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The importance of curiosity and experimentation in an innovative work environment

The importance of curiosity and experimentation in an innovative work environment

Fomenting unrest with the status quo is good for the organisation, writes Mark Rees of Xero

Teams that are curious avoid confirmation bias

Mark Rees, Xero

Curiosity is one of the most vital elements of an innovative workplace. Challenging what we know about a subject and coming up with new ways to solve problems can lead to better critical analysis, less conflict, more cohesion, and can even lead to new developments in technology.  

Fostering a culture of curiosity

Curiosity is the desire to understand things, to get to the bottom of why they are a certain way. It’s unrest with the status quo. It’s the drive to make things better. It’s how we keep improving and developing our skills, learning new technologies and finding novel ways to apply existing tools. Technology changes so quickly that I really value engineers who have inquisitiveness and a desire to understand how we might benefit from innovation.

But the benefits of nurturing curiosity and encouraging teams to experiment go well beyond keeping up with technology. Curiosity and experimentation can reduce the chance of decision-making errors. Teams that are curious avoid confirmation bias and take the time to generate and consider alternatives. They look at things from many angles before they settle on a particular approach, and because of this, they achieve better outcomes.

We occasionally dedicate a Friday as a ‘free’ day for our developers to pursue a personal project

Mark Rees, Xero

Throughout my career, I’ve found working environments that encourage challenging the norm are more innovative and see less conflict between groups. When we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively. We search out solutions to the toughest problems, and we are more open-minded about other viewpoints and ideas. Curious teams also share ideas more openly and listen more intently. This environment is more challenging and rewarding and is more likely to retain employees as well by giving them more ownership.

Adopting a ‘test and learn’ strategy

Implementing this kind of strategy in a workplace can be a difficult task. ‘Test and learn’ is a common approach to product development that has been adopted by many companies, including Xero, over the last 10 years. At its heart, it’s a straightforward approach that encourages teams to try new things – making failure permissible but ultimately reaping the benefits of curiosity.

Curiosity is infectious

Mark Rees, Xero

Adopting a ‘test and learn’ approach within a business is similar to the scientific method of observe-hypothesis-experiment. The approach involves thinking about the development of new or improved products or services as a series of experiments to determine whether an expected objective can be achieved. The observe-hypothesis-experiment process is iterated upon until the desired outcome is obtained or the idea is rejected – more or less like trial and error.

For example, our objective might be to reduce trialist churn during onboarding. Our hypothesis might be that trialists are more likely to churn if we ask them to enter lots of information. To study this hypothesis, we would run an experiment where we vary the amount of data that must be entered and assessed what impact this had on conversion. If churn increases as we increase the information required, then we would be able to accept our hypothesis and implement designs that minimise the information trialists must enter.

Detractors of this approach may suggest that forming hypotheses and testing them with experiments will slow down the product management process. Don’t we have lots of talented designers and product managers, why don’t we get them to design the perfect solution?

Throughout my career, I’ve found working environments that encourage challenging the norm are more innovative and see less conflict between groups

Mark Rees, Xero

It turns out that the traditional approach to design rarely works. A few well known tech companies have studied the effectiveness of these traditional approaches to production management, and the results are poor.

It’s beneficial to be open to learning new things, listening to different viewpoints and asking the hard questions about why things are a certain way. For most people, this can be one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of a workplace, leading to a more productive work environment and ultimately new developments in technology.

How do you create a more inquisitive work environment?

We know the benefits of encouraging an inquisitive work environment, but how do we foster curiosity and experimentation in our teams?

As a manager, it starts with role modelling these behaviours. Curiosity is infectious – we need to be open to learning new things, listening to different viewpoints and asking the hard questions about why things are a certain way. By applying these principles at work every day, we open the door for our team to act in the same way.

As an organisation, it’s important to offer staff the space to be curious – whether that’s through ShipIt days, Book clubs, hackathons, or days dedicated to research and development. At Xero, we occasionally dedicate a Friday as a ‘free’ day for our developers to pursue a personal project or pick a process to improve. Not only does this foster curiosity, but giving developers space to pursue their own interests prevents burnout and keeps their motivation levels high.

Curiosity and experimentation are critical for an innovative workplace. Organisations can reap great rewards by encouraging a workplace culture of experimentation and implementing the test and learn strategy.

Mark Rees is the chief technology officer at Xero

Read more: Westpac CIO Dawie Olivier on 'The killer app for today’s ICT teams'

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Tags Cloudagilexerodevelopersdesign thinkingchief technology officerchange agentmark reeshuman centred designDXexperimentationcontinuous learningcuriousityideation

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