When I was an undergraduate student, a small group of friends and I invented a game we called “Go.” Not the board game Go, this was something much more experiential. The rules were simple:
- Everyone playing (4-6 players seems to work best) agrees to clear their day of all other responsibilities (not a difficult task for many undergrads who can creatively juggle a schedule).
- The first player looks around the immediate environment (in any direction, as far or near as the eye could see), and identifies a given location within sight to all to which the entire group must navigate together…no matter what.
- Repeat step 2, rotating turns among all players until everyone has had at least one turn to selection a destination.
No one really ever won at Go, but it did require significant strategic thinking when it was your turn to decide where to take the group next. What place should you choose? Will it be the church steeple on the top of the hill that’s who knows how many miles away? Or will it be the convenience store across the street? How much should you (could you) ask of your fellow players? How challenging do you want to be with your selection? What kind of pace do you want to set for the game? If you choose a distant destination, are you making the choice to claim a significant amount of the team’s time and energy to reach it? Conversely, if you choose a sofa across the room, what kind of tone and experience are you setting for your fellow players?
One of the most interesting parts of the game for me was the anticipation we all experienced when we reached a location selected by a team member, and were waiting for the next player to decide where we would go next. We would all look around, entertain the range of possibilities, and then begin to calculate the consequences of reaching different destinations—every location presented a very different set of potential experiences. And, as the current player contemplated their choice, the other players began to speculate about how that choice would be conditioned by their individual preferences, disposition, or even their mood. Some players gradually developed different styles that created even more anticipation, triggering questions like: Will the “long haul” player chose a location that takes hours to reach again? Or will s/he make a more accessible choice and open the experience for others to shape? What kinds of navigation challenges will we encounter for each possible location choice? What interactions with different neighborhoods and people might ensue? What barriers might exist for gaining access to a chosen destination once we reach it?
However, once the player made a choice it was refreshing to surrender ourselves to the journey and shift to collaborative mode as we collectively determined how we were going to reach our new destination. We learned very quickly that it was useful to have cash on hand, and that comfortable shoes and the right clothing were essential. But more importantly, we learned a great deal about the intricacies of many different cultural landscapes and geographies of Pittsburgh. The game took us to the tops of countless buildings, vending machine ‘kitchens’ deep in the bowels of administrative buildings, posh tree-lined shopping districts, blocks of boarded up townhouses, along railroad tracks, and under many bridges.
Over time, and after many games of Go, our curiosity for exploring Pittsburgh’s landscape began to culminate into a body of knowledge about the city that went beyond cursory knowledge of bus schedules or restaurant locations. We developed a genuine understanding of how different neighborhoods felt, the ways that interactions on the street differed in each, the desolate places where the forgotten went to hide, and the decorated places where people went to be seen. We also learned what it took to navigate these different environs; to know when and from whom we might seek assistance, or when it was more productive to move ahead on our own. In short, we had amassed a cumulative, collective, street-level knowledge-base of the city.
Only later in graduate school did I begin to explore psycho-geography, Guy DeBord’s concept of the derivé, and the works of phenomenologists like Gaston Bachelard. As I devoured each book (and created some early visual experiments to process what I was learning), I was often reminded of our game Go, and how our random explorations opened up our understandings of Pittsburgh’s cultural landscapes in ways we would never have discovered without the curious drive that lead us there.
Today, as I explore the broader benefits of ethnographic thinking, I see some distinct parallels with our game of Go. What stands out most is that, like Go, ongoing, genuine curiosity about the world around you is a core disposition of ethnographic thinking that exposes its ‘players’ to a much broader range of perspectives and interactions that allow them to see the world through many different lenses. And those different lenses accrue in the mind (and within teams or organizations) over time. What’s more, even if experiences from different domains aren’t clearly related at first, knowledge gained from curiosity within each builds, and eventually provides a growing set of references (and interpretations) that can be accessed and cross-referenced in other settings and challenges.
The result is that ongoing genuine curiosity, and the knowledge that accumulates from it, can inspire entirely new approaches to initiatives that are completely unrelated to their original objectives. This kind of creativity is possible because curious minds cross-pollinate ideas between different areas of exploration and observation. But they’re only possible when teams can reference a broad and growing ‘catalog’ of experiences that trigger those unique (and sometimes unexpected) cross-references that lead to unique and creative new ideas. Remaining continually open, receptive, and curious is the key. This means going beyond the immediate focus of a project, and integrating ethnographic curiosity as a fundamental way that teams interact with the world around them.
To follow are a few strategies I’ve found useful for cultivating curiosity:
Stretch beyond the plan
Look for opportunities to go beyond the constraints and objectives of your original plan, whether it be for a project, initiative, or other purpose. Allow yourself to occasionally follow tangents and explore new perspectives to the point where you have a full understanding of their meaning—but not to the extent that you allow yourself to be derailed in ways that shift your focus to an entirely new topic.
Get ‘curiouser’ about underlying meanings
The everyday, commonplace, and familiar are a treasure trove of ethnographic meaning. There are always distinct reasons why routines have become so engrained that they become functionality invisible for their for their practitioners; and those reasons are frequently tied to deeply held values so embedded within daily practices that they’re presumed to be common sense. But dig deeper, and ask the difficult (an naive) questions, and your curiosity will expose much more than what’s initially apparent, and it will help you reframe assumptions in ways you never anticipated. For teams and organizations, this can, and should, be applied in both outward-facing initiatives and internal processes.
Continually expand your pool of perspectives
The more ideas and perspectives you bring into your work (and life), the greater the chances that they will collide or build on one another to inspire new ideas and create new forms of momentum for creativity and problem solving. The key is to remain as continually curious about unexpected connections and other relationships between the ideas you collect as you are about collecting them in the first place.
With these three tactics in play, any organization or team can begin to benefit from the cumulative value of curiosity. Over time, their pool of relevant and innovative ideas will grow from their ever-expanding strategic collection of observations and the ways in which they multiply, compound, interact, and inform one another. They’ll also begin to see more productive relationships with other teams or organizations, because genuine curiosity breaks down silos and triggers empathic connections between those engaged in attempts to understand other ways of seeing the world. Finally, genuinely curious organizations and teams are much more likely to identify opportunities for growth by continually expanding their exposure to a wider range of diverse perspectives. They begin to function as a organism that benefits from this diversity because it represents new pathways and contexts that would otherwise have been missed.
In closing, I’d like to share a recent reflection from Mary Catherine Bateson about her mother’s (Margaret Mead) concept of evolutionary clusters, and the promise they offer for affecting change.
“Major accelerations of change came out when a group of people got together and learned together and dared to think new thoughts and then pass them on. The evolutionary part of that was in the relationships between the members of those small groups, feeding off of each other’s imaginations and insights and wisdom and then spreading them out in the society, going forward.”
More from Mary Catherine Bateson here : Composing a Life