While visiting La Placita de Santurce in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I came across a large banner above a row of eateries featuring the Dewar’s ad campaign, “Stay Curious.”
Prompted by the ad and my own curiosity, I started reading up on the campaign while exploring how this theme relates to organizations and teams.
This brought together multiple threads I’ve been pulling at for some time. In this blog post, I share some of the insights I gleaned from my inquiry. I hope you find these helpful.
The Dewar’s “Stay Curious” Campaign
In the latter months of 2020, Dewar’s — the Scotch whiskey brand founded by John Dewar and his two sons in the mid-1800s — launched a new global ‘Stay Curious’ campaign. The campaign invites consumers to seek out new, memorable experiences across cultures.
Described as a reflection of the brand’s history and ethos, the ad campaign “highlights how exciting things can happen when you put unexpected cultures, people and experiences together.”
In the interests of full disclosure, I don’t represent the Dewar’s brand, nor do I have any business dealings with the Bacardi companies, which now own the Dewar’s brand.
But Dewar’s seems to be on to something, and the message certainly is timely. In this age of rapid change, curiosity is key to navigating complex and uncertain business landscapes.
Building on this theme, below are eight ways that curiosity can help fuel creative dialogue and innovation in organizations and teams.
1. Curiosity Provides a Pathway Through Complexity
In my work with organizations and teams, I’ve found that curiosity — the creative exploration of the unknown — is critically important when dealing with complexity. It helps ease the friction in difficult discussions, cultivates effective listening, elevates engagement, and fuels innovation.
Teams that commit to creative exploration, choosing to stay curious, are much more likely to discover the opportunities and “exciting things” (to use Dewar’s phrase) that can arise out of the unknown.
Rapid Fluctuations in Consumer Sentiment
In a May 2021 Forbes interview, John Burke, the president and global chief marketing officer of Bacardi, discussed the company’s marketing strategy in response to the global pandemic. (The Dewar’s brand is now owned by Bacardi.)
Burke explained that “Marketing today is in a very fluid state. Things have been changing more over three months than they typically would in three years. This has meant that more than ever we have had to strike the right tone and provide the right content in the right moment.”
To follow the “rapid fluctuations in consumer sentiment,” Bacardi ran daily and weekly “human signals pulse surveys.” Burke explained that “the pace of change demanded we find a new way to put our ear to the ground.”
Meeting the Present Moment
Almost all organizations globally now operate in an environment of complexity and rapid change. Staying curious is necessary to embrace the kind of adaptive strategy that Burke describes. This requires letting go of what we think we know and, in Burke’s words, putting our “ear to the ground.”
You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment – Thomas Merton (1)
2. Curiosity Elevates Engagement
My work centers around an approach that sees organizations as networks of interpersonal relationships that are always shaping and creating the organization through dialogue and other meaning-making processes.
This approach, known as Dialogic Organizational Development, pioneered by Gervase Bushe and Robert Marshak, helps leaders, teams, and organizations see themselves in a new light, liberating the various dynamics within the organization from outmoded paradigms and structures that constrain generative change.
Within the Dialogic OD community, various processes and tools have been developed and refined to help teams meet, communicate, and work together in more organic, self-organizing, collaborative ways that elevate engagement and fuel creativity.
Creative Dialogue as a Cure to Endless Run-of-the-Mill Meetings
When I discuss these processes with clients, I sometimes hear concerns about yet more endless meetings or “brainstorming” sessions that waste everyone’s time and go nowhere.
What these concerns reflect are the traditional free-for-all anyone-can-speak-at-anytime-for-any-length-of-time-about-anything type of ‘brainstorming’ sessions. We’ve all suffered through these run-of-the-mill “hot air” meetings.
(The next time you’re stuck in one of these, blogger Tim Deming offers an interesting strategy: Observe and listen for the quiet people.)
