I woke up one morning with a little less hatred for my alarm clock than usual. Because I was going to get to spend that day at the Virgin Co-lab Innovation event in Sydney with the one and only Sir Richard Branson.
We're talking about a 66-year old businessman worth $7 billion who, at retirement age, is taking on Elon Musk with the new Virgin Hyperloop One. So you'll forgive me for assuming this is a brash guy who's got all the answers.
Well... I was wrong. Like, TOTALLY wrong.
Branson is a man of questions. He passed up several opportunities that day to take the microphone and pontificate, saying he'd much rather hear what the rest of us had to say.
Since then, I've thought a lot about my thought process. If Sir Richard's humble curiosity has made him the visionary leader he is (and I firmly believe that's true), how can I emulate that?
Spoiler alert: I did stumble across a creative thinking technique that feels very Branson-esque, which I'll walk you through below.
But first, a bit about leadership.
Listening to the child inside
There's a formula most of us follow in our lives. As we get older, we exchange our more "frivolous" interests and ideas for ones that are more sensible. We gradually shed our sense of wonder year by year, until we think we know just about all there is to know about anything worth knowing about.
If there's one person who calls BS on that, it's Sir Richard. A man with childlike curiosity that transcends his age, never lacking in vigor, drive, and passion, Branson is proof that fully-formed adults have the courage to challenge expectations and explore what could be.
And it was clear from my conversations with other Virgin employees that his attitude has a multiplier effect.
The lesson? Leaders who are openly curious about the world around them inspire that same curiosity in others. If you want new solutions to an old problem, you're gonna need some seriously inquisitive minds on it.
The secret to thinking like Sir Richard is asking "why" (a lot)
Holding on to your inner child helps maintain curiosity and desire to always learn and develop. Trouble is, most of us lost touch with our inner child years ago. (Why don't they ever call??)
So imagine my excitement when, shortly after the Virgin event, I strolled past one of our engineering teams as they were conducting a root-cause analysis after an outage. Using a technique called "5 Whys", they dug deeper and deeper into the problem, uncovering new layers and insights.
That was the ah-ha moment.
"5 Whys" is simply a fake-it-till-you-make-it way to re-learn the kind of curiosity people like Sir Richard never unlearned in the first place.
Let's say sales are down. You start by asking "Why are sales down 20% over last quarter?" If the answer is the post-Holiday slump you see every year, then you follow with the question "Why do we see a post-Holiday slump every year?" And so on. By the time you get to the 5th "why", you've understood the problem robustly and probably have a few ideas for solutions.
You can use the technique to better understand opportunities, too. "Why would anyone choose to stay in a stranger's house instead of a hotel?" might prompt thoughts around cost savings, experiencing a city in a more authentic way, etc. Daisy-chain 5 or so "whys" together, and you'll have some pretty exciting ways to pursue that opportunity.
If you've never tried "5 Whys" before, give it a go. Channel your inner Sir Richard and practice being comfortable - excited, even! - with not having all the answers.