The Synergy of Curiosity and Initiative

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When Clipboard Health recruits, one of the questions we like to field the most is “What does it take to be successful at your company?”. Part of the reason why is that it tells us as much about the candidate as the answer to the question tells them. A person asking that question is at least at the stage where they have enough experience to know how important “fit is”, that they understand that a lot of what will make them successful is finding a workplace with a culture that propels them instead of holding them back, and that has similar values and motivating principles to what they themselves hold.

We answer that question in many different ways, but we almost always start out by talking about Curiosity, Initiative, and Ownership. You will see talk about all three sprinkled throughout anything we write (just as they are mixed into everything we do) but it’s worth breaking them out and digging in deeper for a full article. In this piece, we want to focus on just two. While all three of the principles synergize with each other, curiosity and initiative have a little “closer” of a relationship. While we will write an article about ownership and its relationship to the rest of our values soon, there’s so much to talk about in the relationship between curiosity and initiative we wanted to make sure we had enough space to cover it.

Curiosity: One Datapoint is Never Enough

Making sure your decisions are data-driven is huge for making sure you are moving in the right direction. On top of that, a healthy planning process demands you re-iterate constantly, at any point checking metrics and incoming information to give yourself the opportunity to adjust to a changing environment. To do this, you need tons of data, and enough eyes on that data to interpret it. Almost anything is knowable, but in addition to providing enough resources to gather the data you also need a desire to know

That desire to know is key to understanding what curiosity in your company should look like. Imagine an analyst pouring through your database looking for something interesting who notices something unusual in the numbers; maybe customer retention is a little lower in a particular city than you’d expect, or the return on investment of a particular advertising effort was higher than usual. Now imagine your company has tons of data that’s constantly being examined in different ways, with different SQL queries built to mine out different kinds of information. When people are sifting through that data, it’s usually with a specific focus; there’s no guarantee that this new, surprising relationship was what the analyst was specifically looking for.

If what the analyst notices was incidental to what he was originally looking for, it’s easy to imagine that he will be the only person who notices it for a while. Weeks or months could pass before they are reminded of it or before someone else notices the same thing independently of them. That potentially means weeks or months of additional churn you could have avoided or advertising performance that could have been better, but wasn’t.

That’s why curiosity is so vital. A curious person should be bothered when they see some unexplained outlier; it should bug them that they don’t know why a particular number is the way it is. They would have told someone about it (in writing, of course). But that’s not all. A curious person isn’t satisfied to just know that some number looks weird, they would want to know why. That means diving down the rabbit holes any particular problem presents, digging around until they find the root cause of the outlier and getting an idea of how the problems and opportunities it implies could be solved or seized.

Don’t be tricked by us talking about an analyst; this is a principle Clipboard Health thinks everyone in the company should hold, regardless of position. A customer success specialist hears from customers first-hand about problems in a way and at a frequency that nobody else in the company has a chance to; are they just solving the individual problems, or are they guiding the conversations to learn more about why the problems popped up in the first place? An HR rep constantly has conversations with the staff in a context nobody else has access to; are they using that opportunity to merely solve the problem, or are they diving into those discussions looking for opportunities to amplify what’s great about the company?

That’s what real curiosity provides; it takes data from the database to the real world and puts it in the context of reality. It tells you not only that a problem or opportunity exists, but looks at the problems and opportunities with attentive, human eyes that see how real people and real circumstances are affected by that “cold data”. Curiosity is the difference between your data sitting in a column or being transmuted to real benefits for your staff, company and customers.

Initiative Gets Things Started

We mentioned ownership before. If effective curiosity tells you what you need to do, then ownership primarily is the sustaining force of endurance that keeps you going while it gets done, telling you that this is your project and that the eventual outcomes are tied up with who you are and how you think of yourself. But there needs to be something in-between those two things, something that breaks inertia and bridges the gap between the knowledge of necessary action and the carrying out of the plan.

That’s where initiative comes in. Carrying on from our curiosity scenario, we now have an analyst who has dug a little deeper and knows some of the why behind why they are seeing what he’s seeing. But how far did they dig? Let’s say they’ve exhausted the data the company already has; were they willing to call a customer to dig into actual user experience? Were they willing to look at outside data to find comparisons that might explain things? All of those might be necessary to get a real handle on the problem, and being willing to immediately move towards a solution is a big deal.

We have a rule at Clipboard Health that if someone sees a problem or an opportunity they can move on, asking for permission isn’t expected and in some cases is even banned. They have permission to break a few things in the process if necessary, but we love to see it when someone has run a test or tried a fix on their own accord. Asking for permission is sometimes a necessary evil, but it’s an evil none-the-less. It takes a lot of time, and it’s often a bad habit as well; in a culture where asking for permission for everything is expected, it also usually develops that it becomes a popular way to pass the buck.

In a culture that avoids asking for permission wherever possible, someone with curiosity and initiative is given wings. They have the room to really dig into a problem and figure out what’s going on, no authorization needed. When they get an idea of what they are up against, they are free to do what’s required, whether that’s running a test or making a phone call to a user (every Clipboard team member is authorized to contact users). In instances where the problem is going to require out-sized resources to fix, they have the freedom to develop plans and pitch them, along with an expectation that they actually do so. It cuts them loose from the prison of navigating red tape and allows them to do real work rather than sit on their hands waiting for approvals to come back.

This is What Everyone Wants

Combining the expectation of curiosity and initiative with the freedom to exercise both is amazing for everyone. For the kind of team member you want, it frees them up to get more done quicker with less frustration; it lets them show you the kind of things they can do without waiting for increased authority. For the team itself, it means everyone is not only doing more all the time but often helping each other more; the problems our analyst sees might technically fall into someone else’s territory, but being able to leave their lane means more problems getting caught and solved in the places you didn’t even know the projects and data overlapped.

It’s easy to be too worried about mistakes to give people this kind of freedom, but that’s a mistake. Clipboard Health is committed to keep small-startup speed while we grow, and a huge part of that has been making sure we don’t have unnecessary barriers in between our people and progress. Think of it as a metaphorical dishwashing team: some dishes are going to get broken anyway. Do a few more get broken here and there if you allow the team to try new things? Yes, probably. But plates can be replaced; customers who leave because of slow service can’t. 

The same concept is true at any level. By having some tolerance for mistakes, you are able to set your people free to apply real curiosity and initiative at every level, pushing every team member towards real ownership and participation in their projects and improving your company at every level.

If this article is the kind of thinking you find cool or exciting, we’d love to talk to you. Apply here, and we will be in touch soon!