ABCD Model for Leadership: Curiosity

23 June, 2021 | 30 min 34 sec
Podcast Host Tania Salarvand | Podcast Guest Anita Sands
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Brief Summary

Dr. Anita Sands takes lessons from champion sports teams in times of ambiguity and applies it to the business world, through the ABCD framework. The third part of the framework (part 3 of 4) explores the ability to step into new situations with a mindset underpinned by curiosity. This episode will help leaders develop a mindset for curiosity and create an environment that gives teams the capacity to be authentically curious.

Part 1: Awareness | Part 2: Belonging

Episode highlights

  • Curiosity is the superpower. The thing that ambiguity demands is nothing other than the best and the most form of curiosity that you can muster. And curiosity is the only answer because in situations of ambiguity, you're dealing with complexity. If you are dealing with something that is unprecedented, the only way you're going to find ways to think through this, is by invoking curiosity because you can't rely on anything you've seen before.
  • Curiosity is the secret sauce for these teams because they step into these situations with an entirely different mindset, underpinned by curiosity. “Wow, this is a gift. No matter how poorly wrapped. This situation of uncertainty and pressure and ambiguity is a gift because I am going to see what I'm made of.” 
  • If you can flip yourself into curiosity mode, you can get out of this fight, flight freeze mode. It's actually physiologically impossible to be in fight, flight freeze mode and be curious at the same time. So there's incredible emotional benefits to curiosity and cognitive benefits.
  • The real secret of curiosity for leaders, for managers, and within organizations is that it's something that simply needs to be unobstructed, something that we have to make sure we don't stand in the way of. As leaders, can we step back and ask ourselves what takes away from people's capacity to be authentically curious in our team or in this environment.
  • If there were systems or processes that constrict or constrain possibility, as opposed to enable possibility, that's another way in which curiosity can get curtailed. Curiosity in teams is not something we want to manage, it's something we want to unleash. 

Related: Resilience, curiosity and belonging: The drivers of successful change

Podcast Transcript


Hello, and welcome to Pragmatism In Practice A Thoughtworks Podcast. I'm joined today with Dr. Anita Sands, a global technology and business leader, a public speaker and advocate for the advancement of woman. She currently serves on the board of three Silicon Valley public companies and is a board director at two private companies, including Thoughtworks. Today we're going to talk about episode three of a four-part series around thriving and ambiguity. In our very first episode, we talked about the four elements that Anita and her colleagues have been working around, ABCD, the first one around awareness, the second reflecting on belonging and what it means to an organization and today I'd love to dig into the third piece, which is around curiosity as Anita calls it the superpower. Anita, welcome. Thank you for joining.


Thank you, Tanya. So honored to be back here. Thank you for having me back again.


Absolutely. So would you mind telling our audience a little bit about the A and the B before we dive into curiosity and how it ties together?


Yeah, absolutely. Well, like I said, Tanya, this model of ABCD came about as a result of some work I've been doing with folks mainly out of New Zealand on how do you thrive in ambiguity? And the reason I started looking for the answers to this question was because as a board director and as a leader, and you never want to be a floor on the organizations thinking you always want to be, maybe not even a ceiling, but you want to elevate the thinking in your company. And as we went through this year, companies like Thoughtworks, we were always so proud of how well we handled change and disruption, and actually how we handled it on behalf of and with our clients, how we enabled them to pursue digital transformations and so forth.

But I think we also recognize that this year was different, right? This just wasn't your old traditional change and disruption. This felt decidedly different. And when I started researching it, the answer to why it's different is because we are dealing with ambiguity and ambiguity is an entirely different animal from a leadership and decision-making and culture building perspective. So I then asked myself, "Okay, if I want to help my teams thrive in ambiguity, who do I go to learn from, right? Where's the ambiguity playbook, right? And who does this well? And as it turns out, there is no playbook for how to thrive in ambiguity, but there are teams who do it well. And we discovered that teams who do this well, our teams like say military special forces because they're deployed into conditions of ambiguity, uncertainty, disruption change coming under enemy fire.

