Small kitten in a grass

You probably think that your expertise—in whatever area it exists—is the primary reason behind your success. But you’d be wrong. In a knowledge economy powered by Google and social networks, one in which facts and figures are but a mouse click away, it’s not what you think but how you think that sets you apart. And the how is greatly influenced by your degree of curiosity, because that’s the characteristic that motivates people to find new solutions to old (and new) problems. In other words, curiosity is the key to success for you personally, as well as for your company.

This is the theme of The Power of Why by Amada Lang, co-host of CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange and senior business correspondent for CBC News.

Lang fills her book with many interesting examples about companies of all sizes that have harnessed curiosity to drive success. From startups like SawStop, a company that has developed and markets an ultra-safe table saw, to giants like IBM and DreamWorks Animation, Lang writes that having the curiosity to ask the critical question “why?”—and to ask it over and over—is one of the most important things any leader can do.

She describes a great example with Canadian Tire, demonstrating how one of its research teams, in its constant striving to understand “why,” cracked the code on what’s important to men. The results affected the entire company, from advertising to merchandising to the corporate culture.

Lang spends considerable time talking about the best ways to harness curiosity. She starts off with some absorbing anecdotes and advice about identifying the “right problem” in the first place. The latter is tougher than you’d think. Lang then talks about the innovative breakthroughs that can occur when business leaders ask “why” questions, as happened with investment bank Gordon Capital in the 1980s and Lululemon more recently.

Read: The founder of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? on the 4 most useful business books ever

She also touches on the process of creativity, debunking the common myth that groups generally come up with more creative solutions than individuals do. Lang argues that this is true only if you use specific approaches and include specific people. Outsiders, in particular, can offer huge benefits by asking new questions and offering new perspectives.

Lang hammers this point home by describing the dilemma of a maker of computer servers. This company was struggling to convince the all-important internet service providers (ISPs) to buy its servers. Then, one of the firm’s management consultants (i.e., an outsider) went on a sales call and talked with a prospect to figure out why. The reason, it turns out, was because the plugs connecting the servers to one another in a stack were located on the back of the machine instead of the front. This was a key buying consideration for ISPs, which often need to change individual servers within a stack quickly and efficiently when they go down.

This seems so trivial. Yet no one had noticed the simple fact that putting the plug on the back had made it harder to swap out a malfunctioning server—until an outsider asked why.

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