Nothing Helps Innovation More than an Open Mind

Stephen DeAngelis

May 3, 2019

Innovation remains a hot business topic with many pundits insisting businesses must innovate or die. If innovation were easy, there wouldn’t be so many articles written about it. After years of observation and reading, I believe one of the most important traits innovative people have is an open mind. Open-minded people understand they aren’t the only ones capable of having a creative thought. They possess a native curiosity about the world. They often question things other people take for granted and see ways to make things better. Opened-minded people can also be a pain in the butt. Why? Because they loath consensus thinking. Jackie Dryden (@justjackiesays), Chief Purpose Architect at Savage Brands, believes companies need a little rear-end pain to keep them on their toes.[1] She cites advertising sage David Ogilvy, who once said, “Search all the parks in all your cities. You’ll find no statues of committees.” She adds, “In most organizations, consensus decision making is the default. Unfortunately, a lot of evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, is beginning to ask whether consensus is as valuable as once assumed. To go further, is consensus the quickest way to kill innovation?” It’s a good question. Just keep in mind that at some point a decision needs to be made in order to move forward.


The importance of having an open mind


Whether or not you’re pursuing corporate innovation, having an open mind benefits you as an individual. Executive coach Leanne Hoagland-Smith (@CoachLee) cites, the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes Jr. who said, “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”[2] Having an open mind continually stretches us in new ways. Hoagland-Smith insists, “Business owners, executives and sales professionals with the constant rivers, almost rapids of change, stretching their minds is required to stay just in the flow. … Stretching the mind does require having an open attitude towards new ideas.” And it doesn’t matter from whence those ideas come.


Having a closed mind often leads to the corporate “not-invented-here” attitude that concludes ideas from outside the company can’t be good. Such thinking can stifle innovation. Kara Goldin (@karagoldin), Founder and CEO of Hint, asserts, “It is always worth paying attention to what’s happening in other sectors.”[3] She adds, “My belief in the power of learning from other sectors is strong. … When you’re curious about other industries and keep an open mind, you’ll be surprised at how you can re-apply new ideas and technique to your world.” I’m glad Goldin used the word “curious.” Curiosity and open-mindedness are inseparable. Albert Einstein once wrote, “The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence.”[4]


Francesca Gino (@francescagino), the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, asserts, “Most of the breakthrough discoveries and remarkable inventions throughout history, from flints for starting a fire to self-driving cars, have something in common: They are the result of curiosity.”[5] She continues:


“The impulse to seek new information and experiences and explore novel possibilities is a basic human attribute. New research points to three important insights about curiosity as it relates to business. First, curiosity is much more important to an enterprise’s performance than was previously thought. That’s because cultivating it at all levels helps leaders and their employees adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures: When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more-creative solutions. In addition, curiosity allows leaders to gain more respect from their followers and inspires employees to develop more-trusting and more-collaborative relationships with colleagues. Second, by making small changes to the design of their organizations and the ways they manage their employees, leaders can encourage curiosity — and improve their companies. This is true in every industry and for creative and routine work alike. Third, although leaders might say they treasure inquisitive minds, in fact most stifle curiosity, fearing it will increase risk and inefficiency.”


The conclusion is clear: Foster open-mindedness and curiosity and your business will benefit.


Cultivating open-minded thinking


At the beginning of this article I noted that open-minded people could be a pain in the butt in organizations where consensus-thinking is the norm. Gino believes fostering curiosity can overcome that conundrum. She explains, “My research found that curiosity encourages members of a group to put themselves in one another’s shoes and take an interest in one another’s ideas rather than focus only on their own perspective. That causes them to work together more effectively and smoothly: Conflicts are less heated, and groups achieve better results.” She goes on to suggest five strategies leaders can employ to foster corporate curiosity. They are:


1. Hire for curiosity. “To assess curiosity, employers can ask candidates about their interests outside of work. Reading books unrelated to one’s own field and exploring questions just for the sake of knowing the answers are indications of curiosity. … It’s also important to remember that the questions candidates ask — not just the answers they provide — can signal curiosity.”


2. Set an example. “Leaders can encourage curiosity throughout their organizations by being inquisitive themselves. … Another way leaders can model curiosity is by acknowledging when they don’t know the answer; that makes it clear that it’s OK to be guided by curiosity.”


3. Emphasize learning goals. “It’s natural to concentrate on results, especially in the face of tough challenges. But focusing on learning is generally more beneficial to us and our organizations, as some landmark studies show. … A body of research demonstrates that framing work around learning goals (developing competence, acquiring skills, mastering new situations, and so on) rather than performance goals (hitting targets, proving our competence, impressing others) boosts motivation. And when motivated by learning goals, we acquire more-diverse skills, do better at work, get higher grades in college, do better on problem-solving tasks, and receive higher ratings after training. Unfortunately, organizations often prioritize performance goals.”


4. Let employees explore and broaden their interests. “Organizations can foster curiosity by giving employees time and resources to explore their interests.”


5. Have “Why?” “What if…?” and “How might we…?” days. “Leaders can help draw out our innate curiosity. … Organizing ‘Why?’ days, when employees are encouraged to ask that question if facing a challenge, can go a long way toward fostering curiosity. … To encourage curiosity, leaders should also teach employees how to ask good questions.”


Concluding thoughts


The Irish statesman Edmund Burke once stated, “The first and simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind is curiosity.” You can’t be curious without having an open-mind. Evans suggests, “Schedule some time to stretch your mind. Encourage others in your team to stretch their minds. By devoting some consistent time to stretching your mind or what some call ‘creative thinking,’ you just may be surprised by the results.” I remain convinced nothing helps innovation more than an open mind.


[1] Jackie Dryden, “How Consensus Kills Innovation,” Forbes, 22 February 2019.
[2] Leanne Hoagland-Smith, “Stretching your mind opens door to innovation,” Chicago Tribune, 27 January 2019.
[3] Kara Goldin, “Your Next Great Innovation for Your Business Might Come From Another Industry,” Entrepreneur, 10 December 2018.
[4] Albert Einstein, “Old Man’s Advice to Youth: ‘Never Lose a Holy Curiosity.’,” Life, 2 May 1955.
[5] Francesca Gino, “The Business Case for Curiosity,” Harvard Business Review, September 2018.