That's a normal day at the office for them. And also champion sports teams because they have to compete under pressure and deal with however, the situation unfolds. So they need a set of tools and capabilities in order to be able to do that. So, while I recognize that these two contexts are not entirely analogous, there are enough similarities in number one, the condition in which these teams operate and in number two, the elements of their performance and their training that really could be helpful to us in business as we navigate ambiguous situations. But let's face it, Tanya, ambiguity is here to stay. This has taken the entire notion of change to a different level. 

I think we need to redefine resilience and need to reconstruct it. And that's where ABCD came from. ABCD awareness, belonging, curiosity, drive are the components. They're the tools that you use. It's the process you engage in to build a new form of resilience. So we talked about awareness initially. We said, there's two types of that in episode one self-awareness and situational awareness. And that just gives you firm ground under your feet. That gives you the sense of knowing who I am that's heading into this crisis, who is it that's dealing with this crisis and as the situation unfolds, what can I do and what do I need to do? And how might I be triggered and how best can I respond and not react? So self-awareness is, like I said, it's almost the selection gate to thriving in ambiguity.

If you don't have awareness, you don't pass it. I think you don't get resilience. And then we moved on to belonging, which is two elements. Well, there's lots of different elements, but one is that it is really what kind of brings awareness to a new level at a team level. It's what gives teams and organizations the ability to be strategically aware of what they're dealing with. But then it also unleashes all of the capabilities of your diverse team in moments like this, because of this belonging feeling, this feeling of acceptance, this feeling of trust, this knowing what I called functional belonging in episode two of knowing why it is that we belong together and how we're going to go about this why thing, and it's about enabling belonging, which is, I know that this is an area, this is the place. This is a set of people where I can be my best and I feel entrusted to be my best. And I'm going to go over and beyond for the team.

I'm all in. And that we finished last episode, Tanya, by saying that bond of belonging is like gravity to an astronaut. It's so critical and it's especially critical in times of crisis and when your team is separated from each other, because that is what holds the team together and that's what binds everybody to the bigger purpose of the organization and maintains that sense of everybody being all in.

So it's really critical to high performance in times of duress and when people are apart.


Which really is, I think, the epicenter of all things happening around us, as you talk about ambiguity, you talk about resilience and how to build that within an organization. And in some instances, you know how to encourage and empower it. Maybe it's not about building it, but how do you let it happen naturally.

The other thing that you mentioned quite often is that curiosity is the super power. I'd love to hear more about what you mean when you call it a super power. What does that mean to you?


Yeah, well, it's like, let's think about ambiguity again. Let's start there. I mean, the thing that ambiguity demands is nothing other than the best form and the most form of curiosity that you can muster. And curiosity is the only answer because in situations of ambiguity, you're dealing with complexity, you can't tell cause and effect from each other, you don't know where to hang your hat, as I said, because there's no hooks on the wall. And although I hate using the really overused word of unprecedented, but if you think about it, if you are dealing with something that is unprecedented, the only way you're going to find ways to think through and around and beyond this, is by invoking curiosity because you can't rely on anything you've seen before.


You can rely on bits of it. But because this is unprecedented, therefore, there is no precedent in terms of how we should respond or what we can respond with. So we have to leverage curiosity in order to navigate it. So curiosity is a superpower at all times, but particularly in ambiguity. It's kind of all you've got to be honest with you, Tania.


And how would you recommend or is it possible to build curiosity in our teams?


Wow. Now that is a super question. And let me just step back for a second if I could, Tanya, and talk a little bit about what curiosity does for you and why it's such a superpower, and then we can talk about that, how you get it in your teams.

The first thing to know about curiosity is that curiosity is a state. It's not a trace. It's not a characteristic that some people have and some people don't have. It's something we are all innately born with. Babies are curious from the minute they come out of the womb. You see the view of young children, you see that unbridled curiosity that's within every child. So you can't say I am or I'm not by nature a curious person.

