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Bull session

You want employees to cough up new ideas (and new sources of revenue), but you have no time for hours of endless brainstorming. You may not need as many hours as you think.

That’s the gist of several conversations I had over the past two weeks on the subject of curiosity in business. I started thinking about it soon after I read of the changes underway at Google, which is being reorganized under a new holding company known as Alphabet

Why should businesses care about curiosity? If they stick to the tried and true, they end up struggling to eke out small gains, said Ainissa Ramirez, a former researcher at Bell Labs and co-author of “Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game.”

“If you trip, you’re going to be behind,” said Ramirez. But, she added, “If you think and pause for a second, you might be able to put yourself in a position where nobody’s able to do what you’re doing.”

There’s an added bonus: Millennials like companies that nurture curiosity, Ramirez said. “They want to feel like they have some say and they want to learn, and so curiosity is a good business model to keep the younger generation engaged.”

So what can someone in a traditional, hierarchical organization do?

One is to focus on asking questions, said Lauren Bacon, an author, entrepreneur and leadership coach in Vancouver, British Columbia. The best questions, she said, ask how and what (like, what are your goals?), rather than why and who.

“It doesn’t come naturally to most of us because, as we climb up the corporate ladder, we believe that somehow we need to have all the answers,” Bacon said.

Another strategy is to focus on outcomes.

That was among the suggestions made by Bob Rothman, co-COO of Gap International, a business consulting firm based outside Philadelphia. He provided a striking example of inspiring curiosity (his firm prefers the term “breakthrough performance”).

He recounted Gap's experience with a Fortune 500 manufacturer that was plagued by a relatively high accident rate among the thousands of workers at its factories. Nothing seemed able to bring the rate down. Finally, Rothman told me, the CEO announced that the company’s goal was to have zero accidents. None. Not even a cut.

The stand came as something as a shock to the company’s leadership team, Rothman said. Executives could think only about how the actions they were taking would never get them where they wanted to be. Eventually, however, they began to embrace the idea of zero — and to innovate.

“They started taking new actions, actions they hadn’t considered, because they were in an innovative mode, they were in a curious mode,” Rothman said. “They were open to everything.”

The company didn’t get to zero, Rothman said. But its accident rate fell 80 percent, and it remains committed to its original goal.

Are companies increasingly curious about curiosity?

“It’s tough to be curious when you’ve got all these pressures coming at you,” Rothman said. “But do they want it? They want it. They don’t know how to access it.”

The week ahead

I'm sure you are curious to see who is on our Top 100 list of privately held companies in Central Pennsylvania. You'll find out this week when, after months of research, we unveil their names and their positions. Our staff reporters, meanwhile, will regale you with stories of how those companies got to where they are today.

Online, you will find the full list of 250 companies.

I hope you enjoy reading the articles and perusing the list as much as we enjoyed putting them together.

Find this week's networking opportunities here.

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