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Saturday, July 14, 2012


Someone once said that curiosity killed the cat. But that's really giving a bad reputation to a key form of behavior that has distinguished humankind ever since the invention of fire. And, it turns out, one of the main ingredients of creativity is curiosity.

You see, in order to put things together that normally might not go together and create something new and distinctive, one has to be curious about lots of things. Becoming a semi-expert in several fields is the domain of the generalist, the polymath, the renaissance person.

Let's consider an example: quantum physics always interested me because there is quite a similarity to group theory in the modeling of bosons and hadrons and their decomposition into quarks. Learning about one can help in understanding the other. And, well, number theory has a lot in common with group theory as well.


But companies can't really consist of a lot of polymaths. So a company does the next best thing and it puts together lots of people who are experts in their fields. And then it binds them to a task that keeps them concentrating on the company's goals. High-level executives should probably be polymaths, though, because they will have to know a little bit about all the technologies within their domain in order to do a good job. And they will have to put them together into the proper path for the company. They make the goals that the experts within the company relentlessly pursue. They see the value of research, albeit limited, within areas that might be immensely profitable in the long term.

What to be Curious About

Now let's discuss one of the ramifications of curiosity for business: top-down management can only work when the top person is curious and willing to consider lots of things. Though, this doesn't mean you have to boil the ocean to find the next greatest thing. But it does mean that you have to at least pursue the things you may find that bear on your goals, even when they seem to be unrelated. The trick is deciding which of them to prune away, and how quickly to do that.

What is there to be curious about these days? Well, this is the domain of the futurist. Which future technologies will bear on your business? If you are running an automotive business, then the mechanics and synergy of hybrid drives is one area to be curious about. And to have active research into. But if you are thinking even farther ahead, you should be very curious about all-electric vehicles and technologies that bear on them. This would include batteries, supercapacitors, fuel cells, new low-power processors and their use in distributed control techniques, the inclusion of camera technology and object-recongnition technology.

Redundancy vs. Simplicity

When you build a car or a gadget or even a company, the most important thing is that it should not break down and thus fail to achieve its intended use. This means you have to be curious about techniques for redundancy (because parts break down and so you can use multiple parts to support and back up each other to achieve a higher mean time between failures) and simplicity (because the fewer parts something has, the less there is to go wrong, and the more reliable it will be). And you should be curious about how these two contrasting principals trade off against each other. But this also means you have to fight a battle at two fronts: making things more reliable and making parts more simple by combining them.


In the modern day, minimization of the use of consumables becomes a priority. In the ecological sense, this means using fewer things that can't be recycled. In the energy sense, this means having devices use less power to achieve their intended uses. Executives should be curious about these things because they are becoming increasingly important. For the auto executive, this comes from the increasing rarity of fossil fuels, and the implications for their rising costs. For the gadget executive, this comes from the trend towards mobile computing, and the subsequent use of batteries.

Energy becomes a consumable in both cases. But, within the discipline of batteries, we are learning more quickly in the gadget world than we are in the automotive world, I think. This has spawned techniques in distributed processing and custom chip design.

Modeling: Vision and Execution

It is important to be curious about the modeling of things. Let's consider a real-life model for a business and how that has led to immense success.

It was once said to me (I was a CEO at the time, and this was said by another CEO) that a company cannot be both a hardware company and a software company simultaneously: it was a recipe for failure. Well, Apple has proven this maxim to be utterly false. One side of Apple is curious about the vision of the coolest, easiest devices. The other side of Apple is curious about how best to manufacture them to meet inevitable user demand: it's all about vision and execution.

Apple's model of creating the coolest hardware along with the easiest-to-use software is a winning solution. This took decades of work, though, to prove it: Steve Jobs operated with conviction and so he has been proven right.

And this model appears to be right because it is true that the greatest profit can be extracted when you do this. Yet, and this is massively important, this model is not sustainable unless you perfect your ability to execute. And Steve knew this, which is undoubtedly why he hired Tim Cook. Tim has brought the science of supply chain management, manufacturing, and sales to a high art through his superlative logistics expertise. This is not something easily accomplished.

Not Being Curious

The downside of not being curious is that your products will be quickly obsoleted by those companies that have leaders that are curious. And apparently it doesn't matter how much money you have. If you are not curious enough to figure out the model, the technologies, and thus the mechanics of disruption, then you yourself become disrupted by an opponent with the ability to execute.

Vision counts. When you lack the innate curiosity to form a vision, you lose.

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