SAS CIO: Why leaders must cultivate curiosity in 2021

Curiosity can play a key role in your digital transformation success. Here's how and why I will prioritize this trait with my IT organization in 2021
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With the change we’re all facing this year, CIOs should be counting on curiosity to play a crucial role in how we’re going to meet the challenges that lie ahead. 

Curiosity allowed us to propel our digital transformation plans forward while supporting our customers through all of this rapid change.

From the moment COVID-19 hit, our IT organization has relied on curiosity – that strong desire to explore, learn, know - to fuel the urgent changes required. More than 14,000 employees counted on us to make sure they could continue working in a reliable virtual environment. It's curiosity that allowed us to propel our digital transformation plans forward while supporting our customers through all of this rapid change. And it’s curiosity that will enable us to meet the needs of the future of work post-pandemic.  

For those of us who are naturally curious, with an innate desire to constantly learn, the present challenges are actually rewarding because they force us to seek out new knowledge along the way.

[ Also read: Curiosity: Why leaders should make this the new word in hiring ]

I believe curiosity can play a key role in leading organizations’ digital transformation, as well as uncovering more value from data and analytics. Here’s why I will continue to prioritize this trait with my IT organization in 2021. 

Why leaders should model curiosity 

Curiosity is something that’s difficult for many of us to relearn. When we're young, we ask question after question. But as we get older, being curious is something we repress, either because we’re told to stop asking so many questions or because we don't want to be perceived as the person who doesn’t know something. 

As leaders, curiosity isn’t something we can teach; it's something we must nurture. This happens through the environment we create, the behaviors we encourage and the personality types of the leaders on our team. If we lead by example, questioning and seeking new ideas, we give others the freedom to follow.

Waterfall didn't make room for curiosity: Agile does

In IT, the notion of curiosity is frequently missing because we have a bias toward action.

In IT, the notion of curiosity is frequently missing because we have a bias toward action. We're so driven by deadlines and deliverables that we don't have as many organic opportunities to be curious. IT projects, for example, have traditionally been defined with written requirements so you never questioned what to do or how best to do it. You just coded it.

What we saw over time, especially from an application development perspective, is that the waterfall approach really limits the creativity of developing a potentially valuable product. Incredibly gifted people may be writing code, but because they're constrained by a set of requirements, they're unable to ask natural questions. This means output isn't as productive as it could be. 

Today, we have more opportunities to be curious through DevOps and agile technologies like those in the cloud, but a curiosity mindset can be more strongly encouraged by balancing curiosity with outcomes. CIOs must foster an environment that allows teams to be curious while still delivering results. 

How to nurture curious talent

Some of the most talented people in IT are comfortable with ambiguity.

When IT leaders seek new employees, they typically look for smart people who will perform well. Of course, we all want smart talent, but we should also be looking for potential colleagues who are both curious and results-oriented. Some of the most talented people in IT are comfortable with ambiguity. Ambiguity enables them to solve problems, and solving problems requires creativity. Creativity requires curiosity, and it is an inquisitive nature that often leads to a better result. 

It's interesting to look at your team and consider who falls into both buckets – those who can think creatively and run with something ambiguous versus those who might need a little more structure. That differentiation can indicate to leaders the areas where creativity needs to be nurtured.

As CIOs, we can nurture curiosity by creating a safe environment that encourages people to share their unique perspectives and ask questions without fear that they'll be judged. We must also foster the understanding that there may be more than one right answer at times. When you write software, for example, you can write a procedure a variety of different ways and still arrive at the same outcome. As leaders, we can lead by example when we tell our teams: “I don’t know the answer, and that’s fine with me. I will gladly give my best guess and then ask for help to see how right or wrong I may be.” 

How curiosity aids your digital transformation

Curiosity can be a powerful tool for leading process change as part of your digital transformation. But when you want to define, automate and optimize your organization, it’s crucial that your IT organization approaches collaboration with empathy. 

For example, when you ask colleagues in a back-office division how and why they handle a procedure, it’s important to do so in a way that eases tensions. Make sure they realize there are no right or wrong answers, only an attempt to gain understanding. We ask “why?” four or five times to get to the root of the action and the outcome so we can track, automate, and optimize it. 

This new approach is different from the old-school IT way. Back then, IT lived behind the curtain. We'd take an order and deliver it. Sometimes we delivered what the customer really wanted, and sometimes we delivered what we thought the customer wanted. That cycle led to distrust and frustration.

We learn our customers' processes and the language of their work. We're empathetic to their challenges.

Today, we take more of a consultative approach to how we deliver technology services. In doing so, we learn our customers’ processes and the language of their work. We're empathetic to their challenges. Our curiosity allows us to bring a different perspective to their business problems. We might not understand the finance function, for example, but we can better understand the technology to help deliver that finance outcome or result. Asking the question and participating in the business gives us credibility and earns us the right to help deliver a solution. That’s how we build trust.

As the trust relationship between IT and divisions builds, you begin to digitally enable a division that can accelerate over time. We’re taking that progression across all our divisions, underscored with the curiosity to discover more than one right way to perform a function.

Curiosity's role in data and analytics

Curiosity also manifests in the way we approach data and analytics. When you have a trusted source of data to ingest from the world around you and apply your own curiosity to it, the results can be incredible. 

The challenge here is to not constrain creativity by predicting or predefining what you want an outcome to be. Sometimes leaders simply want to prove that something will work so they can move on. In business, we’re that driven to get to an outcome.

But if your teams are curious, and if they are comfortable knowing that data changes and some models age, then you can be creative in your thinking around the results. Your anticipated result may differ completely from the result you receive. If you're curious, you’ll explore further. You’ll think about ways to drive a different outcome over time. Or you’ll dig deeper to uncover why the result you expected did not match the outcome. And in the process, you’ll learn.

In IT, for example, we always talk about failing fast. Analytics allows you to fail fast but with grace to prevent causing harm. While failing fast fuels curiosity, it must be nurtured. It’s up to you to set the tone, to encourage an environment of failing fast, learning, and moving on to get to better insights. 

Give your teams the tools, create a safe environment, and lead by example.

[ Will your organization thrive in 2021? Learn the four priorities top CIOs are focusing on now. Download the HBR Analytic Services report: IT Leadership in the Next Normal. ]

Jay Upchurch
As Chief Information Officer, Jay Upchurch is dedicated to helping customers and partners address today’s increasingly complex software and hardware infrastructure challenges. Leading a global IT organization, his charter is to deliver efficient and consistent operations support across all business functions to help accelerate how companies can unlock value from data and analytics.