curious conversations

Curious Advantage compass logo
Curious Advantage compass logo
October 15, 2021

Vas Narasimhan, CEO of Novartis and Steven Baert, Novartis’s Chief People and Organisation Officer.

What was it that prompted the focus around culture?


When I reflect back, I think the one thing that had become clear to me over the years is that the most powerful asset that a corporation or an organisation has ultimately is people. If you believe that as a starting point and you believe in the positive side of human nature, that if you give people a sense of purpose, a sense of autonomy, a sense that they can be curious and improve themselves, they’ll perform their best.

What led you to choose inspired, curious, and unbossed for the culture?


When you look at the history of large companies, we go back 100 years and under the world of Frederick Taylor and large-scale manufacturing, we saw that people were treated like cogs in a factory. We kept that way of thinking for probably far too long until relatively recently, and I think now there’s been a resurgence in understanding that with knowledge workers, you need to create an environment that enables them to really be at their best. So that’s what unboss is all about, servant leaders, inspired people, and hopefully an environment focused on curiosity.

Daniel Pink, in 2009, rekindled an awareness that fundamentally human beings are motivated by purpose, autonomy, and mastery. We thought if those are the motivators, then what is the environment? So purpose relates to inspiration. Autonomy is really around the unbossed mindset. And mastery is really all about curiosity. And if you give people an ability to be curious, they can improve their ultimate mastery and feel fulfilment around that.

I think I was also very influenced by the work of Carol Dweck and her work on how learners, people who have an agile mindset, really can create possibilities for themselves and for organisations. How do you create a learning organisation rather than a knowing organisation, and how powerful that can be for the long-term performance and also the happiness of your people.

Why do you see curiosity as so important?


I think we live in a world where the digital solutions that we have around us have addressed the obvious but even the complicated. The obvious has been automated. The complicated, artificial intelligence and machine learning can do a lot there. The real added value of people, of humans is how we thrive in complexity. An interesting thing about complexity is that there’s no obvious answer; there’s no easy right or wrong. Even an expert is less impactful. It is all about exploring possibilities, exploring polarities.

So the strength of curiosity is that you don’t immediately jump to the right answer, but that you kind of say, ‘Hey, interesting. Let me learn more about this. Let me explore this. Let me look at many options before I narrow it down to one solution.’ So it is very enriching, and I think it’s also the foundation of then future innovation and forward thinking.

What does it mean in the context of everyday work?


Our hope is that it creates an environment where people feel like it’s not only about what you know today, but also this environment of constant learning. What I like to say is, ‘Can you keep learning about those around you and your colleagues, what their thinking is? Learn from the external world, but also learn by looking inward.’ So can you really take this kind of 360-degree approach to learning, to be curious about all three of those different spheres? And in doing so, our hope is that again people will come up with more innovative ideas and have bigger impact.

Now, practically how do we do that? I think providing access to a range of tools. We do a lot of work on self-awareness, that kind of self-curiosity as well. And part of creating this unbossed culture, we want to create this environment where people will get curious when they have somebody disagree with them in a meeting or have a different perspective. I think all of that together hopefully builds this kind of environment of curiosity. These nudges hopefully create this different mindset in the company.


I think if you have a new strategy as a company, there’s always an important moment to also evaluate whether your supporting strategies are fit for purpose. So what we quickly realised was that, in order to execute on this ambitious plan that we have for Novartis, we had to have a different culture as a company. And when you think about culture, it is a massive organisational change that starts with individual change. So we had to rethink our entire approach to all of our people processes.

Vas has referred to the industrial revolution. It’s interesting that we use the word human resources, it’s almost like a reference to cogs in a big machine. We have rediscovered the value of people. They’re our most important and our most precious asset in this company, and that’s also why we deliberately decided to change the name from human resources to people, and that’s where it started.

What have you discovered about the impact of culture on performance?


I think it’s very important that culture is not seen purely in the soft skill sets. What we really believe is that if you create the right environment for your people to thrive and to really bring their full selves to work, you will get better decision-making, more integrity, stronger performance, and as a result, a better company reputation.

