A conversation with Becki Saltzman, Founder, and Chief Curiosity Seeker, Applied Curiosity Lab
When Becki Saltzman was six years old, she spent her days in abandoned retail stores, office complexes that had gone out of business and old industrial sawmills. While this may sound like the makings of a scary movie, what Becki was doing was learning the family business of auctioneering. What resulted was someone who found curiosity in everything.
“The people and the products that I was exposed to were unusual. My parents and my mentors in the business would pepper me with questions: Why is that man wagging his cigar at the auctioneer? What does that machine do? Why does every auction start with a wrench? Questions like that. I think I was honed toward curiosity, and then in my graduate work, I realized that a lot of the things that I learned in the greasy warehouses of my youth were confirmed in the dusty halls of academia.”
“A lot of the things that I learned in the greasy warehouses of my youth were confirmed in the dusty halls of academia.”
It is easy to see why curiosity became her innovation silver bullet. It has led to everything she has done as the Founder and Chief Curiosity Seeker at Applied Curiosity Lab where she helps companies use applied curiosity as a strategic tool and create the culture of curiosity necessary for innovation to thrive.
Becki facilitates workshops for organizations and corporations where she uses applied curiosity to create a culture of curiosity. “Most of what I do is very specific applied curiosity workshops. We’ve got an introduction to applied curiosity, which begins to create a culture of curiosity with very specific objectives, and we have curiosity archetypes, and learning how to use those archetypes for yourself, and for team building, and then also understanding how to ask what I call MVQs, which are the most valuable questions.”
Her workshops offer an array of different ways to use curiosity as a way to move forward and create. She runs three types of workshops, and some companies choose to use one or all of them depending on their needs. “First is a curiosity for sales and influence; that’s using the concept of peak curiosity, which is a manipulation of familiarity, getting into the nitty-gritty. The next section is using curiosity. We call it extreme questions, and that’s for innovation and problem-solving. The third bucket is the deeper dive workshops. The third bucket is for decision-making, and that focuses on using curiosity to bust what we call brain bugs, which many people call cognitive biases.”
What Is Applied Curiosity?
Applied Curiosity was a new term to me, so I asked Becki to define it for me: “The most common way we think about curiosity is as free-range curiosity. That’s an investigation for the sake of investigation, learning for the sake of learning. I would equate it to basic science and identifying problems. Applied curiosity is about using curiosity as a strategic tool to solve problems.”
“Applied curiosity is about using curiosity as a strategic tool to solve problems.”
Becki says a lot of what she does when it comes to working with companies and organizations is what she refers to as assumption busting: “It doesn’t mean you’re never critical or judgmental, but you are curious first.”
Often, we are so consumed with being right about something that we become judgmental. She compares it to when someone cuts you off in traffic. Your assumption is to be judgmental. You might call that person a jerk or a bad driver, but this is an assumption based on limited information. She says to get past this you must reorder things to elevate your curiosity. “That requires a preposterous level of assumption busting— stepping into the uncertainty of questioning all of your assumptions. Then, very crisply identifying the assumptions that you refuse to bust or challenge.”
One technique Becki likes to use is playing with information gaps. She says there are three main gaps to work with:
- Want to know and know.
- Know and don’t know.
- Want to know and need to know.
“The middle gap is interesting; because of today’s easy access to information, people think being curious is whipping out their device. The problem with that is it closes the information gap too soon. That’s a curiosity killer. We can search for and access everything except what isn’t there, and only curiosity inspires the questions that generate the answers we don’t yet have access to.”
“We can search for and access everything except what isn’t there, and only curiosity inspires the questions that generate the answers we don’t yet have access to.”
How Would You Measure Innovation
“In the foreseeable future, I think innovation should be measured by how it helps humans flourish. If this sounds mushy, it’s not. We humans must shape our tools (AI, gene editing, machine learning, biotech) before they shape us. Once innovation is taken over by machine learning AI, every other human innovation endeavor will look quaint.”
Becki’s background in Behavioral Science has shaped much of how she sees innovation and how it affects humankind. She discussed how easily we provide information for little nuggets. “The slow progress toward the new superhuman is happening insidiously…We want to know our spirit animal, so we fill out a survey to let some company know more about us. Then that company can influence what we see, and maybe what we are exposed to in terms of buying options. We don’t see that as becoming more superhuman. But eventually, they can show us what we want to see, and new products that we don’t know that exist. It’s optimized for us in a way that we couldn’t have optimized it for ourselves, right?”
“These small innovations, where we don’t necessarily see on the horizon what’s happening, are adopted. We adopt them every day, as we trade our data for little goodies. We might take a step back and say, ‘Okay, is this the right measure of innovation growth? Is the right measure of innovation human flourishing?’ How do we unpack these things as a thought experiment, as a way to apply curiosity to what might be more important questions.”
Becki believes that there are ethical questions that need to be applied when it comes to innovating new tools in AI, machine learning, and gene editing. “I’m not suggesting that it will necessarily be a bad thing when infotech and biotech allow us to hack humans, but if that is the case, we should be strategic about it to the extent that we can.”
Growth Should Not Be The Only Measure
Becki sees that most companies are using growth as their measure for success in their innovation programs, but she does not necessarily believe this should be the sole measurement of innovation success. “Frankly, it’s the assumption upon which all of capitalism is based to a certain extent. Growth in any organism is not sustainable into eternity.”
She feels growth may be the right measure now, but will not be the right measurement tomorrow. “If you’re not curious enough to question that huge assumption upon which all of this is based, then we’re going to get blindsided by something that could be disruptive in a way that we’ve never seen before. I question whether growth is the right measure.”
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