Curiosity: Asking questions and listening for answers


  • Susan Hamer,

  • Steve Page

We are writing this editorial in autumn; the leaves changing colour on the trees outside often put one into a reflective frame of mind. It so often looks like an ending, and the new season feels a long time away. Yet the need to have a time of low-visibility activity to deal with harsh conditions, to store energy and decide on where to grow next is as relevant to organizations (and, indeed, this Journal) as it is to nature. This will be the last issue of Practice Development in Health Care in its current form, and the need to move and change is ever present for us too. It is, however, only human to look at change and feel a certain fatigue. As leaders in the health care environment, we are not exempt, as we look around we see:

  • Many health care teams who have been running at top speed for too long

  • A work force which is more characterized by menopause than maternity and all the associated life transition challenges it poses

  • Established leaders being asked to mentor not one or two but three generations of health care workers, each generation being characterized by its own set of beliefs and needs

  • A political environment which adds a level of complexity not always informed and supportive in its actions.

So how do we stay engaged, how do we as leaders continue to be curious about the system in which we operate so that we stay open to other possibilities – to other possible avenues of development? How do we continue to share our knowledge with generations we do not really understand?

Well, perhaps part of the answer lies in how we reinvigorate our own response to complex and difficult situations. This starts by understanding the nature of the problem and our likely responses to it. In an adaptation of Grint's (2005) work, Benington and Hartley 2009 (see Table 1) suggest that different types of problems need very different behavioural responses.

Table 1. Understanding the problem
Type of problemForm of authority
Tame problems:Manager:
Complicated but resolvableManager's role to provide the appropriate process to solve the problem
Likely to occur before
Limited degree of certainty
Wicked problems:Leader:
Complex and often intractableLeader's role is to ask the right questions rather than to provide the right answers, as answers may not be self-evident and require collaborative process
Novel, with no apparent solution
Often generates more problems
No right or wrong answer, just better alternatives
High level of uncertainty
Critical problems:Commander:
A crisis situationCommander's role is decisively to provide an answer to the problem
Urgent response needed with little time for decision making and action
Uncertainty managed through clear decisions

Equally, at times of stress and without time to think, we can easily get locked into a view that the world is all about tame problems. This can rapidly lead to high levels of dissatisfaction both for us and our teams. Benington and Turbitt, (2007) view situations with ‘wicked problems’ as the opportunity for leaders to:

‘… reject the pressure from followers to provide magical solutions to complex problems, and instead work with stakeholders to take responsibility for grappling with these problems and for the changes in one's own thinking and behaviour’.

The shift from solution provider to good questioner is not straightforward, as it requires us to reignite skills that perhaps have become a little dormant; the ability to see things differently, to ask and listen well, to be fascinated by difference, to be curious.

So why do we neglect curiosity? As Todd Kashdan (2009) proposes:

‘Curiosity is neglected because it operates below the surface of our desires. It's not as simple as thinking positive, being optimistic, being grateful, being kind or feeling good. Being curious is about how we relate to our thoughts and feelings. It's not about whether we pay attention but how we pay attention to what is happening in the present.’

Yet curiosity is one of the antecedents to learning; it is the motivational aspect that triggers a search for information. At a biological level, there are three basic drivers to curiosity: self-preservation, greed and sex; at a social level, it is more concerned with exploration (Harvey et al., 2007). These fundamental drivers are in play every day, in every interaction we have, but our lack of self-awareness and commitment to developing them means that we shut ourselves off from their potential. From our work with practitioners in the practice development field, we know that, initially, they can perceive the world as full of rules and risks; the culture is viewed as toxic for innovation, routines dominate and we all get what we always got! With the support of good guides, practice development leaders are encouraged to foster a spirit of curiosity, to ask questions, to see things differently, but this is not just about a search for the new and the novel. We have learnt and hopefully demonstrated in this Journal that there is much to learn from both the familiar and the unfamiliar. Curiosity plays a critical role in the pursuit of meaning and of staying tuned in the present as a prerequisite for effective decision making and knowledge sharing.

Capturing and sharing lessons learnt and identifying best practice are ideas we all find very attractive and in order to achieve them we have developed journals, software systems, prizes and websites. Yet, still, these initiatives do not work as we would wish. Is that because the lessons learnt are often not that interesting? Or have we placed the knowledge in locations too far away from those that seek the answers. As Dixon (2004) proposes, ‘does your organization have an asking problem?’. As writers in the field endeavour to describe practice development as an explicit set of activities, they must be mindful that if we do not engage the curiosity of practitioners to ask questions, develop relationships, engage in a range of social processes that ensure that tacit (context) knowledge is valued and used, then it is unlikely that knowledge will be shared. This, then, has been our learning and, as we look forward to our new developments, we will try to build this understanding into our own processes as we continue to promote scholarly debate in this important field of enquiry.

Finally, if you would like to give yourself a little curiosity workout, why not start with the following steps:

  • 1Identify five minutes and do a routine task differently; for example, go to work a different way; eat your breakfast in a different order; shop in a different supermarket
  • 2Appreciate and search for more: pause and look at the person, view, car in front of you, and then look again, and again …
  • 3Avoid early committal to ideas and judgements: at the point of giving the solution – take time to think, even if it is just a few minutes
  • 4Be open and ask questions, look for other perspectives.
  • 5Act with awareness; what have you brought into the room with you?

We have enjoyed the journey so far; we are ready to pause and to look, but we will be continuing.