We needed to validate that, and so we’ve done two things. Externally, we commissioned a piece of work that went through all the culture studies. And what was interesting is that work clearly demonstrated that when you have a fit-for-purpose culture, you link your culture to what it is you want to achieve as a company and you make a sustained, deliberate effort to achieve that – you will get better performance. There was a very strong correlation there.

Internally, we’re doing work to look at our best-performing leaders and our best-performing units, and we’re looking at all the culture data we have there. What we’re already seeing is a very strong correlation.

How do you know if this culture change has been working and what progress you’ve been making?


Steven’s team have really taken on measurement and how do you measure a culture? And there’s no perfect way to measure, but I think you can get a lot of good markers. We have engagement surveys we pulse quarterly. We have upward feedback on our leaders that is regularly obtained. Then we track that over time, and we see do our interventions make a change? We start to see the numbers really move. The questions are standardised. They link to inspired, curious, unbossed. And it’s been really amazing to see.

One of the things that’s happened along the way is a significant shift in the mindset of our leaders. We have daily sales and daily financial reports, but our people organisation has also made completely transparent this data around engagement and culture. So now the normal course of conversation for leaders at Novartis is not only to talk about their numbers, but also to talk about their culture numbers and that’s been a big shift.

Why was curiosity the hardest aspect of the culture to get traction on?


There’s a few different dimensions to why that initially was a struggle. One, we were a very knowing culture, and when you think about how a company like ours develops, we have experts, a lot of experts in lots of different fields, and they all think, rightfully and understandably, that they know the answers. So it’s all about trying to prove you’re right and that you look good by knowing answers. So shifting that to a curiosity mindset, a learning mindset, where you’re constantly looking for new ideas, challenging your ideas, integrating your new ideas into your current way of looking at the world required one shift.

Second, when you look at how we approached learning inside of Novartis, it was primarily around standard operating procedures and compliance training. It wasn’t really about exploring and opening up your mind to new possibilities, even to things far afield from Novartis. So making that shift into learning was also a critical step.

And then the third thing was the behaviour of managers. Managers valued knowers and always knew the answers in meetings. And I see a demonstrable shift to people asking open-ended questions. So now fast forward a few years later. We’re making great progress on the curiosity front, but it took shifts in all three of those areas.

What else do you see as part of curiosity beyond learning?


It has many aspects. Of course, you need to create the environment and the tools and make them user friendly, so people can learn and find information, but what I would also add is you first need psychological safety. There is something intimidating about curiosity in the sense that you first need to admit that there could be different points of views, there could be different answers, or that you may not have the answer. So how safe is the organisation for people to say, ‘Interesting. I don’t know. Let me look into it’? So is there an expectation that people have the answer, or is there an environment where people say, ‘That’s fascinating. I have no clue. Let’s explore this’? So we have to create that psychological safety.

The second thing it’s about is the questions that you ask. So, personally, I’ve learned to ask different questions. Previously, my questions were definitely always ‘listening to fix’. You have a problem. I need a few points of data from you, so I can solve the problem. I’m practising ‘listening to learn’. And so how you ask questions and how you open rather than narrow the issue is very influential in how you learn and how you also role model curiosity.

What do you see as the business value and the return from investing in learning or curiosity?


What I find in this role is whenever we make a move to support our people, show that we care about our people’s well-being, how our people grow and expand their horizons, it leads to growth in our company overall across all other performance measures. So if you take that as a starting place, and knowing that a sense of curiosity, learning, and mastery is so important to human motivation, it’s almost a no-brainer to invest wherever you can in providing better learning opportunities for your people.

I think in our organisation what it has immediately sent was a symbol that we care and we want to help people grow and learn. We’ve seen the stats, I think, very impressive in terms of the number of people signing up for courses in a broad range, whether it’s language, whether it’s digital, whether it’s on leadership and being highly engaged to improve themselves, and of course, they’ll bring that better self to the office. But I think that the biggest thing is the signal and sentiment you send. You send a signal that you care. You care about knowledge and learning, and you care about creating this environment of curiosity. So I would tell another leader to just do it.

