Oftentimes, the most complex problems require simple solutions. You just need to take a strategic approach towards problem-solving. These and other valuable lessons are part of this episode as Dr. Diane Hamilton talks to one of the movers and shakers in the creation of the Xbox, Robbie Bach. Robbie takes a look back at 22 years of lessons at Microsoft, including lessons in creativity, leadership and why you should not be afraid to fail. Be inspired by Robbie’s life lessons by tuning in.
I’m glad you joined us because we have Robbie Bach here. He was the Chief Xbox Officer at Microsoft. He has published several books and had a really interesting life. I’m excited to hear his story.
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The Xbox Culture: Taking The Strategic Approach Towards Problem-Solving With Robbie Bach
I’m here with Robbie Bach, who is best known for founding and leading the team that created the Xbox. Now, he is entertaining at events as a storyteller and catalyzing voice who writes books and speaks to audiences on leadership, creativity, strategy and civic issues. He has written several books. I’m excited to have him here because he also has a yellow Lab named Roscoe and I have a new baby Lab. I’m excited to hear about Roscoe. It’s so nice to have you here, Robbie.
Thanks for having me, and I will tell you that Roscoe is comfortably sleeping on his mat right next to me as we talk.
Your Lab behaves a lot better than mine. Mine has only turned one, and she is still not great for radio shows yet.
Roscoe understands his role. He is here as a quiet advisor.
I’ve got a white one. I had a yellow one in the past but I’m loving the white color. She is so cute but she is a puppy. I want to hear more about you because I know a lot of people are familiar with your work. For those who may not know your backstory, would you mind sharing it?
I went to college at the University of North Carolina. I played tennis there. I went to business school at Stanford and then came to Microsoft in 1988. The first part of my career was spent overseas, and then working on Microsoft Office and building that business. I went to spend ten years working in the consumer part of the business, which started with the founding and then building of the Xbox business, which was an amazing once-in-a-lifetime type of experience.
In 2010, I left Microsoft with the intention of pursuing other interests. That goes into a couple of different categories. The first is I do a lot of nonprofit board work. I’m very involved in the Boys & Girls Club Movement. I’m involved in an organization called the Bipartisan Policy Center. I served on the Board of the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee for ten years. I am a small business owner. We own a small gluten-free pasta company called Manini’s. I do a lot of guest lecturing and writing. I have discovered a deep passion for writing. That’s what led to my first book, Xbox Revisited, and my novel to my first fiction effort was released called The Wilkes Insurrection.
That’s quite an interesting background. As you were going back, it made me go back a little bit because I remember working as a VAR for IBM in 1985. It has been a while. I’m selling System 36, so think about how long ago it was.
I did a summer internship with IBM in their Office Products Division. This was the typewriter stuff in 1982. My brother was an IBM salesman for 35 years, so our backgrounds have clearly crossed.
My first computerized typewriter would remember about two lines behind you and I would type faster than it did. I would get up and then walk away. It would still be typing what I typed a second ago, and I would come back. That was such high-tech. It had to be cool to get that job working at Microsoft in the day. What was that like?
It’s super interesting. I had my choices coming out of business school where to go work within sales organizations because I had interviewed for a lot of sales jobs or to come work at Microsoft. Microsoft was, far and away, the most technical-oriented company I was talking with. I don’t have a deep technical background, at least not academically.
I decided to go to Microsoft because it was the hardest and most challenging day of interviews I have ever done to this day. It’s seven hours straight of interviews, including lunch and dinner. I lost 3 pounds during the day because I had never got a chance to eat. I walked away from it and said, “I’ve got to go work our place with that intellectually challenging, interesting, and careful about who they hire.” I fell in love with the company as a result. The bulk of my professional career was spent there.
I didn’t realize they put you through the worst. AstraZeneca was pretty intense. I worked there for twenty years, and they put you through quite a bit. I don’t know if it was all in one day like that, though. That’s pretty intense.
It’s super intense but you get a real sense of the culture of the place. In the long scheme of things in my life, I have learned more about culture than anything else. I have concluded that’s one of the primary things you have to think about when you are thinking about organizations.
Did you deal directly with Gates when you were creating all these things? Where was he in this?
Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer were deeply involved in the Office work because that was right at the center of the company and then also with Xbox. I worked for Steve in the last 7 or 8 years of my career. I met with Bill probably every six weeks or so during that time frame talking about various technical issues and things we would do.
