Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form


Author: Gerard Chick, chief knowledge officer Optimum Procurement

In our book  (published last year with Robert Handfield), we said that the next generation of procurement professionals would need to be intellectually voracious; if they were to be exceptional, and succeed, curiosity was key. That’s because successful people tend to be interested in ‘everything’; they are equipped with very inquiring minds and refuse to accept automatically the received wisdom of others. They want to examine it all and come to their own conclusions.

If you stop asking questions, you are merely accepting someone else’s facts!

In his excellent review of our book Peter Smith described these people, the bi-modal procurement pros’  as Mr and Ms Impossible. But they do exist – Gene Richter, possibly the most easily accessible example as so much has been written about him since his untimely death. But the principle applies to everyone. Greater rewards are going to the intellectually curious as industries become more complex, competitive and knowledge-intensive.

Today routine, intellectually undemanding work is fast disappearing as software takes more and more tasks away from people. In the professions including procurement and supply there are fewer jobs available to those who prefer to think only along straight lines – supply chains rather than complex networks.

At the same time, across the developed economies, we see an increasing share of income is going to those with advanced educations. Twenty-first-century businesses reward those with a desire to learn, question and solve – and repudiating those who don’t. It’s no longer enough to be competent or smart because computers are both.

And yet the self-assured hubris among those developing software and machines that will take over from humans seems plain daft!  Will a computer ever be curious? Even more to the point will a computer ever be accountable? It’s not just knowing stuff that counts– it’s how much you want to know and why; and curiosity is the ultimate source of innovation.

Let’s take the hackneyed old example of football. Top managers are no longer there just to pick the team or give a rousing half-time talk. They are required to be polymaths, fluent in everything related to the game: tactics, business, physiotherapy, psychology and anything else you can tag on to the end.  Jose Mourinho recently remarked that the principle factor for success is that todays managers have “more time to study. “If one casts a cursory eye over Michal Lewis’s book Money Ball this philosophy is more than borne out.

Moreover, what is true of football is even more true of industries that are already populated by Drucker’s ‘knowledge workers’. Knowledge workers being those members of the working population whose main capital is knowledge; i.e. their job is to “think for a living”.

The trend towards greater complexity is evident across all of industry today and employers are looking for people with the drive and determination to understand, retain and act on the knowledge that spans the many disciplines and topics in business. The old question remains: is it better to be a specialist or a generalist? But today it has a definitive answer: both!

Curious people are self-starters; they read and get a kick out of thinking. Curious people are good at solving difficult problems for their employers because they’re really solving them for themselves. However, despite its rising value, we are not very good at cultivating curiosity.

The education ‘systems’ are increasingly focused on preparing people for specific jobs. To teach someone to be an engineer or a lawyer, however, is not the same as teaching them to be a curious or innovative engineer or lawyer. Schools focus on preparing students for the world of work, rather than on inspiring them, and we end up with uninspired students and mediocre professionals.

Today many businesses value efficiency so highly that they forget to allow their employees to explore new ideas and ways of working that just might lead to the innovation which creates the competitive advantage your business is seeking.

As societies and as individuals, we need to recognise the value of intellectual pursuits and above all of curiosity. It would be a tragedy if intellectual curiosity were to become the preserve of an ever-narrowing cognitive elite. This isn’t just a problem for our economy – it’s a problem for us.

The true beauty of learning, even (apparently) ‘useless’ things, is that it reminds us that we are part of a process that has been happening for as long as humans have been gathering and sharing knowledge.

So to come back to Peter Smith’s observation – why do we need Mr and Ms Impossible, it’s because we are in a new (global) economy, in a new game with new rules. To succeed we need curious people capable of stretching themselves and us intellectually as we move onward and upward.

Gerard Chick is chief knowledge officer 
Optimum ProcurementHis latest book, The Procurement Value Proposition tackles critical challenges head-on and sets a bold new vision. The book examines how organizations can use procurement to drive competitive advantage. It features insights from business leaders and case studies of companies that are moving through procurement transformation.


About Author

Procurement and Supply Australasia (PASA) is the leading provider of information and education to procurement and supply professionals throughout Australia and New Zealand. PASA supports the largest community of engaged procurement stakeholders in the region, through its renowned series of events, publications, awards, plus various community and network building activities. PASA is a trading name of BTTB Marketing, for many years recognised as the leading producer of conferences and events for the procurement profession in Australia and New Zealand. Whether producing under the BTTB, CIPSA Conferences or now PASA brands over the last ten years, our events have consistently led the market in terms of both educational and networking opportunities.

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