Lift off was scheduled for 5:49am, Eastern Standard Time. The forecasted weather conditions were ideal, so I knew this time it would be a “Go”.
You would have thought I was the one being strapped into the capsule that morning, rising well before SpaceX’s Crew-2 launch from the Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s Eastern Shore.
Percolating anticipation was diverted to local news coverage of the event. One feature involved a group of children engaged in a Zoom-like call, a Q&A with astronauts living aboard the International Space Station since November 2020.
A young girl, probably four or five years-old, was the next in line. Provided an opportunity to ask the astronauts any question she wanted, to satisfy her utmost curiosity, she went strictly frontal lobe and asked:
“Have you seen any Unicorns while you were in space?”
Stopped me in mid-sip from a cup of chai tea.
It was the sweetest, most heartwarming moment I have experienced in quite some time. What I found equally appealing was the astronauts’ response. They didn’t ridicule the girl, cruelly reminding her that “Duh, unicorns live in Center Earth, not outer space.”
Instead, they welcomed the question and smiled, responding, “No, we haven’t seen any unicorns. That’s not to say they aren’t up here. We just haven’t seen any.”
The Right Questions
Watching events unfold throughout the sky in front of me, I couldn’t escape the significance of that little girl’s query.
Captivated by her ethereal-like quality of inquisitiveness and pure innocence, wisdom of the moment appealed to my own inner-child, who in turn was tugging at the coattails of my cognitive-self and wondering:
Are we asking the right questions?
Consider this: The spectacle of the SpaceX rocket’s illuminated ascension into orbit was the ultimate result of someone asking, “What if?”
Curiosity then bubbled to the surface, ideas were explored, failures learned from, lessons applied, and success celebrated with a whisper of “Godspeed”.
When offered in the spirit of pure intention, free of judgement or ridicule, there are four questions that transform a curious nature into a Curiosity Culture:
What do you think?
What matters most to you?
These questions reside at the core of innovation or problem-solving initiatives. Each supports an innate desire for coherence and understanding, valuing unlimited expression over practicality or perceived application.
Now consider the multitude of challenges we face in society today.
Destination “-ness” platforms such as happiness, wellness, inclusiveness, along with more traditional aspirations of opportunity, diversity, and equality, all benefit from an environment that embraces and encourages inquisitive thought.
A Curiosity Culture then becomes a collaborative quest to explore the unlimited potential of humanity . . . which may or may not involve searching for unicorns while traveling through space.
This is a question we are wired to begin asking from birth.
The danger is that maturity often alters the tone in which we ask “Why?”, offsetting the potential to explore possibilities and replacing it with a search for blame or guilt.
When used in its pristine state, asking why represents depth, penetrating surface understanding to reveal cause or condition.
Be patient and receptive to others asking why. The depth of their curiosity may be layered, each response revealing a next level of interest.
For example, if you tell a child not to touch something because it’s hot, they will continue to ask why until their curiosity is satisfied. Stopping with “Because I said so” after the first why can be dangerous.
They will most likely touch the object, discovering for themselves the responses “it will burn you, hurt really bad, scare you and your mom will be upset” that would have accompanied the next four whys.
We’re adults, not children, but still subject to being burned if our curiosity is not satisfied.
Question: What if?
Every major advancement in society can be traced to someone being curious about an outcome.
Bear in mind that many outcomes will not be positive. It was Thomas Edison who famously quipped he never failed, he just discovered so many ways things didn’t work.
He never stopped asking “What if?”, and neither should you.
Leaving judgement at the door is the backbone of innovation; focus on the potential, not the result.
Establishing a predetermined goal (revenue) or measurement of success can blind you to the magic being created within the process.
Keep the windows to collaboration open. Listen beyond what’s being expressed, recognize the value in the smaller details that when combined help define the big picture.
Question: What do you think?
In business, you may have a result outlined for you, i.e. “We need to find a way to generate an additional $1 million in revenue.”
How you choose to communicate that to your team will have everything to do with the quality of input you receive.
Tone is important and should clearly communicate your genuine investment in responses offered.
Perhaps more important is being fully present to receive and engage with responses. Resist the urge to immediately agree or disagree with what has been shared.
Several leaders have admitted to being uncomfortable with soliciting input from their teams. “Their ideas never work” is a common excuse. “I’ll be doing more harm than good when their suggestions never materialize” is another.
This is Trust Building 101:
If you ask for my opinion and stick around to listen to my thoughts, I will trust that you value my input whether you follow it or not.
Once a final solution or direction is implemented, circle back to satisfy the curiosity of your team. Remember, if you don’t answer the final “Why?” the team may try to answer it for themselves.
Question: What matters most to you?
The phrasing of this question is preferred over a similar query: What do you expect?
This preferred phrasing can help solve what appear to be complex issues with employee engagement, morale, retention, etc.
When I ask frontline employees what they expect from their employer, the responses remain relatively generic: to be paid for hours they work, to be treated with respect, to have safe work conditions, equipment, tools, etc. We may venture into job security, for my leader to see me, and other unique details, but responses remain related to what they do.
Ask that same group what matters most to them as an individual and the responses take longer to generate, reflecting a more personal perspective: responses relate to who they are, describing how they want to feel valued as a member of a team or organization.
Give them the space to respond. We’re searching for something beneath the surface, which may require additional time to process. Offer verbal or written responses as an option for true expression.
Your path to engagement becomes a collaborative affair, shifting from why? to how? and generating a variety of solutions to meet the emotional and practical needs of your team.
As a leader, though, the first step along the path is asking the same question of yourself.
Check for alignment with values and aspirations you share with the organization and your team. You may discover that the one who needs to change is you.
People have become fond of asking “What advice would you give your 10-year-old or 20-year-old self?”
I prefer to spin that question around and ask, “What can you learn from your 10-year-old self?”
When we were kids, we weren’t distracted by realities or benchmarks. We believed anything was possible. Setbacks didn’t stop us from dreaming. Discovery was driven by asking “Why?”
Curiosity was explored through “What if?”
When searching for answers, we didn’t hesitate to ask our friends, “What do you think?”
In the end you had a fairly good idea of “What mattered most?” to you: family, friendships, having fun, and discovering something new about the world each, and every day.
Hang on to that spirit of inquisitiveness and innocence. Keep your curiosity frontal lobe, you’ll find a unicorn in your own space and time.
Thank you for spending your Tuesday with Tall Tim Talks!