How Curiosity Drives Innovation

Costa Michailidis -

The culture of an organization can support innovation, economic policies can incentivize it, but ultimately individuals must make innovation happen. When we ask what kinds of individual actions lead to innovative outcomes, and then we ask again until we come to the core of it... eventually we arrive at curiosity.

Photo of a curious kid looking through a telescope

(Photo By Teddy Kelley)


Do you go to work and solve problems all day?

Me too.

Most of our work lives are consumed by problem solving, almost by definition.

Now much of the time we know how to solve the problems we face, but sometimes a new problem shows up, or an old solution breaks down and we need a new one.

Developing new solutions is the realm of innovation.

This is one simple way to think about innovation. More ways at »


When we're developing new solutions, we're facing a landscape of unknowns. We don't know if a new solution will work, what it will cost, how reliable it will be, if it will solve the problem at hand. We may not fully understand the context that surrounds the problem either. Whose problem is it? Why is it a problem to them? How do they cope with it? Who else is involved? Et cetera...

When we set out to develop a new solution in a landscape of unknowns, we will find ourselves attemping things we've never done before, and if you're going to do something you've never done before, you're bound to make mistakes.

Mistakes are a kind of truth serum. How people react to mistakes reveals their motives.

Let me demonstrate with a story.

Achievers & Scientists

Curiosity is a powerful driver for learning.

Story time...

The Wright Stuff

In 1901 the Wright Brothers went to Kitty Hawk with a new glider they designed based on data from an inspiration of theirs, a German flight enthusiast who had died in a gliding accident.

As it turned out, the data was wrong. It was completely unreliable and the brothers had wasted a trip to Kitty Hawk. In 1901 there were no direct flights from Ohio to North Carolina. They had to pack for 6 months, take several trains. They built a shed on the beach where they lived and worked. They battled clouds of mosquitoes. It would have been beyond reasonable to be upset, to quit, to leave the dream of flight to someone else…. But reasonable people don't change the world. Unreasonable people do.

Instead of wallowing in frustration they thought to themselves, “Well if those wing shapes were wrong, wonder what the right ones might be.” They built a wind tunnel, tested over a hundred wing shapes at thousands of angles of attack and discovered some of the foundational principles of modern aviation. Planes are still designed by these principles today.

They could have quit, but their curiosity outweighed their frustration. Their courage was greater than their doubt. So they carried on, and changed the world forever.

Will Wright circles the Statue of Liberty in 1909

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Photo of Costa Michailidis
Cofounder at Innovation Bound & Working on Big Science Challenges at Knowinnovation