HBR Sept/Oct 2018: Why curiosity matters

Harvard Business Review

September/October 2018
Annotated table of contents

1. Adi Ignatius, Cultivate curiosity
Adi Ignatius, the editor in chief of HBR, highlights the spotlight section on curiosity.

Idea watch

2. HBR Team, Reevaluating incremental innovation

This article presents the results of a study about the relationship between sales and expenditures in marketing, R&D, labour and capital at the world’s largest companies with more than 1 billion USD in revenues in two sectors: pharmaceutical, food, and consumer packaged goods (CPG). While in pharmaceuticals larger R&D budgets do correlate with an increase in sales, in the CPG sector marketing spending is more important even where R&D spending is significant. However, some of the smaller CPG companies have been able to leverage modest R&D budgets by focusing on successful incremental innovation in the product or in packaging.

3. Alison Beard, Men buy more from manly men

Researchers in Sweden tested the notion that intrasexual competition, in this case between men, can lead to greater spending. They recorded the amount spent by both men and women in a home-furnishing store in a mid-size town, at the week-end, when shoppers were greeted at the door by a physically imposing male. They found that male shoppers tended to spend significantly more on this occasion than at other times, and more than women. The results suggest that the presence of the physically fit male activated the classic male competitive instinct leading male buyers to assert their own status, through spending. This interview with one of the researchers discusses the reasons why women did not react in the same way, other situations when similar intrasexual dynamics can be observed, and the implications, ethical and commercial, of hiring shop assistants or models that have particular physical attributes.

4. Brian Gallagher, United Way’s CEO on shifting a century old business model

United Way was established in 1970 as an association of charities, some going back to the 1880s collecting payroll donations to support charitable causes. This B2B model of fundraising gradually changed to include more direct relationships with individual donors through surveys to canvas information about their interests and priorities. More recently, with the advent of digital platforms, United Way has partnered with SalesForce to deepen its direct relationships with donors, creating profiles for them on its website and generating communications in response to their values and ideas. Donors have also become able to earmark their contributions for particular causes, and these direct relationships have motivated individuals to continue their relationship with United Way despite changes in place of work.

Spotlight: Why curiosity matters

5. Francesca Gino, The business case for curiosity

Curiosity is recognised as a positive factor in business: it can prevent errors, counteracting confirmation bias; it can encourage more open communication and collaborative, creative problem-solving; and it can reduce conflict. Given the potential positive effects of curiosity, Gino focuses on describing five ways to bolster it: use it as a hiring criterion; model inquisitiveness; focus on learning goals while dealing with a problem; encourage employees to explore and broaden their interests; and set aside time for addressing deeper questions such as “why?”, “what if…?” and “how might we…?”

6. Todd B. Kashdan, David J. Disabato, Fallon R. Goodman, and Carl Naughton, The five dimensions of curiosity

Based on psychological research on curiosity, the authors identify five types or dimensions of curiosity: deprivation sensitivity, joyous exploration, social curiosity, stress tolerance and thrill seeking. They propose a diagnostic test including all five dimensions.

7. Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, Andrew Roscoe and Kentaro Aramaki, From curious to competent

Curiosity is recognised as an important indicator of potential for personal and career development, but to acquire actual competence curious managers need an appropriate mix of stretch assignments to practice new skills.


8. Rose Hollister and Michael D. Watkins, Too many projects

Hollister and Watkins draw here on examples from their consulting practice to analyse initiative overload in companies. They provide a diagnostic tool for identifying the problem and offer a series of explanations for why it occurs, including blindness to knock-on effects from taking an initiative, multiplier effects in other parts of the organisation, cost myopia, political logrolling, and inertia. They also warn against some of the more common mistakes in dealing with initiative overload, when priorities are guided by a function or department, overall priorities are not accompanied by concrete decisions on what to cut and cuts may be imposed across the board. Finally, they make a series of suggestions for designing a process for evaluating existing initiatives to help make sure that time and resources are not diverted from meeting core objectives.

9. Jeanne Liedtka, Why design thinking works

Liedtka explains how design thinking overcomes some of the more common pitfalls of innovation processes. The careful calibration of seven successive steps, in three stages, provides both structure and an organic way of moving from the problem to a successful solution. In the first stage, customer discovery, immersion leads to sense making and then alignment. In the next stage, idea generation, designers employ specific techniques for setting up a discussion around insights uncovered during discovery, to enable the emergence of solutions that are then articulated, i.e. submitted to the test of ‘what would have to be true about the world for the idea to be feasible’. Finally, in the testing phase, stakeholders are exposed to the new solutions through pre-experience, sketchy versions of the proposed design, and learn through action.

