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Only The Curious Will Survive

Written By Jon Budington

July 31, 2020

This post is going to sound a bit dark for an optimist like me, but remember—optimism is about accepting a changed world; happiness isn’t a requirement.

Few of us will forget 2020: a global health pandemic, a reckoning on racism, online learning for our children, online work for us, and yes, murder hornets. Just halfway through this year, I’m already hearing enthusiasm for 2021. With hope, it will be the year we begin repairing our nation. But before we get overly excited, let’s ponder the economic chaos that’s coming.

US GDP dropped an unprecedented 32% last quarter, and this next one isn’t looking much better. Data now proves that our health crisis has morphed into an economic disaster as well, and the scale of this contraction makes the 2008 meltdown look comparatively insignificant. Many businesses are living on borrowed time.

We’re going to need a bigger chart.

As COVID-required behaviors evolve into habits, the value of the products and services that feed our economy are changing. I predict more home cooking, more screen time and less travel in our immediate futures. But I also find myself growing comfortable with our new working arrangements, online shopping and flightless travel. If only a fraction of these habits stick with us, we will create the greatest business disruption ever recorded.

Marriott’s building a new headquarters. I assume they’re creating a new business plan as well.

Business leaders need to be working on new ideas like their lives depend on it—because they do. But it’s far more fun to read about business “innovation” than it is to do the work. Change is difficult for many of us, and our businesses are often structured around promoting and protecting the ideas we already have as opposed to developing new ones. New ideas require an appetite for risk and a curious company culture.

I don’t remember exactly when, but curiosity only recently became a hip business concept. One look in my Oxford English Dictionary shows a tortured past. The words curious, curiosity and curiously cover three full pages with 111 definitions. Clearly, the old world didn’t value questions like we do today. Curiosity got you locked up in the Dark Ages, and clearly killed someone’s cat. But great ideas always begin as great questions, and “challenging what is known” is the modern definition of the word. Curiosity is essential today.

61 entries in the OED. Defining curiosity hasn’t been easy. 

Remember in school when you were told there were no bad questions, and then how quickly in adulthood you realized the world was full of terrible ones? Over the past two decades, I’ve asked plenty of bad questions that took our business down many dead-end paths. I’ve since learned that innovation isn’t about technology and risk. It’s about creating a culture designed to adapt—one that structures our curiosity to ask great questions.

I’ve already written about the importance of optimism and empathy, but a quick refresher is called for here. Optimism is about recognizing and accepting change. At More Vang, we actually map it, and the amount of data points we’ve added recently is frightening. Empathy is the process of understanding something foreign to us. In our case, we use it to determine how change will affect our services and those of our clients. Only then do we engage our curiosity. Without optimism and empathy, our curiosity is ungrounded and the resulting questions are worthless.

Together, we call this our CEO culture. It has kept us nimble and relevant through a long period of accelerated change and economic downturns. Every year, we celebrate our employees who demonstrate these cultural traits. Optimism is an employment requirement, but with a bit of structure, I’ve learned that empathy and curiosity can be learned over time.

Some optimistic, empathetic and curious More Vang employees at our awards dinner.

The winners and losers of the post-COVID world will be determined by their ability to adapt. I hope this story helps you with your own plans. And as the future of my business is dependent on the success of yours, I’d be happy to share our own processes in more detail.