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Smarter Worklife

Curiosity on the job pays off

You don’t have to paint the walls pink or install slides between floors to instill a creative, playful and inquisitive culture in the workplace. But you do need an open atmosphere and diverse teams, says Magnus Göransson, lecturer on corporate culture and playfulness.

Curiosity is the desire to explore and find things out— the foundation of all development and innovation.That makes it a valuable factor for success in any workplace.

Intellectually curious people are capable of thinking beyond the role they were originally hired for, and a new study from Oregon State University shows that people with a high degree of curiosity in personality tests perform better at creative tasks. Those whose curiosity was highly diversified—that is, curiosity combined with an interest in exploring unknown topics and learning something new— were also more likely to come up with creative solutions to a problem.

As Design Director at Lego, Magnus Göransson worked to develop a corporate culture that encouraged innovation, creativity and playfulness. He has been asked many times, “How do you create an innovative environment?” And of course the companies asking that question always hope the answer will be: “Do this…”. But it’s not quite that easy, Göransson says.

“Innovative thinking and culture are connected with playfulness, but Lego has a bit of a leg up there because its whole business concept is play. Of course a company that wants to create good, innovative and playful products like Lego has to have a playful corporate culture.”

But if playing isn’t your business concept, if it’s something dull and boring instead, then how do you become innovative? According to Göransson, it’s about incorporating playfulness in every meeting and corporate event and showing that the management supports this.

“That makes it okay to be more playfulat the company, to bring up clever ideas, to wear colorful clothes and dare to do things differently.”

One basic necessity for being innovative as a company is to build in mechanisms that allow employees to dare to be innovative in the corporate culture.

“Innovation is fragile; it requires someone with thick skin, who can handle hearing ‘this is a stupid idea.’”

Magnus Göransson

4 tips for a more inquisitive workplace culture

1. Have an open atmosphere

It is important to eliminate the fear of saying and doing something wrong. Every employee should dare to say what they think, without fear of saying something wrong—and the management must encourage this!

2. Encourage humor and playfulness

An easy-going, playful atmosphere is important for creating an innovative environment. Shoot the breeze, make some jokes, circulate funny pictures—especially from the management. People should have fun at work.

3. Go in for diversity

Put together people with different backgrounds, educations, skills, experiences and personalities— but with the same attitudes, understandings and curiosity.

4. Let everyone have their say

If only the extroverts get to talk, you lose half of the room’s skills and brain capacity. So let everyone think quietly and write down their ideas, to make sure you also get the input of those who are a bit slower and more introverted.

“The employees can’t be afraid to voice uncomfortable opinions; they should be secure in the knowledge that it’s positive for their careers. But many are a bit scared to say something wrong that won’t sit well with the management. ‘If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it,’” Göransson quotes Einstein’s famous words.

Göransson says it doesn’t take any expensive renovations to create an innovative working environment. All you need is one word: AND. He goes so far as to call it “the million dollar word”: “Innovation is fragile; it requires someone with thick skin, who can handle hearing ‘this is a stupid idea,’  You’ll get so many negative, disheartening comments when you come with new ideas, and the rejections always start with, ‘But it’ll be too expensive, but it won’t work…’ “If you say, ‘But…’, you’ve lost the battle. But if you replace that with ‘and,’ you can build further on the idea—and it changes the whole dynamics. 

“If you have a creative corporate culture, people won’t say, ‘But it won’t
work,’ they’ll say, ‘and if we do it this way, it’ll be even better,’ or ‘and if we add this, we’ll crush the competition,’”Göransson says. His advice is to always use the word “and” as a starting point when spinning ideas.

But if you want to be innovative, you also have to dare to fail. For every 100 projects, 25 make it past the innovation process to become something, if you’re lucky. Of those, maybe 10 are really valuable and worth patenting so they might also become profitable.

“I hold 33 patents, which means that I’ve failed 1,200 times,” Göransson says pointedly.

“You have to dare to fail, and it takes a huge amount of resilience not to be destroyed by your failures.”

The secret is to stay curious and keep thinking along new lines. And success doesn’t always look the way you think it will. 

“Once I was consulting on a project that went all to pieces and the client, a medical technology company, refused to pay when I didn’t deliver what they wanted,” Göransson relates.

“It was so devastating. Fifteen years later, I was back at the same company as a consultant, and all I could think was, ‘I hope they don’t remember that project, because then I’m out of luck.’”

In the client’s offices he spotted a picture on the wall and realized it was his sketch of the proposal that was rejected. Without revealing that it was his, he said cautiously, “What a nice picture,” and the client responded, “Yes, we’ve had it for many years, that sketch, and that idea is just so nutty and so far from how we think that we keep it around to remind ourselves to think crazy and challenge our

“So even though that project went so badly, it was a success, and the innovation lives on in another form,” Göransson says.

So creating an atmosphere and working environment where employees have an outlet for their curiosity, playfulness and creativity isn’t about slides and ping-pong tables at the office. Rather, it’s about having the right people in the room.

“Cool people are more important than cool rooms! You won’t have more crazy ideas because the room is orange; what matters is that anyone can say anything in the room, and that you say ‘AND’
instead of ‘but.’”

Göransson also encourages misunderstandings—yes, you read that right. Like the old truism ... doesn’t quite say: misunderstandings are the mother of invention.

“When someone misunderstands an idea, but still manages to create a
logical version of the idea in their head, the results can be really interesting,” Göransson says.

An unexpectedly important element for innovation is structure. A foundational element for curiosity and innovation is seeing unexpected links, so Göransson’s advice is to have a diverse team: Different backgrounds, educations, skills, personalities.

“Having a group that thinks alike and has the same opinions is the worst thing possible. Bring in people who have no idea what you do! If you’re developing a new machine for lung transplants, bring in a chef who has completely different frames of reference than everyone else in the room. You absolutely need that to dismantle your frames of reference.”

As a judge in the Swedish “Lego Masters”, Magnus Göransson became
a well-known face to TV viewers. The colorful Lego blocks are ever visible in his office.