10. William R. Kerr, Navigating talent hot spots

Kerr suggests that corporations have three options in the way they attempt to gain access to and take advantage of the talent hotspots that drive the current global economy. They can move headquarters to the hotspots, they can create outposts and innovation labs there and they can organise executive retreats and immersions. Each option is carefully weighed in terms of advantages and risks and illustrated with rich examples including decisions by some the best known and influential corporations of our times such as GE, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Walmart, Vodafone, ING Netherlands and others.

11. Ming Zeng, Alibaba and the future of business

Ming Zeng, chairman of the Academic Council of Alibaba Group, distils four characteristics of the Alibaba business model that he suggests are characteristic of smart platform businesses, in which all operations are automated. First, the platform retains all data related to customer exchanges allowing its algorithms to determine what is important. Second, all activities are enabled by software. To keep data flowing, the platform relies on complex coordination through application programming interfaces (APIs). And finally, through machine learning and other feed-back the platform algorithms are continually tested and perfected. Examples from Alibaba businesses, such as Taobao and Ant Financial, provide a glimpse into how this is achieved. Ming Zeng believes that all businesses will in time become smart businesses.

12. Thomas H. Lee, MD, and Angela L. Duckworth, Organizational grit

Grit is a combination of strengths, including stamina, striving to improve even when one is performing well, accepting sacrifice, steadfast commitment, willingness to learn from setbacks. It can apply to individuals, teams, organisations, leaders. Lee and Duckworth draw on examples from the health care sector to show how grit manifests and can be developed at all of these levels. A hierarchy of goals, where the overarching, top-level goal is a sense of higher purpose, helps to integrate individual, team, organisational and leadership activities and behaviours. The underlying assumption is that adults are able to grow and develop their skills throughout their lives given the right combination of challenge and support.

13. Rafi Mohammed, The good-better-best approach to pricing

Mohammed introduces the good-better-best, G-B-B, approach to pricing, which has been used in insurance or cable services, with positive results in expanding the customer base, consolidating market position and generating more revenue. Considering three well-structured options draws people in by shifting their focus from choosing to buy or not to selecting the right option for them. It is also an attractive solution because managers generally find it easy to understand, explain to others and support. There are three main steps in designing an effective G-B-B model: brainstorming about tiers and features, defining and pricing bundles and bringing in research. Mohammed provides rules of thumb and examples for each.

14. Serena Chen, Give yourself a break: The power of self-compassion

Chen shows that self-compassion allows us to steer a middle path between blaming others and blaming ourselves when we encounter setbacks. When we are able to respond with kindness and understanding to our failures, it also becomes more likely that we will be able to learn from them and continue on the path of professional and self-development. We will be more comfortable accepting who we are and choose roles in which we can be authentic. Behaving with self-compassion can inspire others to adopt a similar attitude, providing inspiring leadership. Moreover, self-compassion can be developed through practice allowing us to harness the positive learning potential inherent in setbacks and failures.

15. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln and the power of transformative leadership

Goodwin unpacks here the series of actions and steps that Abraham Lincoln took between July 1862, when he presented his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet and early 1863, when the Proclamation came into force and its effects on the Civil War became apparent. She explains in detail the different elements of his extraordinary leadership style and how they contributed to overcome resistance from some of his peers, sceptics and opponents. Lincoln was able to acknowledge the need to change direction in the war by linking the fate of the Union to the abolition of slavery. He anticipated contending viewpoints in his work to convince his cabinet. He could pace the carrying out of his decision, waiting for a favourable moment to make public his intention. To a large extent his success on this occasion also reflected the fact that his behaviour over time had earned him the trust of his close associates and the public. Lincoln was known for his ability to set an example for principled behaviour, understand the emotional needs and create bonds with each member of his team, refusing to let old resentments fester, controlling angry impulses and protecting colleagues from blame.


16. Christopher M. Barnes, Sleep well, lead better

Barnes reports on research that has established a close link between sleep deprivation and sub-par behaviour and performance by managers at work. Skimping on sleep has negative consequences not only for the individual manager but for the team and the organisation as well, because irritable and abusive behaviour, lack of self-control and poor judgement are more likely in the absence of adequate, good quality sleep. Solutions and tips for monitoring and improving sleep duration and quality follow, including dealing with insomnia and sleep apnea.

17. David R. Dixon, Case study: A founder steps back from her start-up

The founder of a pet care company considers her response to changes in personal circumstances and reaching a plateau in earnings. Selling the company to a friendly competitor or hiring a new CEO offer different degrees of financial security and prospects for further involvement.

18. Gretchen Gavett, You versus the clock

Gavett reviews five books on time management. Mary Oliver seems to sum it up best in her poem “Sometimes”: “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be Astonished. Tell about it.” And, as Oliver also says, “You don’t have to be good.”

19. Alison Beard, Life’s work: An interview with Trevor Noah

Noah, 34, the new host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, shares his approach to the job: “I’m trying to maintain the same level of authenticity offstage and onstage. I don’t want to switch into a character or a caricature of myself. I want to perform yes, but also to maintain who I am.”