by Rhiannon Rees. In a world that insists more and more on creative solutions, curiosity is even more essential to problem-solving. Yet, despite this, we may still find ourselves hesitant to ask questions.

Have you ever found yourself Googling some mild cold symptoms and, after three hours of in-depth analysis, diagnosed yourself with a rare and fatal disease? What about popping onto Facebook to see a friend’s newest photo uploads but somehow finding yourself on her boyfriend’s cousin’s best friend’s younger sister’s boyfriend’s page? We’re all naturally nosy.

Ccuriosity is recognised in psychology as the ‘epistemophilic instinct’, the instinctive love of knowledge. It is the urge to know more, the hunger to uncover the ‘next big thing’ and demystify the increasing complexity of business.

But why do we stop asking “why”?

Sometimes we stop asking questions, especially as we grow ‘wiser’ and more experienced, because we assume we know the answer. After spending enough time in the field, we tend to adopt a mindset of ‘I’ve done this before’ — and slip into the comforting lull of complacency. This is especially true of brands: we’ve done the research, interviewed our customer typologies, and yes, we know how to satisfy clients’ needs, thank you.

We’ve heard of numerous examples of brand and product obsolescence arising out of a complacent mindset and failure to adapt: Blackberry fading into irrelevance, MXit being usurped by a ubiquitous WhatsApp, and landlines becoming those things we use solely when our cellphone batteries have died and email is down. Perhaps the most-nostalgic example is that of public pay-phones. The use of phonecards, or queuing on the side of the road to call someone, has dissipated, as mobile accessibility has changed the nature of communication. But, instead of adapting phone pods to become more relevant to a mobile world — perhaps as wireless hotspots, or recharging stations — telecommunications giants have left them to gather dust.

Our curiosity is also threatened by the ‘empty immediacy of the virtual now’: the internet. We stop asking questions, because we already have the answers. Increased internet accessibility means that we no longer have to seek new solutions; someone else (probably someone smarter) has already found them. As online IP traffic had been expected to surpass 1 zettabyte of data in 2016 (about 125bn 8-gig memory sticks), and expected to double per year by 2019 [note that this article was written in 2016 — ed-at-large], the internet may take the wind out of our curious sails.

Symbol of confrontation

We may also stop asking questions because it’s the easy way out of a disagreement. In the workplace, we want to avoid unnecessary conflict and feel as if we get along with our colleagues. We actively avoid confrontation and so stop asking questions. Questions then become more a symbol of confrontation, and less of genuine curiosity.

Sometimes our lack of questions arises out of fear. Fear of wasting time and missing deadlines, of appearing clueless, of having our precious ideas disregarded. It’s easy to be satisfied with the status quo and to not ask why. Asking questions is far more challenging; it may be intimidating to keep the passion for knowledge and understanding alive!

With fear and complacency, we settle. We settle for the safety of what we know and like. We settle for sameness, and the danger of ‘knowing.’ We stagnate, never pushing boundaries or challenging conventions — allowing our curiosity to be swallowed by what feels safe.

The opportunity in curiosity

Questions are crucial. They help us learn more, and hedge against risk. They help us see the bigger picture.

Being curious about our own industry, and being inquisitive about other categories, expands our frame of reference, enhancing our ability to add value to consumers’ lives. It also helps us build more-meaningful relationships with consumers and stakeholders: people are drawn to those who show interest in them. By asking more questions, we’re better equipped to satisfy the needs and demands of the market — enhancing our competitiveness and, potentially, profitability.

The endless pursuit of knowledge also helps us navigate complexity more easily.

According to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, the ability to break down complex matters into tangible solutions depends on IQ, EQ, and CQ — the curiosity quotient. While IQ and EQ are recognised success factors, CQ is unfamiliar. Our CQ informs our appetite for ambiguity, and not only helps build a knowledge bank over time but a desire to intellectually invest in it as well. Curiosity, therefore, is essential to the translation of complexity into understanding.

Translating knowledge into understanding

Persistent curiosity, despite its exhausting side-effects (consider four-year-olds and their endless “why” questions), is essential to the translation of knowledge into an understanding of the world’s complexity. So how do we start crystallising the information we have into insight?

  1. Create a safe space

Simon Sinek said that the responsibility of leadership is not to come up with the ideas but to create an environment in which ideas can thrive. By creating a space in which questions are encouraged, we fear less and uncover more about our field.

  1. Build knowledge

Knowledge opens our eyes to gaps about things we don’t know. If you want to be curious, start collecting new knowledge: read unusual books, research new models and approaches, and have challenging conversations with different groups of people. Enjoy immersing yourself in unfamiliar territory.

  1. Thrive on uncertainty

Research shows that feelings such as anxiety often lead to the longest-lasting positive experiences. People who immerse themselves in uncertain endeavours are happier and more likely to enjoy further adventures. We need to revel in the unknown, because it is in the unknown that we uncover new perspectives.

  1. Unleash the fun

By adding a playful element to our quest for knowledge — making it an adventure or a team sport — we find delight in new experiences. In doing so, we develop new insights about our clients and our industry.

  1. Seek the unfamiliar in the familiar

By relying on what we already know, we close ourselves off to new discoveries. Develop a taste for curiosity by actively challenging your preconceived ideas about the way you currently do business.

As marketers, we are in the business of regularly testing the fascinating notion that what I know and understand may not necessarily be what you know and understand. As such, we cannot uncover solutions alone. We’re dependent on the curiosity of those who came before us, and those who take us forward. We need a collective of creative and enquiring minds who willingly ask questions that can navigate through the chaos, uncertainty, and adventure of our present-day society.

So, let’s become obsessives and pioneers and midnight-Wikipedia-trawlers. Let’s keep experimenting, playing, and discovering. Let’s keep asking why.

• Buy your copy of Brands & Branding 2016 today.
Brands & Branding 2017 preliminary coverRhiannon Rees is a strategist at Yellowwood. With a particular interest in how socioeconomics influence consumer mind-sets and behaviours, she enjoys combining theories of ethics, philosophy, psychology and economics to build steadfast brands.

The article first appeared in the 2016 edition of Brands & Branding in South Africa, an annual review of all aspects of brand marketing — consisting of case-studies, profiles, articles and research. Editorial contributions and sponsored brand profiles accepted until early August for the 2017 edition. Copies of the current edition are still available — buy one here.

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