The Curious Crisis Leader

A disciplined process for acquiring knowledge is critical in a crisis.

Posted Sep 18, 2020

According to the old adage, curiosity killed the cat. Lack of curiosity, however, may be what thwarts a leader. This is particularly true in times of crisis and significant change. Information is incomplete, evolving, and sometimes conflicting. Yet leaders must make decisions and take action. It requires situational insight, not simply situational awareness.

Curiosity has several benefits. Research has shown that the more curious one is about a topic, the easier it is to learn about it. Curiosity stimulates the limbic system. Dopamine, the reward hormone, is released much as it is when one receives other incentives such as money. Curiosity can also help one overcome cognitive biases, stereotypes, and other cognitive limitations by prompting questioning about assumptions and orthodoxies.

Yet there are also significant barriers to curiosity: Individuals in leadership positions may feel pressure to be the one with all of the answers, not the questions. In one study by Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School, executives shared the fears that encouraging curiosity "would lead to disagreements, slow down decision making, and generally make their workforce harder to manage." The pressure to move fast in a crisis may also trigger a reliance on past experience without probing how closely previous events correlate with the current challenge.

To stimulate consistent curiosity and disciplined knowledge acquisition among crisis leaders, we and our colleagues developed a tool we call "driving to the known." In our classes, it has been useful in case study analysis. In the field, it serves as a guide for personal and group pursuit of understanding of what is happening and therefore what to do about it.

 Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When it Matters Most'
The four domains of knowledge.
Source: From 'You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When it Matters Most'

The Driving to the Known tool is arrayed on a 2x2 matrix. The axes are what is known and what can be known. This puts information into four domains:

  • Known knowns: This is what one knows that one knows. There is evidence to confirm it. For example, early in the coronavirus outbreak, leaders knew the number of confirmed cases and the identities of those individuals.
  • Known unknowns: This is what one knows one does not know. Yet the questions to ask and of whom to ask them are obvious. In the pandemic, one would immediately ask where the infected people had been, with whom they had contact, how severe the symptoms are, whether there have been fatalities, etc.
  • Unknown knowns: This is information that someone knows though the leader may not—and may not know whom to ask. The leader must actively seek out sources of knowledge such as subject matter experts. In this incident, the leader might contact infectious disease experts to see what they know about this virus and others like it. The leader may also, for example, search for engineers and architects who know how to address ventilation and other elements of risk mitigation from an airborne virus.
  • Unknown unknowns: These are things which could not ever have reasonably been known. For example, while one could anticipate social unrest because of the constraints related to the virus, no one could have anticipated the killing of George Floyd and the widespread protest it sparked in the midst of the pandemic. This domain can be useful in "what if" scenario planning.

While the domain nomenclature can be mind- and tongue-bending, this construct makes it clear that there is always more to be known and that this quest may require looking beyond the usual sources. It pushes leaders beyond asking what is known to inquiring about what is not known. The answer to the second question helps illuminate negative space in the knowledge scape and spur further exploration. Actively pursuing "unknown knowns" can eliminate blind spots and reveal opportunities and potential traps by further completing the picture.

An effective crisis leader is one who asks questions that continually increase the content of the "known known" domain. This is a person who wants to know what is happening and also why. The understanding of root causes, stakeholder concerns, unanticipated contingencies, and unintended consequences are the source of insight that enables the leader to chart the course toward the best possible outcome. This only comes from relentlessly driving to the known.