How Curiosity Can Improve Decision-Making

by | Sep 13, 2018 | General BI

Reading Time: 7 minutes

I’ve been hearing and reading a lot about the importance of curiosity lately, and well… that all made me curious as to how curiosity relates to our business lives, and in particular, to analytics and decision-making.

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The September/October issue of Harvard Business Review featured an article titled, “The Business Case for Curiosity.” Based on the research findings presented in this article and in other sources, it’s clear that a curious mind can improve decision-making and business results. Let’s take a look.

What is curiosity?

When we think about curiosity, we often think of it in a bit of a negative context. We imagine a child reaching up to grab the cookie jar on the counter and falling down. Or a dog tipping over a trashcan to see what’s inside. Or Curious George getting into all kinds of hijinks. (The episode of Curious George losing one of the dinosaur bones at the museum is one of my favorites!) Curiosity killed the cat, after all.

But curiosity is actually a very positive characteristic. In their article titled, “The Psychology and Neuroscience of Curiosity,” published in Neuron Magazine, authors Celeste Kidd and Benjamin Hayden say curiosity is, “a motivator for learning, influential in decision-making, and crucial for healthy development.”

Curiosity has been the impetus for humanity’s most important discoveries. How can we do things better? More efficiently? Completely differently?

Businesses and curiosity

Unfortunately, many businesses have stifled curiosity in employees. In the HBR article, author Francesca Gino talks about how leaders don’t encourage exploration because:

  • They believe allowing people to pursue their own interests would lead to more disagreements and slow down the decision-making process.
  • They focus on efficiency and completing work more quickly.

Gino further cites results from a survey of more than 3,000 employees that she conducted. In the survey, only 24% of respondents said they regularly feel curious in their jobs, and 70% said they face barriers in asking questions at work.

So why should we encourage curiosity? Quite simply, the benefits are enormous. They include:

  • Curiosity results in fewer decision-making errors because we are forcing ourselves to look at alternatives.
  • We view tough situations more creatively. Curiosity is related to less defensive reactions to stress and lower aggressiveness.
  • Less group conflict. When we are curious, we are more likely to view a situation from other people’s perspective.
  • Better team performance as a result of more open communication.

So when we are thinking about analytics, how can curiosity improve results? Let’s take a look at two examples of organizations that value curiosity.

Western Maryland Health System: How can we decrease drug costs?

Western Maryland Health System (WMHS), based in Cumberland, Md., faced a problem that many healthcare organizations today face. Its drug costs were skyrocketing. In particular, the price of an IV form of acetaminophen (painkiller) jumped 250% after the company that owned the drug was bought by another company. WMHS was spending $250,000 a year on this drug. Could it reduce that spending? Here’s where curious minds came in.

Surender Kanaparthi, who works in WMHS’s pharmacy, suspected that the oral version of acetaminophen would work just as well as the IV version. But he needed the data to prove it. Kanaparthi enlisted the help of Colby Lutz, WMHS’s business intelligence analyst, to examine the hospital’s data in Diver. They looked at various surgical procedures, patient lengths of stay, and number of opiates given, and found there was no noticeable difference in patient outcomes. As a result, WMHS shifted much of its spending to oral acetaminophen, saving the hospital nearly $200,000 per year.

Encouraged by the results, curious minds decided to look into other opportunities to save costs. For example, Kanaparthi suggested that a non-formulary drug Entereg might increase the pharmacy budget but decrease overall cost of care for patients with major intestinal surgeries. The hospital tested Entereg for about six months on 30 patients, while keeping all other variables the same. Kanaparthi and Lutz analyzed the results in Diver and they found that the patients on Entereg had shorter lengths of stay and less readmission than other patients. That resulted in a cost savings of $112,000 over 6 months.

This is a case where employees asked, “What if…?” and as a result of this curiosity, were able to drive tangible results.

Allied Beverage: How can we improve performance?

Allied Beverage, based in Carlstadt, N.J., has a data-driven culture. With such a focus on numbers, it’s hard to imagine how curiosity could thrive. But indeed, Allied’s employees are driven by a need to dive down deep into the data to learn as much as they can before making decisions.

Allied’s commercial sales director, Donna Buoscio, dives into the numbers daily. She values a curious mind, saying that companies need to hire inquisitive people for data roles. They need to keep asking questions… and then ask some more.

Buoscio says she often plays with Diver to see what eye-opening data she can find. For example, she says, “I’ll look at things by SKU, and I’ll be shocked at how much money we make on a SKU. Then I drive a program or incentive against something that I know is going to have a really high return. Every time I open Diver, I find something.”

Another employee with a curious mind is David Koskinen, vice president and head of purchasing. Koskinen believes it’s important for brand managers to ask questions when they want to run with a new product – but once they have an idea, it needs to be validated by data. On the purchasing side, it’s also important to consider possibilities, but also validate.

“Diver lets you find the holes and find where to target so you can make a good sales pitch and get others thinking it’s possible,” Koskinen says. “When you just tell them, ‘go sell it and put it everywhere it’s not,’ others will make judgments and say it shouldn’t belong there. It’s too expensive for these places, this town will never buy it. But if you can prove to them that there’s something else that store is buying that is very comparable, then they will start to think that maybe it will work.”

In these cases, curiosity provides the spark to dig further, but data is still critical to back up inquisitiveness.

How can companies encourage curiosity?

If curiosity is such a positive trait, how can companies nurture it? In the HBR article on curiosity, Gino gives leaders five strategies to employ:

  1. Hire for curiosity.
  2. Model inquisitiveness.
  3. Emphasize learning goals.
  4. Let employees explore and broaden their interests.
  5. Have “Why?” “What if…?” and “How might we…?” days.

In short, curiosity needs to be a part of a company’s culture, and diverse opinions or new ways of thinking about problems need to be valued. Businesses that are able to nurture such traits in their employees not only have more engaged and well-rounded employees, but they also enjoy better performance and results.

Parting thought

There are lots of articles on curiosity online, including, obviously, the HBR article I cited in this article. I did also want to point to this article, “Curiosity and What Equality Really Means,” published in the New Yorker. I wanted to find a place for it earlier in this blog post, but it didn’t quite fit anywhere.

The article is written by Atul Gawande, one of my favorite writers. Through the lens of a physician, Gawande examines curiosity and the notion that all lives are of equal worth. In particular, this excerpt from the article resonated with me:

“Once we lose the desire to understand – to be surprised, to listen, and bear witness – we lose our humanity. Among the most important capacities that you take with you today is your curiosity. You must guard it, for curiosity is the beginning of empathy.”

To me, that really speaks to the importance of curiosity and why we should nurture it, both on an individual and on a business level.

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Kathy Sucich
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