Curiosity and the Root Causes of the “Great Discontent”
The old ways of structuring meetings, based on outmoded approaches to organizational design and strategy, significantly undermine morale and engagement. (See Forbes, 10 Reasons Why Your Brain Hates Long Boring Meetings.)
The work-from-anywhere trend that rapidly accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help. Indeed, studies show that in 2021, people spent more than double the amount of time in meetings compared to before the pandemic. (See also this Harvard Business School study.)
To the extent that the “Great Resignation” is driven by anything other than market forces, there is ample evidence to suggest that workplace culture plays a big role in driving people from their current jobs. Gallup argues that the Great Resignation should actually be called the Great Discontent, so significant is the data connecting mass resignations to workplace engagement.
Curiosity is one of the most important values that leadership teams can adopt to spark generative dialogue, drive engagement, and pursue continued relevance while also building on established brand value and goodwill.
Creating the Past, Present, and Future
An organization that is committed to Stay Curious is one that is always creating itself: not just its present and future but also its past.
In the late 1990s, the Dewar’s brand was acquired by Bacardi, one of the largest privately held family owned spirits company in the world. In the years following the acquisition, the new owners didn’t abandon the origin story and long history of the Dewar’s brand.
Put another way, the Dewar’s brand continues to create its past while engaging with the present moment to create future opportunities.
Curiosity makes this possible.
3. Curiosity Cultivates Effective Listening to Drive Authentic Innovation
Teams cannot engage in creative dialogue when no one is listening.
When everyone is talking at once, or lost in their own inner dialogue, or only concerned with making their points, or pushing their agenda, creativity can’t take root and innovation can’t flourish. The end result, too often, is innovation theater, with groups doing things the same way under the pretext of new flashy buzzwords.
True innovation can only happen in the space of creative conversations, which require participants to listen effectively. And listening is most effective when others really FEEL heard.
Listening So That Others “Feel” Heard
Effective listening happens when we genuinely make an effort to understand what others are saying, paying attention to the myriad layers and textures within the intended communication.
“What I hear you saying is X, is that right?”
“Tell me more about that.”
“What do you mean by that?”
These are all prompts that can signal active listening in interpersonal communications.
Reflective Listening Creates Flow Within Creative Conversations
Reflective listening, where you repeat back the essence of what the other person Is saying, using their own words and focusing on the content that reflects the strongest emotions conveyed, can be very effective in promoting creative dialogue.
“So, you’re not sure we should even make a decision today due to the uncertainties and volatility in market conditions. You’re thinking we should delay the vote and explore other options.”
The beauty of this completely neutral approach is that it creates a sense of “flow,” leading to a more creative discussion. It allows the speaker to continue with their own thought process, often reaching a breakthrough on their own without getting stuck in argument or blocked by some counterpoint.
As an aside, there’s a critical distinction about listening that often gets glossed over yet makes a great deal of difference: Listening does not mean that you agree with what the speaker is saying or that what they say is what must be done. But creative processes require that team members feel heard in a way that furthers the generative dialogue.
“We listened and put the insights into action”
Whatever approach we might use to listen more attentively, we will only be effective when we are genuinely curious about what others are thinking and saying.
If I THINK I know, or insist that I know, or if I just don’t care, there will be no space for creative dialogue and true innovation.
Curiosity drives effective listening. Effective listening drives authentic innovation. This is true for teams and for brands and for organizations as a whole.
In the May 2021 Forbes interview discussed above, Bacardi’s president and global chief marketing officer, John Burke, talked about how the company was responding to the rapidly changing market conditions during the global pandemic:
“Simply put,” he said, “we listened and put the insights into action. We have had to become more agile and responsive to how we deploy our brands.“
4. Curiosity is the Anecdote to “Either/Or” Thinking
One of great deterrents to creative dialogue today is the fallacy of false dichotomies, characterized by “either/or” thinking.
The old joke is that there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who believe there are only two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t.