Those would always end up being two people meeting with Bill, me, and somebody on the team who understood the technology because Bill had this amazing capacity to go very deep in specific areas. If you want to talk about the SiliconCore Technology, I had to bring our number one Silicon guy to talk with him because I would be done in five minutes. Bill could go step-for-step, toe-for-toe with a guy whose entire life was based on this. They were great conversations. He learned a bunch, and we took a bunch of good action items away. Those were super interactions.
Whose idea was the Xbox? That’s got to be fun to work on.
I get this question every once in a while. People say, “Who is the father or mother of Xbox?” The truth is there isn’t one person. There were two things going on at the beginning. One, there were some groups inside Microsoft independent of their day jobs. They were doing some exploration work and saying, “Microsoft should get into this console business.” There was a group called the DirectX Group who did the gaming technology for Windows, and another group of people who had come from the gaming industry and joined Microsoft in a different context. Those two groups are in the background working on various things.
We had an executive staff retreat and we had this process of exploring new topics. One of the topics that somebody raised was, “Should Microsoft compete with Sony in the living room?” Sony came out with this product called PlayStation 2. They were calling it a personal computer in the living room. You can imagine the attention that statement got inside Microsoft.
At this executive staff retreat, 4 or 5 of us got together with Bill. It was such a weird meeting. We were sitting in a bedroom at a hotel and talked about it. From that, he went and met with the groups that had been doing this garage shop work and came back with a technical proposal. A team that worked for me said, “Let’s see if we can make this business.” This was in 1999. By the end of that year, Bill and Steve approved the project that became known as Xbox.
It has been such a huge success. It’s fun to see what this console market has done. Pong was the thing when I was a kid, and you look at what you can do now. I teach for several universities but one of them is a tech school. I remember they were telling me it was a Quest, the virtual reality headset thing. I have one. All these things are so cool that it must be fun to get on the ground floor. What made you leave there?
“When should I change jobs? When should I leave?” I get asked that question all the time. I tell people these three criteria for me. One, are you passionate about what you are doing? We spend so much time “at work.” Why would you do it if you weren’t passionate about it? You have to enjoy the subject matter and love the day-to-day of what you are doing.
The second thing I say is, “Do you love the people you are working with?” You don’t have to love them every day but in the grand course of your job, you have to say, “I appreciate these people. It’s good to interact. I look forward to meetings.” The third thing is you have to say, “Am I learning something new?” I’m a believer that life is about learning, and it’s a lifelong process.
When I’ve got to 2008 and 2009, I was managing Xbox plus a portfolio of other businesses and wasn’t passionate about it being a portfolio manager. I didn’t feel like I was learning as much as I wanted. I had other things outside of my job at Microsoft that I was more passionate about. You get to that place, and then it’s right at the end. The Microsoft senior leadership culture got a little sideways. All of that together said, “This is time.”
I feel fortunate. I tell people I loved every month I was at Microsoft and I can say that honestly, not every day but every month I was at Microsoft, I loved it. I can also say that since the day I left, I have not missed it. That’s a great fortune to be able to have a great adventure like that, and then to be able to leave and say, “You left pretty close to the right time.”
I love the learning thing since my books are about curiosity, and I worked with corporations to build their curiosity levels. In your first book, Xbox Revisited: A Game Plan for Corporate and Civic Renewal, what were you hoping to accomplish with that? Was this to share an experience of what you went through with Xbox and how it could be extrapolated? Can you give me a little background on that?
It’s not a tell-all memoir book but what it is, it uses the Xbox experience to make a very important point about strategy. The Xbox business was deeply in trouble at the beginning. The first two years were bad. The first version of that product, the original Xbox, lost somewhere between $5 billion and $7 billion. The business strategically was not in a good place and it’s because the way we’ve got started, we said, “Run fast, run hard and produce a product.” We didn’t step back and take a strategic approach to it.
That book was about communicating to people, “When you have a complex, difficult problem, you have to come up with a deeply simple but very specific strategy for addressing it.” We had this process we did on Xbox, which I now call the 3P Framework. It basically says, “In three pages, tell me your purpose, the principles you are going to pursue to achieve that purpose, and the priorities you are going to do to get it done.” It’s nothing long and complicated but it’s deeply important to get clear on those things.
In that book, I talked about the Xbox experience and how we used the 3P Framework but I also then applied it to what’s going on in our country may be the deepest and most complicated problem of all. Leave aside, whether I did that successfully or not. The framework itself I have used in all the consulting work I do, and the nonprofit organizations that I work with do work. It’s forcing people to step away from the keyboard.
People look at complex problems and say, “I’ve got to come up with a complex solution.” That’s bass-ackward to use the expression. You have to say, “How do we simplify this to a place where we can make progress?” You take one step in front of another and pound your way through the complexity to the other side.