The second thing is it's important to understand what curiosity does for you. So I talked about in the last episode, these elite teams that I've been studying with my colleagues at Propel Performance Group, and what we have learned in our study is that curiosity is the secret sauce for them because they step into the situations that they're catapulted into... If that's not oxymoronic. But they step into these situations in an entirely different way and with an entirely different mindset. And that mindset is just underpinned by curiosity.

So they look at a crisis or they look at another day at the office, a deployment, and another test, match, whatever it might be, and go, "Wow, this is a gift. No matter how poorly wrapped. This situation of uncertainty and pressure and ambiguity is a gift because I am going to see what I'm made of. I am going to test the metal here. I am going to learn something. I am going to come back changed, whether we win, lose, or draw this match, I know that I will come back from this match not the same person as I was when I went into it." So they see these intense situations as opportunities to leverage and invoke their curiosity. And by doing so, they know that they're going to get a huge amount of benefit as a result from that.

So if I could for a second maybe talk about what are some of those benefits. So the first thing that curiosity does for you, it unleashes a whole series of cognitive, social and emotional benefits. And in fact, my good colleague at PPG, Dr. Alia Bojilova, did her PhD on resilience. And specifically, the relationship between curiosity and resilience. What she calls, curiosity enabled resilience. So her thesis is all about the social, emotional, cognitive benefits that curiosity unleashes. And I have an incredible story to tell you about that from her own personal experience. But curiosity is what turns woe into wonder. Curiosity gives you this cognitively different mindset that says, "I'm not just going to see this thing in front of me as an obstacle. I'm going to see it as a stepping stone in a field of wondrous possibilities."

I'm not just going to see the risks and the challenges here, but I'm going to see the opportunities. I'm going to see the possibilities. I'm going to find a way above, around, beyond this challenge. That is what curiosity does to you and to your mind. Curiosity, for example, cognitively, Tanya, gives you the capacity to stay in exploration mode for longer. To stay in open mindedness for longer. It allows you to, for example, reposition and reallocate the resources you have. A little story, a little example, I love to use where you saw that in action was, if any of you've seen the Apollo 13 movie with Tom Hanks where Houston has a problem, or Houston, there is a problem. And the guys have to go and find a way to solve for what's going on in the shuttle using only the materials that they have on board in the shuttle.

So there's this great scene where the engineers go into this room and they throw a bunch of stuff, a hairdryer, and aluminum foil, and a rubber band, they throw all of this stuff out on the table and they have to figure out a way to solution the situation with what they have in hand. And their boss says to them, before they're going in, he said, "Fellas, failure is not an option here."

So you can see that's curiosity in action. Where it unleashes all of these cognitive benefits. And emotionally then, what that does for you, is curiosity flips you out of fight, flight and freeze mode. So it's actually physiologically impossible to be in fight, flight freeze mode and be curious at the same time.

And as we all know, Tanya, in these days, when we're feeling under pressure, it almost happens by default that we end up with fear or anxiety getting a grip of us. We end up feeling overwhelmed. We end up grieving all the things we can't do and all the things we lost. Those emotions just become all engulfing for us. And curiosity is the only antidote to that happening. So if you can flip yourself into curiosity mode, you can get out of this fight, flight freeze mode. So there's incredible emotional benefits to curiosity and incredible cognitive benefits that have really meaningful impacts in differences at times like this.


I think... And this is obviously intentional. But what I'm seeing this connection, [Anita 00:13:26], is what you talked about belonging in our last episode. Around this idea that if you're co-creating, if you're all in the same mission, with the same expectations and outcomes, and you're all clear on what that is, it's more than just a, this is a job I have to do. This is something that, to your point, there is no failure. I have to complete this task in this mission and we do it together. It sounds like curiosity is what drives you to take that step. We feel the belonging is there, but how do you take that step in that right direction when it is, likely, a very scary situation you might be in. Whatever fear looks like to you. Does that feel right, in terms of where curiosity ties in?