In organizations and teams, it’s easy to fall into this trap, thinking there are only two available options.
In our present time, it’s even more tempting for teams to then coalesce around the two alternatives and begin fighting for their respective positions, rather than working together to create new possibilities.
Curiosity helps break free of the either/or trap.
Simply asking “what other options might be available?” or “what are we not seeing here?” or “what else might be possible?” can help open the door to new opportunities.
“Wicked Questions” Help Inspire Creative Solutions
Many organizations today face situations where two or more opposing or contradictory strategies must be pursued simultaneously in order to succeed. Such dilemmas have been described as “wicked questions.”
Identifying these dilemmas and exploring how contradictory strategies might be pursued simultaneously can help break free of either/or thinking and keep everyone in exploration and collaboration mode for a longer period. Exploring wicked questions and other “liberating structures” are great ways for teams to “stay curious” during meetings and strategy sessions.
5. Curiosity Reveals the ‘Obscure But Dynamic Possibilities’ of the Present Moment
One of the striking features of Dewar’s “Stay Curious” campaign is how explicitly the brand ties this to its origin story, heritage, and core values while simultaneously tapping into experiential marketing trends that resonate with younger consumers.
This is in line with the brand’s long history of creative marketing, dating back to the innovative use of film, pre-20th century, to project dancing men in kilts onto a New York City building and continuing into the modern era with the construction of a museum showcasing Dewar’s history, built after the brand was acquired by Bacardi in the late 1990s.
It’s also consistent with (and is presumably linked to) the adaptive brand marketing strategy that Bacardi (Deward’s parent company) adopted in the rapidly changing market conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“What really matters is openness, readiness, attention, courage to face risk”
In light of the “rapid fluctuations in consumer sentiment,” Bacardi paid close attention to the “rapid fluctuations in consumer sentiment” and put its insights into action to “strike the right tone and provide the right content in the right moment” (see Forbes article discussed earlier).
In a time when so many brands, organizations, and institutions seem to be recklessly abandoning their core purpose, values, history, and past commitments, the Dewar’s Stay Curious campaign offers a lesson in how to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world while also building on the goodwill and brand value created over time.
The quote above from Thomas Merton — about recognizing the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment — appears frequently in inspirational pieces and is well known. The rest of the passage from Merton’s work offers additional insight:
In a time of drastic change, one can be too preoccupied with what is ending or too obsessed with what seems to be beginning. In either case, one loses touch with the present and with its obscure but dynamic possibilities. What really matters is openness, readiness, attention, courage to face risk. – Thomas Merton (1)
6. Curiosity Unlocks the Power of Contradiction and Paradox
Danish Physicist Niels Bohr famously said, “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress!” (2)
Journalist Bill Becker said of Bohr, “He was not upset when something did not turn out the way he expected it would; he knew that he had stumbled upon the entry point to the ‘next’ step.” (3)
I recently worked with an established association that focused on a specific industry segment within the technology sector. As a result of new funding opportunities and other developments, the association was presented with an opportunity to rapidly expand its membership and its influence across several additional segments of their industry.
Pursuing a strategy of expansion would also mean shifting their focus away from the critical and urgent needs of the smaller subset of companies that historically composed the association’s membership. Yet, if the association did not evolve, it would soon lose its relevance and would likely face obsolescence.
Exploring Wicked Questions: A Real-World Example
In one of our strategy sessions, representatives from member companies explored ‘wicked questions’ that they had developed in smaller breakout groups.
Their primary inquiry was how to stay true to their original purpose — representing the interests of the initial industry subsector — while also expanding the association’s membership and programs to address the needs and opportunities within the industry at large.
This inquiry led the group to distinguish their advocacy and lobbying activities, the primary concern of the founding members, and the education and training needs of the larger industry, particularly within emerging industry clusters.
By exploring wicked questions and staying curious, the group developed a strategy that simultaneously honored and advanced their original purpose while also growing their membership and expanding their programs and activities.