I have so many people ask me for examples of companies that have utilized curiosity to be successful. I was speaking at an Entrepreneur’s Organization meeting. They are always wanting to hear success stories. What kind of experience did you have in terms of the corporate culture, either at Microsoft or anywhere else, where they encouraged or maybe didn’t encourage curiosity at all?
Microsoft was a place that loved curiosity and people who were explorers. I have this small leadership framework in my head. People are either explorers, pioneers or settlers. All of which is great and important. Ironically, I’m more of a settler. I’m a person who likes to scale things that exist. That’s what I do well but Microsoft was filled with people who were explorers and pioneers.
What if you failed? How was the reaction? Was it fail forward?Culture is one of the primary things you have to think about when you're thinking about organizations. Click To Tweet
That was okay. Failure happens all the time. Look at the number of times Bill said to me, “That was dumb.” The official Bill Gates expression was, “That’s the stupidest thing I have ever heard.” I’ve got told that a lot. How many CEOs run a business, lose $5 billion to $7 billion and get a chance to do the next version?
Did he say it in a way that made you not want to give him any future ideas or was it like, “That’s just what he says?”
Everybody knew that was response number four. It wasn’t a throwaway line. He said, “You made a mistake and here’s why.” The hard part about being at Microsoft was when somebody said that you had to respond. There are two ways you respond. You either say, “Yes, you are right, and we are fixing it.” That’s one response or two, you say, “No, you are wrong and here’s why.” There’s no in-between. As long as you understood that, Microsoft was an amazing place. If you were a curious mind, Microsoft explored so many different areas. Everybody talks about all the successes in Office, Windows, Exchange, Xbox, Azure and all those things. The list of things that failed is 100 miles long and that was okay.
It’s like being a VC that you invest in so many companies but to get the one that makes all the money. It’s interesting to look at your path because you did these amazing things. You became an author, and then you switched over to writing novels. The Wilkes Insurrection, is that your latest book?
It is. Here’s the thing I would say about that. To your point about curiosity, The Wilkes Insurrection, for me, at a personal level, is an effort in curiosity. I learned with Xbox Revisited that first book that I liked to write but I didn’t want to write a second nonfiction and business book. I wanted to explore my creative side. I have worked on Xbox for many years. You learn a lot about creativity and start to think differently.
I wanted to say, “Can I do this? Can I create a fictional world? Can I write characters? Can I write dialogue? Can I do a plot? Can I think about a scene description? Can I do pacing in a thriller?” The Wilkes Insurrection is a techno-thriller. If you are doing that kind of writing, the pacing is everything. The personal challenges and, to your point, the curiosity of reaching out and doing new things was amazing for me. The reviews will indicate the result is great. I’m super proud of it but I’m also proud and have learned a great deal and loved that experience. It has been good for me as a person, and the outcome is a great book.
It reminds me a little bit of Robin Cook writing all the medical-based books. I loved his books. You are doing the same thing with the techno-thriller from being in the tech industry. Those are sometimes the best books because you have that background. Can you give me the plot a little bit?
The basics of The Wilkes Insurrection are, there is an anarchist who believes it’s his mission to take down the US government. His way of doing that is by sowing chaos and confusion across the country. It starts with him planting a bomb on a plane that crashed lands at Offutt Air Force Base. My lead character is a woman named Major Tamika Smith. She is the combat search and rescue leader at Offutt Air Force Base, and she rescues people from that plane. She then, over time, becomes enmeshed in this anarchist’s attempts to take down the government.
There’s a clear cyberactivity in this thriller. There’s an augmented and virtual reality company that plays a role in the subplot of the story. The story then becomes about his march to destroy the government. Tamika and a couple of other of the main characters work to try to stop him. Ironically, I wrote most of this in 2016 and 2017. The bones of the plot were all finished at that point.
I tried to write things that I thought were a little bit out there. Many of the things I wrote about happened in various ways, shapes and forms. The subtitle of the book is a contemporary novel. It’s about what’s going on in our country. It’s not a political Left or Right statement but it’s a thriller enmeshed in the environment we live in.
Coma was Robin Cook’s and he made a movie out of that. Are you going to make a movie out of this?
It’s one of those things. When you get done, you start to say, “I love the book.” It has strengths that could play to a movie or one of these ten-part mini-series type of things that are now popular. I will probably explore that a little bit. You know how that process works. It’s deeply complicated. You can sell a script for a little bit of money, and then never see anything happen or you can try to bring the story to life. We will see how that goes. Major Tamika Smith is a real character. She is a biracial woman. She served her country. She gets involved in politics in the story. She is very rich and has a deep dimension. When you are able to get a character like that, you want to bring it to life in as many ways as you can.
