#137: Creativity and Curiosity

Good morning everyone

Our last two letters zoomed in on the serious job of starting a new job. If you missed them, you’ll find them here. Today, we zoom out to creativity and curiosity.

As you know, I love seeing South African excellence on a global stage. The Handspring Puppet Company’s Little Amal has been traveling the world to highlight the global migrant crisis. Six weeks ago, she was in Central Park. The second photograph in this sequence made my heart happy.

Whilst we’re in New York, one of my favourite shops – Mumbai-based slow fashion marketplace, No Borders – is also there this week.

I was thrilled when I saw that they’d be collaborating with South African henna artist Husnaa Kajee. It felt like when you introduce your best friend from university to your best friend from work and they like each other. Not that I know the No Borders team or Ms. Kajee, but you know what I mean. In a further joyous moment, she is currently based in Philadelphia, the birthplace of some of my favourite people.

And, if you’re enjoying Southern Hemisphere summer, you might want to grab this BMW Isetta and Piccolino combination and head to a beach. It will help if you’re not six-foot tall.

Right, my curiosity is carrying me away, let me focus and take us to strategy…oh, one last thing before we start… the shortlist for the 2023 Norval Sovereign African Art Prize was released this week. Take a look, it is a gathering of some of Africa’s finest artists. Okay, here we go…


Francesca Gino teaches at Harvard Business School. Her research focuses on how we can live productive, creative, and fulfilling lives. Her 2018 book is Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life. She’s my kind of person, probably yours too.

Today, we’re dipping into her HBR article The Business Case for Curiosity.

Prof. Gino’s research shows that workplaces that foster curiosity enjoy fewer decision-making errors, get more innovation, experience more open communication, have better team performance, and reduce group conflict.

Unfortunately, many workplaces do not encourage inquisitive minds, indeed many actively discourage them.

Gino says that her survey of 3,000 employees across multiple sectors showed that only 24% of people felt curious in their jobs on a regular basis. Given that humans are quite literally hard-wired for learning, if we’re not learning we’re not being fully human, and that is a sad state of affairs.

She points to five ways in which we can bolster our companies’ curiosity quotients.

The first is to hire for curiosity. IDEO, a world-leading design company, hires T-shaped people. In other words, people who have the deep technical skills (the vertical line of the T) to contribute to the creative process and the empathy and curiosity to collaborate across multiple disciplines (the horizontal line).

IDEO says that when interviewing candidates listen for whether they privilege themselves as instrumental to the success of a project or whether they speak about the contributions of others. T-shaped people are more likely to do the latter.

Other curiosity clues are things like having hobbies that don’t relate directly to work or the candidate asking questions about the company that are broader than the role they’re being interviewed for.

The second is for leaders to model inquisitiveness. Habits like sharing your reading, your interests outside work, asking questions like “What is the one thing I should do that would things better for the organisation and its stakeholders?” all encourage others to be more curious.

Pixar does it in an interesting way. They share the business’s bad choices. They do that to show new employees that the place isn’t flawless and that they should explore new ways of working because even perfect Pixar gets it wrong.

The third is to encourage learning. Gino cites a research study in which sales professionals who focused on learning goals, such as better client service, outperformed those who obsessed over the target.

One way to do this is to incorporate learning goals into any development discussion. We tend to focus on the performance goals related to the job, expanding it to encouraging ongoing learning builds the business’s resilience.

Fourth, don’t worry too much about what your people and learning and who they are meeting. Of course, they still need to meet the requirements of their role, but flexibility in these areas allows for the serendipitous connections that drive innovation.
Last, she suggests that we hold “Why?” “What if…” and “How Might We…” days (This letter explains how Pixar runs these days).

You can use the day to explore any dimension of your business’s operations. To make them successful, you might want to do some training on how to ask good questions. Our performative culture puts us under pressure to give answers, but often the most value is unlocked by a great question.


One of Africa’s most exalted living artists, William Kentridge, is currently exhibiting at London’s Royal Academy. The Financial Times’ Peter Aspden had lunch with him to discuss the show, life, and art. It’s a great conversation which you can read here.

Kentridge comments that we should “…understand that the self is a construction we make every day. Working in the studio, that is much more obvious and natural because you are working with collage and various fragments all around you. But out in the world it is not as if you are constantly thinking, ‘Here I am constructing myself, from yesterday’s dream and tomorrow’s expectation.’”

It is a lovely reminder. Who we are is a construction that we make every day.

In that formulation, we are all architects, all sculptors, all artists, with the possibility of creating our lives, of shaping them, of creating something of beauty that we can be proud of and that brings joy to those who meet us.

By implication, if we’re not conscious of our creative power, our creation may be a trifle haphazard.

Kentridge expresses the interplay between curiosity and creativity, saying that art provokes “…that feeling of what could be. It is like when you can’t quite hear someone, it forces you to imagine what is being said, and that forces you into a very active position. You are on the edge of understanding. But even if there is a mistranslation, you are actively making meaning.”

Standing on the edge of understanding can be dizzying. We often want the comfort of the plateau, but it is not the place of imagination, of creating the possibility of possibility, for that we need to embrace curiosity.


This Thursday, curiosity took me out of the CBD to the new home of RLabs. RLabs is an award-winning not-for-profit organisation that has transformed the lives of thousands of young Africans. Most recently the World Economic Forum recognised co-founders Marlon and René Parker as being among 2022’s Social Innovators of the Year.

RLabs operates with the purpose of “Making Hope Contagious” and they do.
Being the innovators that they are, they’re now exploring new ideas. One of those is RLabs House, a gallery in Westridge, Mitchells Plain, showcasing the best of the Cape Flats’ artistic and design talent.

Not content to have the art in the gallery, RLabs persuaded their neighbours to donate their walls as canvases. As a result, Silverhurst Street is now home to murals by some of the continent’s most esteemed street artists.

The outdoor gallery includes Falko Fantastic’s Always Greener, SethOne’s Cloudhopper, and Journey of Hope, and Conform took over this corner. After initial skepticism, neighbours are understandably clamoring for their wall to be next.

I headed home with a feeling of what could be, on the edge of understanding the possibilities that are unlocked by creativity and curiosity. I hope that your week is cloaked in the same sense of hope.

As always, all the very best to you and your people


PS: If you’d like to subscribe to this newsletter, you can do so here. If you’d like to work with me, you can find out more here.

PPS: If you love elephants and chimpanzees, you’ll love these pieces by Falko.

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