You've nailed that. You've nailed it, but you nailed it also when you said we're in this together. So here's how curiosity relates to belonging. So we talked about belonging being related to having diverse perspectives on the team and been able to leverage that diversity to get you through adversity. And I love that. A great quote that is my good friend, John Donahoe, he's the CEO of Nike, always says that. He was like, "Let me remind you, folks. Diverse teams win because diversity helps you overcome adversity."

But here's where curiosity plays a role in that magic happening, Tanya. Like I said, curiosity has cognitive benefits, emotional benefits, but it has social benefits. And the social benefits go like this. The social benefits are, can I remain curious about what sits in the mind of another human being? And if I can be curious about what you're thinking, Tanya, and what you bring to the table, and how you might see a situation, and I'm curious about it, well then combined, we can maybe find a way to co-design, co-create, co-develop that shared possibility together.

And in a moment of conflict, for example, or in a situation at work, it's curiosity and being able to invoke that interpersonal curiosity about what sits in the mind of another. That's what helps you find common ground. That's what helps you find points of similarity instead of points of friction. And I think this is such a lost concept nowadays. Particularly, in really polarized cultures and political environments, like we have in the United States but how many of us take the time to really be curious about what sits in the mind of somebody who's going to vote for the other person? Why is it that they think…


Going to vote for the other person. Why is it that they think and feel the way they do? And unfortunately, because of how polarized even our mainstream media is, we get very little exposure to satiate that curiosity about what might sit in the mind of people who hold an opposing view to us. It's really very much a lost art these days. It's something that I think has got a lot of meaning. This ability to invoke curiosity and to see interpersonal differences and points of friction as an opportunity to tangle-dance creatively, I think that's a very cool concept. And when you can unleash that in your organizations, you're really onto something special.

And I will just say... Tania, I promised I'd go back to the story of my good friend, Alia Bojilova. Alia is, like I said, a New Zealander who's a psychologist who served with the New Zealand SAS, their special forces unit. And she was deployed with the UN on the oldest UN mission in the world, actually, in Syria for several years. Syria, Jordan, the Lebanon across a number of years. And when she was a Syria in 2013, she and two others, in an incident that had never happened in the history of the UN, she and two others were taken hostage and they were captured from an actual UN compound. That had never happened before.

They were taken by 38 militia, and the militia made it very clear that their intent in capturing them and taking them hostage was to do a decapitation video, which were, if you remember back then, not uncommon, unfortunately. Alia and her colleagues were taken to this derelict house. They were tied up with their backs to one another so they couldn't communicate. They were left in the dark with, as Alia said at one point, two 13 year olds were left guarding them with machine guns. And she at one point tried to point out to the 13 year old that the way he was holding the gun was very dangerous because not only could they kill them but there might be a ricochet that would kill one of the boys. This was just a pretty dire situation.

And Alia managed, through the power of her curiosity, to invoke her curiosity to get out of that fight, flight, freeze mode, which frankly, I would be in and stay in, I think, if I were in that situation-




... if a 13 year old was holding a gun to my head. But she managed to invoke curiosity and, with the little amount of Arabic that she spoke, ask her captors what is it that they intended? What was their intent? What was their hope? What was their mission that they were on? And kind of got them talking about it. And she got one captor in particular, who was quite a difficult guy, to talk about why he was doing this. Help her understand and see if she could actually help them in obtaining their mission.


And the guy explained that he lost his family, he had nothing else to lose. He'd lost three children, and she was able to empathize with that. But in essence she was able to get them talking, she was able to get them talking about why they were doing what they were doing, what they were hoping to achieve with the video and what they wanted in the form of support and resources. And then she was actually able to explain to them that what they were there to do with the UN was actually to try and get the same thing. They wanted the same resources in the region, they wanted the same outcomes.


The end of the story is that it ended happily because Alia and her two colleagues were released, which again had never happened before. But she went back to New Zealand and she was challenged by the New Zealand SAS to really uncover why was it that they were able to get out of that situation? She now teaches. The UN have this school called Conduct After Capture. Who would ever want to go to that school? But she teaches at it every year because there are not that many people who are alive to tell the tale of how you should conduct yourself after you're captured.


