“Care (or worry) killed the cat” was a common phrase until 1873 when “curiosity killed the cat” took its place and, ultimately, wove its way into a newly born industrial revolution. It was a time when workers brought their hands, not their heads, to work. So, it’s no surprise that schoolchildren’s primers put a premium on the “don’t stay curious” tack. Fast forward to 2012, and it’s clearly time that curiosity got back into the cat.  

That’s just what IBM’s 2010 CEO study prescribed for companies operating in a world full of uncertainty. No wonder any socially correct CEO today sings some sort of innovation song. But it’s only the CEOs who live the innovation mantra who build the most innovative companies, and deliver a substantial innovation premium to customers.  

These are the kind of leaders who give their companies a clear competitive edge. They do so by acting innovative themselves and expecting others to do the same. That’s what we discovered in the eight-year research project behind our book The Innovator’s DNA (co-authored with colleague Jeff Dyer at BYU/Wharton). Put simply, innovation is driven by choice, not chance, at the most innovative companies in the world. Here are a few tips on how they do it.  

The Art of Discovery 

Innovative leaders not only start innovative companies, they sustain them with constant curiosity. Amazon continues to outperform competitors, with Jeff Bezos, its founder and CEO, driving the curiosity charge. He leverages strong discovery skills (like asking provocative questions and endless experimenting) to not only tackle core innovation projects, like cloud computing, but surprising noncore projects as well.

At five years old, Bezos watched the first man to ever walk the moon be powered to his destination by Apollo 11 rockets, and that moment in history turbocharged his curiosity. Forty-three years later Bezos’ passion for exploration drove him to discover those same Apollo 11 rockets on the ocean floor. No wonder Amazon continues to reinvent itself with a founder and CEO who does the same. 

The Quest for Understanding 

Similarly, consider the string of lifetime movie successes James Cameron has racked up while following an unquenchable curiosity that drove him since childhood to figure out how to get to the bottom of the earth, the Mariana Trench. To do this, he transformed a submarine into a torpedo (doing the unthinkable), trusted his team of technologists, and the rest is history. 

After his unparalleled deep-sea adventure, Cameron revealed, “To me, the story is in the people in their quest and curiosity and their attempt to understand.” This not only summed up his deepest dive, but captured the essence of his blockbuster movies, where no doubt he steps back, takes it in, and says, “This is where I am. I'm at the bottom of the ocean, the deepest place on Earth. What does that mean?” What better question? 

Keeping Your Eyes Open

Cameron’s curiosity, like Bezos, is no fluke when it comes to creating a competitive edge. Innovative leaders driving innovative companies do it all over the world. Guy Laliberte, founder of Cirque du Soleil, cut his innovation teeth performing circus acts on the streets of Toronto in the 1970s and 80s. Today, he continues to sharpen his innovation teeth by roving the world, capturing novel insights to fuel new shows, sustain old ones and support the backstage staff keeping the show on track. 

From every continent, Laliberte peppers staff with ideas sparked by new food, interesting art, odd conversations, and who knows what. He feeds these snippets of information to the CEO, creative directors and any others tasked with taking them forward. And more critically, Laliberte’s wide open eyes are reflected in Cirque du Soleil’s companywide “Open Eyes” initiative. Cirque du Soleil expects everyone to see the surprising and then systematically captures it to spark new shows or make current ones better.

There’s No Substitute for Passion

We also found that not only did globally famous innovators keep their curiosity alive, but the less famous innovators did so as well. Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram (just bought by Facebook), started the company in 2006 with a passion about people being able to communicate through photography. (Like Bezos and Cameron, his passion for photography started young and gathered steam as he matured.) Now with more than 37 million users, Instagram lets people communicate through pictures with all of their friends and family instantly.

Although Instagram has become wildly popular, Systrom and his team continue to push the innovation edge, partnering with Hipstamatic to offer even more platforms to share images. The partnership provides the network with access to Hipstamatic's high-quality content creators—a photography community of 4 million users who upload 48 million photos per month.

So what’s the bottom line on keeping curiosity alive?  

  • Innovative companies are led by innovative leaders.  Example matters, especially when it comes to innovation. 
  • Innovative companies put processes and philosophies into place, like “Open Eyes” at Cirque du Soleil, that instill a deep, companywide commitment to innovation. 
  • Innovative leaders stay at the top of their innovation game by keeping personal curiosity alive, often with the most surprising of projects. 
  • Innovative companies expect everyone to do the same. No wonder at least 70% of their employees can honestly answer yes to the question “Is innovation part of your job?” Can you? 

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