The Power of Curiosity to Grow Your Business

| August 19, 2014 | Comments (0)


Written Dr. Gavin Symanowitz

In the 1950s scientist Lewis Thomas injected rabbits with papain, an enzyme derived from the papaya plant. He was investigating the effect of proteolytic enzymes on cardiac and blood vessel lesions as part of his research into rheumatic fever. The papain injection didn’t have the desired effect. However, it did lead to a rather bizarre result – the rabbit’s normally stiff and upright ears collapsed and drooped downwards. As Thomas put it, the “ears collapsed limply at either side of the head, rather like the ears of spaniels.” A few hours later, the rabbit’s ears would return to their normal state.

Thomas was intrigued and couldn’t simply dismiss the floppy-eared rabbits as an entertaining observation. “It was one of the most uniform reactions I’d ever seen in biology. It always happened. And it looked as if something important must have happened to cause this reaction.”

Despite his continued interest (“I chased it like crazy”), the solution eluded Dr. Thomas for several years. Then one day, instead of looking for evidence of tissue damage, he decided to look at the cartilage more closely by comparing cross-sections of cartilage from healthy rabbits with those from rabbits injected with papain. He was astounded by what he saw – the cartilage matrix had disappeared. This ground-breaking discovery blazed the trail for further research, and had far-reaching implications for the understanding and future treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

The tale of the floppy-eared rabbits found its way into the popular press at the time, being featured in both the New York Times and Life Magazine. The articles focused on how an amusing side-effect of a scientific experiment eventually led to an important discovery.

There is another side to the story, however, and one which contains an important lesson for innovation in our businesses.

Amazingly, another researcher, Dr. Aaron Kellner, had observed exactly the same thing in his laboratory at about the same time that Dr. Thomas was conducting his research. Kellner dismissed the observation as an amusing sideshow. In fact, he used the extent of floppiness in the rabbit’s ears to determine whether he was giving the correct dosage when he injected the rabbits with papain. If the rabbit died, then the dose of papain was too high (obviously!), while if there was no change in the rabbit’s ears then the dosage was not potent enough. Kellner knew he had the right dose if the rabbit lived and his ears drooped “just right”.

So how did two distinguished scientists observe exactly the same phenomenon in their laboratories, yet only one went on to make an important scientific discovery and the other did not? The answer, quite simply, is that one was curious about what had caused the strange result, while the other was not.


Why curiosity matters

If “necessity is the mother of invention” then I would argue that curiosity is its father. Virtually all scientific discoveries and some of the world’s most important inventions owe their origins to a thoughtful curiosity on the part of the scientist or inventor. As Bernard Baruch said, “Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why.”

If George de Mestral hadn’t been curious why the cockleburs stuck so tightly to his pants after he went for a walk with his dog, we might never have Velcro today. If Percy Spencer hadn’t been curious why the chocolate bar in his pocket melted when he worked with a magnetron, we might never have microwave ovens today. And if Alexander Fleming hadn’t been curious after noticing something strange in one of his petri dishes, we might not have penicillin today. Albert Einstein, whose instantly recognisable face is the universal symbol of intelligence, once said: “I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted … I am only very, very curious”.

Like these great pioneers, we should be doing the same in our businesses. Whenever we spot something unusual or out of the ordinary, we should stop and investigate. Walt Disney attributed much of his early pioneering success in the animation industry to curiosity – he constantly urged his employees to open new doors to see what new paths would open up. Many of the world’s most innovative companies today have similar philosophies. Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, said: “We run this company on questions, not answers”.


What job is your product trying to do?

Curiosity also forms the basis for a very powerful insight articulated by marketing professor Theodore Levitt in the 1960s: “People don’t want a quarter-inch drill—they want a quarter-inch hole”. This insight was expanded on by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen in a seminal 2007 Sloan Management Review article. Christensen and his co-authors coined the term “Job-to-be-Done” and described it as follows: “Most companies segment their markets by customer demographics or product characteristics and differentiate their offerings by adding features and functions. But the consumer has a different view of the marketplace. He simply has a job to be done and is seeking to ‘hire’ the best product or service to do it.” In other words, the “job-to-be-done” is the higher purpose for which the customer buys your products or services.

Christensen gives the example of a fast food joint that sells milkshakes. The traditional view is that people buy milkshakes to stave off thirst or to enjoy a tasty treat. However, for certain early morning customers, this wasn’t the primary reason at all. The researchers discovered that these people bought the milkshakes to give them something to do during their morning commute to work. Based on this insight, the company created a “morning milkshake” which was not only thicker (so that it would last longer during a relatively long trip) but also contained chunks of fruit (so that it was more interesting). The fast food joint positioned the new product around its job-to-be-done of making the morning commute less boring, and sales took off.

The theory simply asks, “What job is your product hired to do?” And if you want your customers to switch over from your competitors, then “Why would they ‘fire’ the other product and ‘hire’ yours?” These questions not only consider the functional elements of the product, but also the social and emotional elements. If we understand all these dimensions properly, then we can design a product or service that is perfectly targeted to the job that the customer wants filled.

The job-to-be-done model is very different to the traditional marketing approach of segmenting the customer base according to demographics. In South Africa, marketers are obsessed with the traditional metrics of LSMs (Living Standard Measures) and the associated AMPS data. These metrics form the basis of almost all marketing decisions and allocations of the marketing budget. The problem is that they provide no insight into the customer and are close to useless – despite their prolific use across corporate South Africa.

The jobs-to-be-done approach is powerful in its simplicity, but there is a problem. It isn’t always obvious what these jobs-to-be-done are. According to Clayton Christensen: “The jobs that customers are trying to get done cannot be deciphered from purchased databases in the comfort of marketers’ offices. It requires watching, participating, writing and thinking. It entails knowing where to look, what to look for, how to look for it and how to interpret what you find.” In other words, it’s about getting curious about your customers and the underlying motivations for using your products and services. This is the key to delivering real value, and it’s where all your market research efforts should be focused.


Let’s get curious

In the modern world, we never seem to have enough time. Work life is a constant dash between endless meetings and urgent deadlines.  In this mad rush, it’s very difficult to stop, take a step backwards, and ask “Why?” It’s very difficult to spot something unusual and take the time to investigate what’s really happening. Yet the rewards can be tremendous. As the brash tycoon Donald Trump said: “If you really want to succeed … keep up your mental stamina and remain curious. I think that bored people are unintelligent people.” And who can argue with that?


Dr. Gavin Symanowitz is an actuary and founder of, where he created the online Ideas4Results Programme. He regularly gives talks on innovation topics such as How to Disrupt Your Industry, How to Bring Innovation into your Job, and the 2-day seminar It’s Not Too Late … To Innovate. He is also the founder of






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