Saturday, March 7, 2009

Searching for the Giant Squid

a conversation about curiosity with steve burnett

CG: What is curiosity for you?

SB: It’s the world’s greatest gift to us. It transcends race, religion, time and culture and the biases that divide us. It causes us to look beyond the hill and intrigues us to go there. And once we're there it allows us to see highly original things.

The new truths we discover out of curiosity can be so powerful, and brought back and shared as stories or science. They help us and our communities and educational institutions evolve and thrive.

CG: How do we know if a company is being curious in productive ways? Is there a litmus test?

SB: See if it’s part of a company’s strategic plan. The simplest way is to follow the money. Do they have a healthy R&D budget? Also, do they support management and employee training, and interactions that further the conversation about new things? And is there a culture of exploration and discovery, and a real acceptance of new ideas?

CG: What about the creative groups that work with those companies, groups like yours?

SB: We designers and others like us are in the curiosity business. Because we're constantly engaged in questioning, exploring and creating things. It’s wonderful how we invariably get to a point we think we have it all figured out…only to find we're turning a corner to a next universe. In the 19th century the engineering community thought it had invented everything there was to invent. They were the greatest curiosity engines on the planet. In fact, the patent office nearly closed down back then because there wasn't anything new to invent: the engineers of the day had done such an extraordinary job translating their curiosity into a vast universe of mechanical things.

CG: Is inquisitiveness an essential ingredient, something that can mean the difference between make-or-break?

SB: In any industry, curiosity plays a vital role when you're starting or re-building a business. If a company doesn't reinvent itself regularly it will wither and die. And without a way to reinvent, without giving curiosity enough rein and continually supporting it, a company can't survive in any good way.

CG: Is curiosity a natural or a learned quality?

SB: You look at a child. A three-year old on the beach. How, when they bend over as the tide recedes and see their reflection in the water, we see in their eyes how magical and wonderful the world is to them. Well, everyone is born looking at the world without preconceptions. All children are full of pure wonder. This is where our wisdom begins…in a state of wonder.

CG: I believe this is a place, a state of being we can re-find, that we can return to as people and as businesses. Yet why does it stop, or get arrested? And how do you rekindle it?

SB: It stops because people get programmed not to wonder, but to operate in an acceptable way. I think some people as they get older also get tired and fall into ruts.

But there are many ways to re-ignite our sense of curiosity and imagining. You need to step off the well-worn path into the unfamiliar, and taste the hidden or forbidden fruit. How far you step depends on how much risk you're willing to take, and what floats your boat – to explore anew. It’s an extremely personal and individual conversation.

Men particularly, at a certain point in their lives, go through a phase where things have gone along well enough but they are no longer satisfied. They feel something meaningful is missing. Reevaluating the meaning of life is part of the natural process of development, of looking at who we are in the great scheme of the human condition.

CG: How do organizations inspire or excite curiosity, both inside, among their own tribe, and outside, among their customers, clients, stakeholders, communities?

SB: It’s not about doing things with a Six Sigma approach, even though there’s some discovery in that. An organization needs to have people around whose job is mainly or solely to look for category changes, game changes, quantum leaps in opportunity, competitiveness, efficiency.

Some corporations see these ‘curious’ individuals that are hired as an invasive species, and will effectively kill their input or discount their value as soon as they enter a corporate culture. Other companies – the wiser ones -- offer these probers, inquirers, explorers a place in the garden, where their unique species of flora and fauna can flourish, can be deeply curious and greatly benefit the business.

CG: Do you know some of these exotic species, these curiosity seekers?

SB: I think this work is far too important to be left to so-called experts: it’s in all of us; inside me, inside you.

CG: That I'll second. I'd also like to raise a hand for poets present and past, who wonder and inspire wonder about nearly everything we can think of, from lightning to loving to language. Including motive poets like David Whyte, who has been a bright spark for many businesses and individuals, moving them to a rich place of re-imagining.

CG: What about others you could point to that the readers might know, or would like to know more about, as models or inspirations?

SB: I know some in the corporate world, who have been able to turn things upside down and do the impossible, because they're intensely curious about the way things work and have been willing to take calculated risks.
Fred Parnon of Jnana Technologies, Alisa Zamir, designer and professor at Pratt, Bill Dunk, a social engineer, provocateur, and eminence gris to corporate chieftains – and his curiosity-satisfying site The Global Province, and Michael Grisham, an inventor, are some creative investigators that spring to mind.

CG: So tell us about your search for the
giant squid. Why has your curiosity about it taken you all over the world, and thousands of leagues under the sea?

SB: It’s the largest fish on the planet. It has been written about and documented, yet no humans have really been eye-to-eye with it, in its native habitat; and studied it close up. It’s just marvelous that on a planet where we think we know so much, we can't be together with something this magnificent right where it lives.