What unleashed that wave of curiosity across the company? A 50% increase in the amount of time people spent on learning.


I think it’s a combination of things. First of all, the symbol, but also the communication. Simon, you were very creative in bringing the ‘Netflix of learning’ to Novartis, which included the playlist and favourites. The fact that it was transparent to people what Vas’s favourite learning topics were, what my favourite learning topics were, it makes it catchy and appealing to others to join it.

Secondly, I think it’s about making it easy for people. We’ve done a lot of work to make it easier to access learning, to find your content. If people need to spend too long to find something, they’ll give up and they’ll switch to something else. And then I think the learning months and the learning rallies and all of that that we’ve done, again, it’s an invitation for people to join in. We definitely have more work to do.

Why has it been so important for you to role model learning?


Well, I think one of the great joys I have that I’ve realised over the years is to constantly be learning about new things. I’m an avid reader, podcast listener, periodical reader. I find it’s very rewarding in its own right, but it also helps me lead better, see new connections, maybe make a connection that I wouldn’t have otherwise made.

I think role modelling has a huge element. I think people look at leaders, and then leaders have a huge influence with the shadow they cast across the organisation. So I think role modelling is incredibly important. That role modelling is, of course, the behaviour of what do you read and understand and sharing that, but also are you somebody who asks questions or make statements? Are you somebody who values knowing or values understanding and exploring?


As long as I’ve known Vas, he comes with curiosity. For me, I am embarrassed to say I had to relearn it because a job is so demanding and so consuming that it was tempting for me, after a long day of work, to kind of switch off, do a workout, spend some time with my kids, and just read an easy novel. I had to rediscover learning and overcome that initial barrier of it’s hard to learn.

Now that I’m into it, it’s addictive. Now I’m kind of thinking like, ‘Wow!’ Every time I learn something, a new door opens up and new possibilities emerge. I think our Western Europe education system, school system, has sometimes made curiosity difficult because you were supposed to always know the answer. It was always a test about right and wrong. So we need to make learning and curiosity attractive again, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve.

Why do you think curiosity is becoming more important in the digital age?


Over the last few years, in addition to the culture change towards inspired, curious, and unbossed, we’ve definitely pushed the digital agenda. Now, what we’ve seen is we’re able to predict sales through algorithms with a very high level of accuracy, but in the current pandemic, it’s useless because all the algorithms take into account historic trends and analogues, and there is no analogue for the current situation. This is where curiosity, this is where the human brain is the only solution of, hey, this is new; let’s explore what’s possible. So I think the two go very well hand in hand.


When you look at the way digital technologies make, in some ways, very obvious things readily knowable, my children can quickly Google about almost anything. The need for building a learning mindset to learn about more complex topics becomes much more important. One of the things at Novartis we’re employing is something called the Cynefin framework, and that looks at the different ways you can categorise problems as simple, complicated, and complex.

I think in the digital age, the simple and the complicated become more and more automated, and so you’re left with the complex. And the only way you can navigate complexity is to have a mindset of inquiry where you’re constantly asking questions, navigating, understanding there’s not going to be any absolute answers, as we’re learning now in the age of the pandemic.

You have to almost be an explorer, and to explore you have to be very curious. So I think that shift where human beings are being asked more and more to engage in the world of the complex is going to keep nudging people towards being more curious if they want to be successful.

The Curious Advantage is an exploration of the behaviour of curiosity and its central role in the digital age, taking the widest possible exploration of things curious—historical, contemporary, neuro-scientific, anthropological, behavioural and business.

Curiosity has profound implications for organisations, leaders and individuals inhabiting the digital reality.  The Curious Advantage provides pragmatic tools and case studies and makes the case for how curiosity is the greatest driver of value in the new digital age. Curiosity is at the heart of the skills required to successfully navigate our digital lives when all futures are uncertain.

The Curious Advantage introduces the 7C’s of Curiosity model—a useful tool for anyone wanting to lead a curious organisation or who wants to challenge themselves to be actively curious.

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