Ask questions, find answers and seek out others with a similar appetite for discovery, says Kate Cheema

With the constant talk of crisis in healthcare, it’s easy to lose sight of what a real challenge looks like. Yes, we should be worried by lengthening access, and low morale fully deserves a flashing red light.


However, let’s pop back to a world before penicillin. There was no effective treatment for pneumonia. Or blood poisoning. Or many other ailments which killed you then and hardly bother us now.

Cue Alexander Fleming returning from holiday (Suffolk, weather fair, but dry) to find one of his petri dishes had been left out with no lid, and something funny was happening. Much scientific cleverness later and the properties of “mold juice” (history takes a sigh of relief for its later change of name) were discovered.

However, it wasn’t biochemical brilliance which started this chain of events, but Fleming’s curiosity into what was going on in this single unusual sample. And it’s this same curiosity, this same “hungry mind” which Fleming had in 1928 which we increasingly need in 2017.

Curiosity is a cornerstone of my job, although you may not necessarily expect it. I’ve worked in NHS analytics for over a decade, and increasingly talk to a range of groups about the importance of effective measurement in improvement.

‘65 per cent of workers said that curiosity was essential to discover new ideas, and 84 per cent said it was the curious person that is most likely to bring an idea to life at work’

When I do, the principle that gives rise to the most discussion is to “be a data detective”. Apart from using this as an excuse to get a picture of Benedict Cumberbatch on the screen, this means look deeper. Don’t limit yourself to what you see at first. Question everything.

Intuitively we can all think of examples where asking just one more question led to a great new idea, and there’s an increasing evidence base to back this up. A range of studies have shown that curiosity can drive organisational innovation, create organisations cope better with complexity, support recruitment and retention, and even help clinicians deliver better care.

More for less

And it appears curiosity doesn’t just benefit organisations, but us as individuals too – driving academic success, helping us learn, and even making us happier.

In the largest survey of its type last year, 65 per cent of workers said that curiosity was essential to discover new ideas, and 84 per cent said it was the curious person that is most likely to bring an idea to life at work. However, the same survey found only 20 per cent of all employees self-identified as curious, and only 9 per cent felt that their organisational culture was extremely supportive of curiosity.

We’re at a point in the NHS’s history where continuing with what has gone before is no longer an option. The need to improve outcomes and do more for less is making the status quo increasingly unsustainable. In short, if we want greater change, we need more curiosity. It’s not for nothing that Google treats curiosity as one of the two key traits it looks for in job applicants.

Three starters

At this point you may be forgiven for thinking that in a world which demands grip and control, such an amorphous, unpractical concept as curiosity is a luxury too far.

At which point of course you would be completely wrong. Successive studies have shown that curiosity is like a muscle: it can be trained or left to wither. It can be supported by organisations, or ruthlessly stamped on.

So where to start? Here’s three starters.

The first is asking good questions, and proactively encouraging your teams to do the same. The survey quoted above didn’t cover the NHS, but it did find 73 per cent felt they experienced at least one barrier to asking more questions at work. Would the NHS fare better?

The second is to actively listen to the answers, and having the time to explore unexpected issues. How many of us have been fallen into a Wikipedia rabbit hole, where we start looking for the population of Shanghai, and end up reading about tram factories in Preston? Imagine what it would look like to have the time and space to explore our curiosity in the workplace in the same-way.

‘Like the discovery of penicillin, curiosity can lead to changes of a scale we can barely imagine’.

The third is to seek out others who are equally curious. It’s exactly this we’re doing in Curiosity Club, a pioneering new network from Kaleidoscope Health & Care. Curiosity Club brings together the latest evidence on how increased curiosity armours us for the modern workplace, improves our health and even interpersonal relationships.

Starting in the autumn and running for 12 months, the club will help participants understand and articulate the benefits curious behaviours can bring to their work. We’re holding a webinar on 12 July, join us to find out more.

Like the discovery of penicillin, curiosity can lead to changes of a scale we can barely imagine. As Arnold Edinborough put it, “curiosity is the very basis of education, and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly”.

Kate Cheema is a partner at Kaleidoscope Health and Care.