I like to think lots of things about myself, but being curious is something I think I really am. I like to explore the unknown, ask about and understand what appears to be known, learn what’s possible.
‘They’ say we’re born curious (I can’t remember what I was like when I was born, so I’ll take their word for that) but over time, slowly but surely, our curiosity wanes. It becomes easier for us to take things at face value, to know what we know, to do what we’re told, or what’s expected of us. Ironically, and unconsciously, we constrain the curiosity that drove us to question and explore things when we were kids, like an infant in a car seat, as we pilot the mini-van that is our adult life. We grow while it shrinks. Sure, we might occasionally check the rear-view mirror, or take a quick glance back from time to time, to see if it’s still there. But we can easily forget about our curiosity and, like an under-used muscle, it can weaken and atrophy. It happens. It happened to me.
Remaining curious takes discipline and practice. It’s a use or it lose it kind of thing. I could never understand people who seemed to just accept what they were told, what they read, what the industry was doing, what their company told them to do, what their co-workers “knew.” People who dismissed an idea because they’d tried it before – once, seen it tried or heard about it being tried. People who knew that X company wasn’t a good prospect because they had called on the company ten years ago and the purchasing manager had an “in” with the incumbent vendor and wouldn’t entertain any new offers. People who bought into the “this is the way we do things” mentality. Maybe these ring a bell with you?
I liked to think that I wasn’t made that way.
Asleep at the Curiosity Switch
As I was going through my life, rocking my whole ‘I’m so curious’ vibe, telling my team to listen to what everyone has to say, but don’t blindly trust that what they say is the way it is, it turns out I was asleep at the curiosity switch myself.
My somnolence cost me millions.
We had a processing plant in a state that had a, let’s just say, unique environmental regulatory framework. It was complicated. It probably started out as a good idea, with good intentions. At least that’s what I want to believe. But for whatever reason, it had become a mess. Its complexity was such that no one really understood it, not even the regulators. Different offices throughout the State interpreted the regulations, their implementation and their enforcement, differently. It was like states within a state. A hot mess.
Despite the obvious lack of consistency, the regional offices nonetheless stood firm on their respective beliefs. Rather than address the obvious elephant in the room, which was that anything so complex that even the people in the department that came up with it can’t agree about it, might just be a little, or more, out of whack, they just dug in and stayed put. What seemed to matter most was how some individuals in the department felt it should be, rather than what it was meant to be. And that attitude trickled down, like a water torture, to the folks on our team who had to work with these regulators.
Some of these regulatory inconsistencies were impacting us, big time, hurting our ability to operate efficiently and grow.
“This can’t be right,” I’d argue to our local people, the ones who knew the rules, “it doesn’t make sense.”
“We agree it doesn’t make sense, but it is right, we can’t do what you’re asking us to do without the Form U (not important, that’s just what it’s called), that’s the rule,” they’d tell me.
I pressed. They pressed back. And then, I gave up. I gave up my curiosity. For years. They won.
A Late Lesson Beats No Lesson
Truth is that I never gave up all the way. A better explanation might be that my curiosity, like grass that gets no water, went dormant. By the time that a new opportunity came along, one that made me once again challenge our thinking about, and understanding of, the regulatory framework, it was too late. For me at least.
When that time came, and before we were able to maximize it, we decided to sell the whole business, after which we figured it out, connected all the dots and hit a home run with a new facility that expanded a core portion of our business by 100%.
“I guess there was a way to get what you were asking us for,” the team conceded.
The new owner was thrilled. Every new buyer loves an unexpected bonus. I know I did and got a few along the way.
I’m not one to look back with regret, but I do look back for lessons. And the lesson here wasn’t that my team let me down, that they didn’t dig deep enough, that they were more entrenched in what they thought they knew, rather than what could be possible.
Yes, we probably left a few million dollars of value on the table as a result. That stings, but it’s all on me. Our team was made up of good people, smart people, people who wanted to do a great job. It was my job to encourage them to dig out, or tunnel around entrenchment. My curiosity had to drive and feed theirs, and it didn’t. That’s the lesson. Had I been full-on curious about this, had I continued to live up to my responsibility to challenge their thinking, and that of the regulators, it would have happened much sooner, and the value creation it unlocked would have been ours.
An education’s not cheap. Lesson learned. Curious Always!
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