7. Curiosity Helps Push Through to the ‘Groan Zone’
In group decision making processes, it is common for teams to come up with two or three options and then quickly begin discussing which option makes the most sense to the group.
Another common course is for an executive or leadership team to decide on a course of action and then inform everyone else that this is the strategy.
These approaches leave unexplored many other considerations, options, and possibilities, and frequently lead to paths that are shortsighted or inadequate.
Participatory Decision Making
To make this tendency visible to teams, I often introduce a framework known as Participatory Decision Making. (See, e.g., this discussion of participatory decision making from the Art of Hosting community.)
Participatory Decision Making encourages groups to stay in ‘divergence’ and ‘emergence’ (i.e. exploratory) modes for a much longer period, until they reach their “groan zone” (some practitioners prefer the term “growth zone”). Only then does the group begin converging on specific strategies or solutions.
In the example of the industry association discussed above, the solutions that emerged, which allowed them to stay true to their original purpose while simultaneously pursuing new opportunities within other industry sectors, would not have emerged had the group not committed to “stay curious” for a much longer period of time.
The Dewar’s campaign doesn’t encourage us to “be curious.” The key is to STAY curious.
8. Purposeful Curiosity Helps Prevent Aimless Wandering and Mission Creep
The etymologies of “curious” and “curiosity” highlight how these terms can mean either a careful, diligent, intentional inquiry driven by a desire to know or learn, or an idle, prying, or “meddlesome” pursuit driven by anxiety or a vain interest in some some oddity or obscure interest.
On a personal level, most of us now struggle with some form of “curiosity creep” (I just made that term up, but it fits). This can happen every time we pick up our smartphone or other digital device. Indeed, our devices and apps are carefully engineered to keep us hooked in a state of idle interest.
In organizations, this kind of ‘curiosity creep’ can plague meetings and team dynamics, particularly when there is not a clear sense of purpose and shared commitments.
The Way to Avoid Idle Distractions is to Embrace Purposeful Curiosity
I’ve seen first-hand and have heard many stories from clients and colleagues describing meetings that get sidetracked by the most recent crisis pushed by the 24/7 media and online. These discussions are often accompanied by urgent questions of how the organization is going to respond to this latest crisis.
Without a firm grounding in a shared sense of purpose, this form of ‘curiosity’ can easily lead to mission creep, endless distraction, unnecessary conflict, and a loss of brand identity and goodwill that may have taken years or decades to build.
The solution is NOT to stifle curiosity, though that seems to be the impulse of many in charge. The solution is to actively and intentionally engage in creative conversation fueled by purposeful curiosity.
The Dewar’s Stay Curious campaign serves as a reminder to intentionally pursue creative explorations and generative dialogue. It’s also an example of a brand actively responding to changing market conditions while simultaneously reinforcing its history, heritage, established goodwill, and core values. It’s a purposeful creative response.
Curiosity is the key.
Stay curious, my friends.
1. Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (p. 206). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2. Ruth Moore, Niels Bohr: The Man, His Science, and the World They Changed (1966) (as quoted in The Mereon Matrix: Unity, Perspective and Paradox. (2013) at xxxi (UK: Elsevier Science)) (retrieved from Google Books July 2022)
3. Bill Becker, Pioneer of the atom, New York Times Sunday Magazine, October 20:52, 1957, (as quoted in The Mereon Matrix: Unity, Perspective and Paradox. (2013) at xxxi (UK: Elsevier Science)) (retrieved from Google Books July 2022
Examples of Creative Collaborative Processes
Below are three of the collaborative processes that I’ve found helpful in unleashing curiosity’s potential in organizations and teams:
- Appreciative inquiry (wikipedia) (Center for Appreciative Inquiry)
- Participatory decision making (Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner (goodreads.com))
- Wicked questions (Liberating Structures – Wicked Questions)
What are some ways that help you stay curious, individually and within your team?