You might want to read one of my shows. Sheila Barry Driscoll was on, and she takes a lot of VC-type opportunities, mostly in the entertainment industry. She gives a lot of great insight on that.
I will definitely look that up.
She is great. She used to run the Billionaire Foundation. She is wonderful. As you were telling me this, I know you do a lot to talk to groups. You discuss civic leadership and where we are as a country. What got you so interested in that?
That goes back a long way. I have been a lover of history and civics. It’s almost genetic. I can go back to 8th and 9th grade to the times when I want to talk about them. In my freshman year in college, I was in this leadership program. They said, “Write what you want to be when you grow up,” which is a weird exercise but anyway, I did it and said, “I want to be a US Senator.” That was my original ambition. Your life and career develop in different ways. I developed away from that and ended up in the technology world, which I’m grateful for because that was an amazing experience but I never lost interest in civics.
Since I left Microsoft, I have become more involved in that. I’m the Chair on the Board at an organization called the Bipartisan Policy Center, which is a policy group in Washington DC that works with senators, congressmen, and women from both sides of the aisle to try to drive productive change like Infrastructure Bill that finally got passed. The BPC played an important role in helping shape that and get it done. That work to me is fascinating. It’s consistent with my theme of working on hard problems and trying to help us make progress.
You do so many interesting things. What is next for you other than continuing to love peanut M&M’s? I was looking at some of your stuff. I love them as well.
There were a lot of peanut M&M’s consumed in the course of writing The Wilkes Insurrection. I can promise you that. You talked about life, curiosity, and how we develop a lot in what you do. This is one of those transition points in your life. I have completed my second book. I became a grandfather. I’m in the process of saying, “Where do I want to go next?” I have a bunch of things that I’m still committed to, which I love, and I will continue doing those but should I write a second book?
There are clearly opportunities for a sequel to The Wilkes Insurrection, given the strength of the characters and the storyline. Do I want to do that or do something else? As I said at the beginning, I’m a strong believer in lifelong learning, and I’m curious about lots of different topics. We will see where that takes me.
A lot of people are trying to figure out what they want to do now. With COVID, everybody had a chance to reflect on, whether they loved what they were doing or not. Will we see a hybrid workplace? Do you think we will ever go back to working all the time in the office or are we going to be Zoom fatigued for the rest of our lives? Where is it going to go from here?
I’m a believer in the in-between space. A lot of it depends on your job function. If you are a hardware engineer, as an example, you are building planes, computers or you are doing the hardware technology for consumer devices, you are going to be more back in the office because it’s too hard to do that out of your house. There are other people who are consultants, service providers, those kinds of things, and they will be more out of an office than not.
Most organizations are going to end up in this world where they are hybrid. They have requirements for people to be in the office a certain amount of time. They have flexibility about when they can be out of the office. They are going to feel free to say, “Sorry about that. On Thursday, you have to be here because we are having a group meeting. We need everybody together.” The thing that you lose in the work-from-home initiative is the cultural formation that happens when people are together.
To me, it’s hard to imagine a world in which we weren’t giving people opportunities to do that. Most of the workers I talked to, young and older like me, miss that. Finding the right balance is going to be super important. What happens is when you go through these abrupt periods of change, if you take the pandemic and what’s going on in the country, there are a lot of grindings and changes going on. It’s easy to predict radical outcomes and typically what happens is we come back to the center. It’s different than where we were before but it’s not all the way out to the extremes.When you have a complex difficult problem, you have to come up with a deeply simple, but very specific strategy for addressing it. Click To Tweet
It’s going to be interesting to see how this all goes. You are dealing with this with Manini’s, your gluten-free pasta and baking company. It’s a tough time to be doing that.
It’s a 30-person company. We sell nationally. We are in Whole Foods and a number of other stores like that. We make fresh gluten-free pasta, ravioli pizza, dough balls, pizza crust, etc. As business owners, we had to go through the question, “Do we want a PPP loan?” My business partner and I had determined we didn’t want to take that because we felt like we could fund the company without it. We didn’t think it was fair for us to take that. We had to have the decision about, “What do we do about employee work rules because you’ve got to be in the facility to make pasta?”
We did a lot of work on social distancing. We did a lot of training on mask-wearing. It’s because we are a food company, people had a pretty good sense of sanitation. The place was always clean but we had to work to enforce that. We told our employees, “If you are feeling sick, don’t come to work. We will still pay you. We just don’t want you in the workplace. Call us, tell us, get it past and then come back.” You get all the way through that, and then you have to have the decision, “What do we do about vaccination?”