And she then went about and did this PhD on resilience and she found that what actually got them out of that pickle was curiosity. That was the secret sauce. I think this ability to remain curious about what's in the mind of another human, and particularly if that person is an adversary, that's a very, very powerful, I think a very sophisticated skillset that not most of us appreciate the value of.


Yeah, and that's a remarkable story. And to that, you can also relate, obviously, back to those in the business world and what it means in negotiations, what it means in understanding your customer needs, what it means in building relationships. I think that there's a lot of relevance of that.

The other thing you've mentioned before, Anita, is curiosity and mindset. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you create a mindset for change and for curiosity?


Yes, absolutely Tanya. I can talk about how I do it personally but then I also want to address your question around how we do this at a team level. How do you get curiosity at a team level? How do you get that as the collective mindset of the team? Personally, for me Tanya, I realized that curiosity was my secret to not falling into a trap of comparing myself to everybody all of the time. And I even found myself doing that despite the fact that other people would ask me, "Well, how did you get to become a Fortune 500 board member at the age of 37? And what was that like?" I look back, Tanya, and I realize when I did land in that seat at that age, how out-gunned I felt. I felt I was surrounded by people with a lot more experience, and I guess my imposter syndrome was kicking in.

As my first few meetings unfolded, I found myself comparing myself to my colleagues and wondering if I was asking questions as diplomatically as they did, if I was helping the team strategically as much as they did. And of course, as we all know, that imposter syndrome showing up and that level of comparing yourself is very crippling. It really is depleting and it actually impedes your performance.

I found that the secret to get me out of that was to flip into this curiosity mode. What I started doing, Tanya, was I kept a notebook with me all the time and whenever I felt myself falling into that self-critical comparison mode, I would open my notebook and I would literally just start examining and observing what was happening around me. Using my curiosity, invoking that situational awareness and going, "Oh wow, see how he just asked that question? That's amazing. Going to use that framing again." Or, "Interesting how the team reacted to that." I started to find myself then getting into this mindset where I was almost back in learning mode like at school where, wow, everything was suddenly fascinating and interesting and something that was teaching me and something I could learn from, and that then just unleashes this curiosity which unleashed me back into how can I contribute here? How can I tango dance? How can I co-create and contribute to the conversation? It really catapulted me out of that comparing mode by getting into this curiosity mode.


That's personally how I do it. And then, as you know Tanya, I'm a big proponent of these wisdom cards, which I post every week on social media. But my wisdom cards are my way of getting into curiosity on a bad day. If I'm having one of those days that we talked about in the last two episodes where I'm feeling overwhelmed by everything or I'm running low on gas, I don't know if I can bring my best today, I go up to my little reading perch that I have in my room and I start working my wisdom cards. And what that means is I listen to a podcast, I'll read an article, I'll do something and I'll be determined to take at least one or two things out of-


I'll be determined to take at least one or two things out of what I read or hear and write a wisdom card on it because it's a learning I want to keep and have in my collection of wisdom going forward. That act of just starting to work on my wisdom cards is what gets me into my curiosity mode, even on days when I really don't feel like I'm at my best.


But to go then to how does that work at a team level? The interesting thing about curiosity in organizations, Tanya, is that it's not something we can drive or grow or develop or even shape to fit a little box. The real secret of curiosity for leaders, for managers, and within organizations is it's something that's simply needs to be unobstructed. It's something that we have to make sure we don't stand in the way of because like I said, everybody has curiosity. But not everybody has access to it in that particular team environment or in a particular culture.

We need to then ask ourselves, how can we unleash curiosity? Now, I'm not talking about unbridled curiosity where you let everybody run down every rabbit hole, ad infinitum and waste time and resources. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about purposeful and authentic curiosity. What Alia calls - there is some boundaries on the curiosity we want to have in companies. But not boundaries in terms of how we set it up. What I mean by that is, as leaders, can we step back and ask ourselves what takes away from people's capacity to be authentically curious in our team or in this environment.

