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If Planning Can Be Messy, Curiosity is Our Compass

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Liz Baines, Head of Strategy at Engine Creative on how to approach tricky problems with more creativity and less defensiveness
For planners, curiosity is the fuel that powers us towards the best answers to the toughest problems. But locked down at home, when it feels like the world has shifted from under us, our curiosity is in a fragile state. 

When our literal horizons are limited by the same four walls, day in day out, the trigger to fill gaps in our knowledge and make new discoveries becomes less abundant, and our curiosity is diminished. 

Our online lives bombard us incessantly with ‘information from the outside,’ but it serves us only the narrow well of news we’re algorithmically programmed to see. As Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, said: “What creativity gains in improved tunnelling (while WFH) is lost in the darkness of the tunnel itself.”

At the heart of our role as planners is the promise to generate a strategic leap. When faced with a problem we haven’t seen before, we must go on a journey of lateral thinking whose destination forms the basis of famous, effective, creative ideas. 

Planning can be a messy business, and only curiosity can help us wade through to the other side and make sense of the mayhem. As Thomas Jefferson said, “If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done before.” 

We need to view tough situations more creatively and less defensively. So, what can we do about it? 

Learn outside of your comfort zone

Steve Jobs is quoted as saying that really creative people expose themselves to new experiences and new things that are a long way from either where they feel comfortable, or where they normally go.

This is important for planners because, when faced with a problem, our natural inclination is to take the ‘inside view,’ coming from the angles that are most familiar to us.  But we need to take deliberate action to get to the ‘outside view,’ to seek out different voices, and be prepared to be deeply counterintuitive. 

Model inquisitiveness

The inspiration for the Polaroid camera came from a three-year old’s question. Inventor Edwin Land’s daughter was impatient to see a photo her father had just taken but he told her that she had to wait for it to be processed. She asked, “Why do we have to wait for the picture?” and the journey began. 

In the current economic climate, it is tempting to favour efficiency over expedition. But as Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino suggests, when people feel, even implicitly, that this is the direction from their leaders, their curiosity is stifled, and their creativity is diminished. As leaders it is our responsibility to model the inquisitiveness of toddlers within our teams, and to approach the unknown with curiosity rather than judgement.

Structure for serendipity

The three-Michelin-starred chef Massimo Bottura brings chefs from different cuisines together in ‘Kitchen Collisions,’ and at Pixar, employees at all levels are encouraged to leave notes that might inspire directors to consider different options. 

Without the mythical watercooler to fall back on, we must architect chance encounters in other ways. Whether it be through an open Zoom tea station or virtual ‘work on the wall’ we’re exploring new ways to introduce some serendipity into our days.

During our own Engine effectiveness week, we invited econometricians, semioticians, mass mainstream researchers – fascinating people who steered us outside our comfort zones – to expose us (virtually) to a broader range of inspiration than any algorithm can supply. 

As we get firmly into our WFH stride (or should that be rut?) and contemplate the end of 2020 in lockdown, we should all take time to pause, lift our eyes from the task at hand and do whatever we can to recapture our sense of wonder. There is always an obvious answer to any brief, but a strategist’s job is to avoid taking that easy route, to embark instead on the road less travelled – and to let a culture of curiosity be our guide.