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Curiouser and Curiouser

How can businesses create a culture of curiosity? And why does curiosity matter in the first place? David Clayton, Managing Director at True & North, explores curiosity as a lever for creativity and empathy, which in turn, can be both a driver for business and a fundamental for great leadership.

In his 2010 book The Shallows, journalist Nicholas Carr argued that the internet was re-wiring our brain in negative ways. As Carr argued, our grey matter just wasn’t built for such a tsunami of stimuli. And ironically, despite having the sum of human knowledge at our fingertips, all this bleeping and flashing was stripping us of true curiosity. If ‘epistemic curiosity’ is about building knowledge, Googling gives us ‘diversity curiosity’ – a superficial hunger for shiny bits of new information. Except the former requires real focus.

For while it may have killed the cat, curiosity is vital. But crucially, it also takes time. In an era that treasures speed, immediacy and constant reactivity, it’s a barrier to a process that demands going fully down the rabbit hole.

Curiosity is less about the concept of collecting data but in asking the kind of questions that aren’t immediately obvious. As Rudyard Kipling wrote, “I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.” It’s a creed that is as important for business people, as it is for those whose trade more obviously depends on incisive enquiries such as journalists, writers, lawyers and medical professionals. And Kipling’s wisdom is not even the full answer to curiosity’s secret sauce, for while all these questions are crucially important to finding out more, the ‘why’ is arguably the most revealing — and particularly for business in an age where innovation and future-proofing depend on having a clear and authentic reason to exist.

When Adam Bryant interviewed 700 CEOs for his book The Corner Office, the top answer to his question “What qualities do you see most often in those who succeed?” was ‘passionate curiosity’. It’s a position shared by former Unilever CEO Paul Polman: “Today’s and tomorrow’s leaders need to be… curious leaders who operate with a high sense of morality and authenticity,” he says. “These are the people who will have a bright future and the people that we will follow as the leaders of today and in 25 years’ time.”

Courageous, continuous ‘whys’ are the keys that can unlock the true meaning behind behaviour, whether that’s in your workforce, team, client or consumer, and the decisions they make – with the resulting impacts on company growth and performance, relationships and even trust in the product itself. If businesses do not ask why…and why again, until they get to the answers they need then they risk operating with an incomplete picture that puts them at a strategic disadvantage. It is the little word with the big reveal that allows us to avoid prejudice and generalisation, stopping us from jumping to conclusions that are neither helpful nor effective.

In highly charged situations, such as conflict or negotiations, an ability to understand why someone is behaving the way they are and the underlying reasons might also just be the information you need to solve it. Traditionally, in the concept of negotiation, the instinct is to withhold information, in what is often see as a win or lose situation rather than a win-win. For many it’s a common pattern: to begin to judge the other person’s motives or actions at face-value — often a face value filtered through our own biases — and to understand the situation as a battle, rather than an opportunity to collaborate toward a better outcome.

To do this, we need to be able to explore the situation free of prejudice, diving deeper into the reasons and motivations behind it — both theirs and our own. And even if the situation is a bonafide conflict, without a ‘why’ there is no sense of a ‘how’ in terms of moving forward it to affect the resolution we want. ‘Us versus them’ is a battle that quite often means everyone loses — if you can truly understand the motivations behind why someone needs what they need, or what they truly desire then the change of positive evolution is amplified greatly. And certainly, in this era of important and often polarising conversations, particularly around race and gender, we clearly need to step back, listen, and try to find a common thread more than ever to make inclusive and nuanced decisions in life as well as in business.

Finally, curiosity is also a proven driver of creativity, which is an important force that defines the businesses making a real difference in the world. Again, the why is vital — but it can also be a why not? Both are a potent curiosity trigger that leads to creative breakthroughs such as the amazing collaborations we’ve seen recently; from Rick Astley singing Smiths songs (gigs that sold out in 20 minutes) to Balenciaga putting The Simpsons on the catwalk. Divergent thinking like this is exciting, vital and can create an interest far and beyond expectations.

However, taking that step is courageous — there is safety in the ‘known’. But fortune favours the brave businesses of today and tomorrow that push their growth in all ways. And from the bottom line to the possibilities available, and how to make them happen, the constant is curiosity.

Three tips for embedding curiosity culture to drive your business.

  • Moments: Create explicit moments for curiosity to take root. For True & North’s clients this is most often a monthly or quarterly occasion for teams to take a fresh look at an existing or prospective client using an Empathy Map. These sessions help teams surface new insights about the customer, their world and crucially where our clients might be able to add new value

  • Questions: To have an impactful brainstorm make sure you’ve got the right question. At True & North, we usually spend more time considering and framing the question that we’ll brainstorm than on the actual brainstorm itself. The How Might We formula help you to reach a question that has balance of focus and breadth.

  • Slow down: See if you can notice when you’ve leapt to a conclusion unconsciously verses when you’ve been intentional in your thinking. To become more aware of your thinking, take note of what you’re observing (the facts) verses where you’ve leapt ahead to a conclusion (your interpretation of the facts).


In his previous life, David tended bars in South Beach, Miami and in the Hamptons, where client centricity is crucial. He went on to lead commercial teams at The Guardian, designing products and selling partnerships to the likes of Google, IDEO, Vodafone and the United Nations. In 2011, David founded True & North with one question in mind: “How can we give busy people the tools to master their client relationships?” This journey has taken David and True & North all over the globe.

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