your customer experience. You learn how to improve your product or service, understand what value needs to be created to get the customers’ needs met more effectively, and even find new ways to connect with the customers in today’s digital age. When you are curious about your colleagues, you will engage with them at a deeper level, and this could build stronger trust and collaboration.

Unfortunately, what often happens to leaders once they’ve attained a position of leadership is that, they may feel the need to project confident expertise. They are afraid of being seen as ignorant or incompetent. A truly curious leader is humble enough to acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers.

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, says: “We run this company on questions, not answers.” The Director-General of BBC goes to every meeting with employees and starts with the question: “What is one thing I could do to make things better for you?” Hal Gregersen, Executive Director at MIT Leadership Centre, says leaders have to learn to ask questions. When the leader is curious and starts asking questions, others will take the cue and follow suit.

A truly curious leader is curious about the environment and ecosystem in which the company operates. Being curious about the business environment drives learning and innovation. Lack of curiosity about the business environment may lead to organisational stasis, stagnation, and even decline. Staying curious about new trends or new ideas that are at the edge or periphery, or being curious about weak signals that are not yet clear or coherent in an industry helps you seek out new blue oceans of growth opportunities.

An example of an exceptionally curious leader is the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, who embodies all three components of leadership curiosity. Mr Heng Swee Keat, his former Principal Private Secretary shares that the Mr Lee had a red box which: “carried a wide range of items. It could be communications with foreign leaders, observations about the financial crisis, instructions for the Istana grounds staff, or even questions about some trees he had seen on the expressway. Mr Lee was well-known for keeping extremely alert to everything he saw and heard around him - when he noticed something wrong, like an ailing raintree, a note in the red box would follow. We could never anticipate what Mr Lee would raise - it could be anything that was happening in Singapore or the world. But we could be sure of this: it would always be about how events could affect Singapore and Singaporeans, and how we had to stay a step ahead. Inside the red box was always something about how we could create a better life for all.”

According to Kishore Mahbubani (retired Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS), among the founding fathers of Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S. Rajaratnam, all three shared an “incessant curiosity”; they always had questions to ask.

For country, corporation or self, being curious may be the only source of competitive advantage.