Let me give you a really pragmatic example, Tanya. I worked on a team once where our boss, the CEO had a real knack for impeding curiosity and creativity. Here's one way he used to do it, which I think was entirely unconscious on his part. He would come into an executive committee meeting, and we'd be there to talk about a topic, maybe strategy for next year. But something we were definitely still creatively figuring out and kicking around. The way that he would frame it, he would say is, "Look, we want to think about this and this, and the guys at headquarters want our contribution to this and our position. I've been thinking a lot about it, and here's where I've lined up. Boom." Then his next sentence is, "What do you guys think? Tell me what you think." Now, the essence. The essence of the framing, right?

In reality, what he was far more likely to get were a bunch of ducks lining up behind him than he was to get somebody to go, "Oh, hang on a second. I actually think about that completely differently. I think what you've lined up is absolutely wrong." I mean, you're just not going to invoke curiosity and creativity when you frame a situation or a potential question in that way. There's very simple tactical ways in which we do it.


The other thing that happens is when we go back to the connection to belonging, and we talked about the importance of cultures of trust, I often found myself, Tanya, sitting there with what I thought were pretty cool ideas in my head because I was a bit different than most people. I was a bit younger. I was a woman. I just came from a very different perspective when I landed in a lot of these boardrooms or executive roles. I would sometimes be sitting there going, will I say what I think? Or will I get shot down? Will I get criticized? Will I get judged? Will they think I'm stupid? Will it seem too radical, too out of left field, on and on.


No, I actually think I have a far better idea here, but I'm not going to say it because I don't think they want to hear it. That was where my mind went some of the times when I was in some of my prior jobs early in my career. What you realize there is, there's another way where curiosity is getting curtailed. When self-interest kicks in, and you start doubting your own thoughts, or you start reading the audience or you start questioning the merit of your idea versus somebody else's.

For example, Tania, I'll often have women or women in boardrooms sometimes say, "I'll give a good idea in a meeting, and it will kind of get ignored until some guy, maybe perceived as more senior, says exactly the same thing. And everybody jumps on that bandwagon then. You're sitting there going, hang on a second. I said basically the same thing five minutes ago, and it was ignored."

Whenever you have people sitting there thinking that, questioning the merit of their idea versus somebody else, if there's the perception of inequality, that is going to kill curiosity as well. There are just two examples. If there's a situation where self-interest kicks in, where you're protecting yourself because of a lack of trust or psychological safety, curiosity is dead in the water. If there is a perception of inequality where someone's idea will get picked over someone else's, or somebody needs to say something better than somebody else did, and that's why their idea gets picked, that will kill curiosity. If you tell people we have certain ways in which we do things here. If there are systems or processes that constrict or constrain possibility, as opposed to enable possibility, that's another way in which curiosity can get curtailed. The interesting thing about curiosity in teams and in organizations, Tanya, is that it's not something we want to manage. It's something we want to unleash. Then we need to think about what are the systems, the processes, the mindsets, the framing, the culture that impedes and detracts from top talent doing what exactly we brought top talent to do, which was be creative, provide your original thinking, put your diverse perspectives on the team because we want to innovate, and we want to be a creative organization. That's how managers need to think about it. It's what do we do that curtails and constricts and constrains curiosity more than anything else.


I appreciate you sharing that story, Anita, because the first thing that went through my mind was you obviously didn't feel that sense of belonging that was necessary for you to feel comfortable in the space that you were in. So of course, all of these things are still linking together, which is fantastic. Obviously a big part of the research that you've done, which I'm really looking forward to because we are now going to wrap up this part, part three of our four part series around curiosity and talk next time about drive, which is the fourth part of this series. Thank you again, Anita, for your time. I really appreciate it. Really looking forward to wrapping it all up with drive.


Thanks, Tanya. Really appreciate your time too.


Thank you.

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