CG: Should we allow ourselves to be much more curious, immensely curious? Using the giant squid as a metaphor.

SB: One of the reasons the
giant squid has never been seen, is because (less out of curiosity and more out of man’s hubris) for years people went down into the depths in umbilical rovers, robot submersibles with big lights, to search for it. But they never put two-and-two together: the giant squid has the largest and most sensitive eyeball in the animal kingdom and here the ‘unenlightened’ seekers go down with the brightest light ever made then are puzzled why they can't find any.

You see, what goes along with good, curious exploration is empathy: you need to enter another world and see and feel it the way its inhabitants see it. Deep down, the giant squid gathers light with its large eye: the bioluminescent light of flashing dinoflagellates.

If you're engaged in any pursuit, being true to it will open up myriad and often marvelous angles of thinking and approach. This is where we can touch places of great wondering and pondering and innovation and realization.

CG: Steve, what else in the landscape are you insatiably curious about these days?

SB: Getting to know more about the chef you introduced me to, Cyril Renaud, at
Bar Breton.

And variations-on-themes, ones that have been worked forever keep me curious. How to remake what everyone has become bored with. Adding new energy to old clichés.

CG: What one or two companies for you have a rich and productive sense of curiosity? That capacity that leads to breakthroughs and competitive advantages.

SB: One was Alltel, and a fellow named Frank O’Mara, the marketing director there. He took a niche player and turned it into a national one, through some extremely innovative positioning work.

The line between curiosity and competitiveness is very thin. If you asked O’Mara if he was curious, he might not understand the word but he would understand the competitive part big time, and immediately. Motivation in his case came from the competitive side but his deep curiosity led him to figure out how to jump ahead differently as a business.

CG: There’s something pure and innocent about curiosity, and it seems the world could do with a lot more of that right now.

SB: Sometimes it’s not all that innocent. Einstein was a curious man, and did a lot of musing around interesting scientific possibilities, but some of that was applied quickly and critically to making an atomic weapon.

CG: How do social networks play a role?

SB: Quite often the only frame of reference a company has about whether it’s doing something right or wrong is to put it in front of other people. Social networks are perfect this way, because they're a mirror that quickly and clearly reflects whether there’s a receptive ear or eye or mindset for what a business is offering publicly, or how it’s thinking.

CG: How do companies get their audiences to have a sense of curiosity and wonder about things they, as a business, are doing in the world; in the marketplace? So that communities of interest they interact with become genuinely intrigued, meaning in a wholly un-persuaded way.

SB: An exciting thing that happens at certain times in human history is the hive or herd mentality. Where suddenly everyone is turned on to exploring the same thing at the same time. Where there’s pervasive curiosity with affirmation around an idea. Especially in times of stress. Unfortunately war and poverty are great motivators here. You have other cases, in more recent history, where curiosity led to suddenly huge inventions, like fossil fuel and its potential, that completely changed the landscape, changed the world’s industrial and social fabric.

We're on a similar path of searching right now, especially driven by the stress of the global economic meltdown. The landscape is changing and the people in it will need to adapt and invent new things to survive. And they will.

CG: Many of us have been fascinated by people and businesses using curiosity and creativity to do truly incredible things, that make life and work significantly smarter, better, more rewarding. Is this happening enough, or visibly enough? You also had something you wanted to say about Google.

SB: In the not too recent past, you had to go to a University or church or company for knowledge. And they protected that “library” of knowledge, and if you wanted access to it you had to pay tuition or tithe or buy a product. In the academic world, they opened the library to you while you were a student, then closed the doors to you after you left. The curious experiment is: what if you took the walls down – and made all the knowledge transparent, and accessible to any one, any where, any time. What would happen to the world, and its curiosity?

In building this kind of resource, Google is making a lot of money. But are they engaged in one of the
greatest experiments of civilized man right now? It could go massively to the good or to the detrimental side, depending on how people use it.

You can go onto Google and look at the nuclear footprint of Iran through Google Earth, or find the plans for Marine One, or see a satellite picture of your neighbor sunbathing naked. There are so many curious things being made available. What are you, what are we going to do with it all, or about it all?

Fast forward 10 years, to a stone tablet. Will someone be chiseling into a rock that the end of man arrived because the genie got out of the bottle; because there was unlimited and unwise use of information?

CG: We need to wonder about all this, seriously wonder; about where we are heading and why, in business and society. I hope we find the right insights and answers. And that the only genie we uncork is a genie of deep curiosity inside us, our communities, our companies and the minds of the big thinkers that help keep the world turning and evolving.

Thanks for all the rich and roving thoughts, Steve.

Steve Burnett is a mercurial thinker, artist, adventurer and long-time principal of The
Burnett Group in New York.

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