Why Companies Act Like They Hate Curiosity

Curiosity–something that drove us to Mars and profoundly motivates individuals–seemingly has no home in the corporate world. The end result is a dull, doggedly problem-solving formula for innovation.

Why Companies Act Like They Hate Curiosity

“We stare at the stars, we peer through microscopes, we climb mountains, and we dive to the ocean floor,” Venkatesh Rao writes on his personal blog. “This behavior, so natural to humans, is incomprehensible to human organizations.”


Rao, the aerospace engineer-turned-startup-guy-turned-researcher, argues that the disconnect stems from a personality mismatch. Corporations and humans feel different about pleasure, pain, and the unknown.

To humans, the volatility of the unknown does avail us to pain, but also the awe of the unknown–you might call that the feeling of curiosity. Alternatively, the unknown is all-danger to corporations, its volatility something to be predicted and tested for and reacted against. Businesses don’t feel the joy of discovery; people do.

So they each treat curiosity differently. Rao notes an “interesting symmetry”:

Organizations naturally try to avoid pain–the pain of business model obsolescence or national decline, for instance–through institutionalized “curiosity.” They find joy-seeking unnatural and in need of justification (hence the paradoxical notions of “efficient” innovation with high “yield” or “impact” and the relentless war on waste).

This has even been turned into a depressingly banal formula for innovation: What pain are you seeking to relieve?

While corporations are like people in that they tend to avoid losses and conserve energy, they have no use (or capacity) for curiosity. Which makes it pretty hard to provide incentives for curious, and yes, innovative, work.

So what would a curious company look like?

While Rao says he’ll leave mocking up a model of the “Curious Corporation” for when the mood or the cash strikes him, we can still think about what such a living thing might look like.


Since curiosity is so much about having a healthy relationship with volatility, the Curious Corporation would have to create a nonvolatile space so that employees could do volatile work. There’d be a system to capture the insights that pop out of the unknown. And there would be trust in that by creating value for workers, and for customers, profits would result.

In this way, the volatility (and joy) of curiosity (and the curious) could be a more central part of a business, rather than secreted away.

The Dead-Curious Cat and the Joyless Immortal

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Sindre Sorhus]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.