We ultimately made the decision that because it was a group safety and health issue that we required everybody in the company to be vaccinated. We lost one employee. We gave people time off to get vaccinated. We did it as a group activity. We made the right calls and all of that but you can tell that these are hard difficult times. If you are a business leader, you are running a small business, retail store or restaurant, you think about the decisions you have to make every day, and it is not easy. I’m super empathetic with people who are struggling with that. It has created a lot of emotional and psychic stress for people. There’s no question about that.
It’s a tough time. Everybody that I know is trying to adjust to being home or working through virtual situations. I know a lot of people who have got new Labradors.
The dog adoption business has been pretty good.
Mine is named Luna. She will have to meet Roscoe sometime. It is so nice of you to share your success, story, books, and everything on the show. A lot of people are going to want to know how they could read your books and find out more about you. Is there something you would like to share so people can do that?
There are two places to go to find out information about me. One is WilkesInsurrection.com. That has all the information in the book. There’s a video trailer so you can get a sense of what the story is about and places for you to order. If you want to get to know me better in the broader work I do, my website is creatively RobbieBach.com. That has information about my speaking. My blog posts are all there. You can follow me on LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram. I do most of my blog work on LinkedIn.
I have seen a lot of your stuff and this is great. I was looking forward to this. Thank you so much, Robbie. I enjoyed our conversation.
I appreciate you having me on, Diane. Take care.
You are welcome.
This show is going to be a little bit different, and I’m excited about it because I’m going to be talking about curiosity. I talk on a lot of other people’s shows about what I work on but I want to talk to you about the value of building curiosity within your organization. I’m my guest. In addition to hosting this show, I am also the Creator of the Curiosity Code Index, and I wrote the book Cracking the Curiosity Code. I give a lot of presentations where I talk about the importance of improving curiosity and getting out of status-quo thinking. It sometimes helps if I share a story that you might find fascinating.
A lot of organizations are held back by a culture that doesn’t embrace curiosity. They just go along with the way things have always been. I like to talk about an experiment that I share on stage about hidden camera experiments, where they looked at how quickly people go along with the group. This woman went into a doctor’s office thinking she was getting an eye exam but not known to her, everybody in the waiting room wasn’t patient. They were actors.
Every so often, an experiment was going on where they would have a bell ring. Every time that bell would ring, all the actors around her, which she thought were patients, would stand up and sit down with no explanation. After three times hearing the bell ring and without knowing why she was doing it, the woman stood up and sat down, conforming with the group. They thought, “This is interesting. She is going along with what everybody else is doing. Let’s see what happens if we take everybody out of the room.”
They call everybody back one at a time as if they were patients, and eventually, she is alone in the room and the bell rings. What she does is she stands up and sat down. She doesn’t know why she is doing it. She is going along with what everybody else has done. They thought, “This is fascinating. Let’s add some people to the room who are patients and see how she responds to the bell ringing and see how they respond.” The bell goes off, and she stands up and sits down. The gentleman next to her looks at her and says, “Why did you do that?” She said, “Everybody else was doing it. I thought I was supposed to.”
The next time the bell rings, what do you think he does? He gets up and sits down with her. Slowly but surely, what was a random rule for one woman is now the social rule for everybody in the waiting room. It’s an internalized behavior that we call social learning. We see what other people do and we think, “That’s what I want to do because everybody else is doing it.” We reward ourselves because we don’t want to be excluded.
It’s part of how conformity can be comfortable but going along with it, sometimes you get bad habits, stunt growth, and get the status-quo thinking. That can be the downfall of organizations. When we do things just because they have always been done in a certain way, we don’t progress and look for other ways to find solutions. I want to go beyond that. I want to know why we are doing things, why is it important, and what are we trying to accomplish?
That’s what I talked to companies about because they need to look at how and where they are modeling and fostering curiosity and what action plans do they have in place to avoid status-quo thinking. Do they have all the answers? How can they take what they learn from different events and utilize that to make some changes?
It’s important because curiosity has been the foundation behind the Model T to self-driving cars. We know that leaders believe they encourage curiosity and exploration. I have had Francesca Gino on the show. She has done a lot of great research in this area. We know that most employees don’t feel rewarded for it if they explore their curiosity. If we want organizations to generate innovative ideas, we must help them develop that desire to explore through leaders.
My job is to be curious. I ask questions and get information for a living. I do that through the show, teaching, and speaking everything I do. It’s something I want to share with other people because it’s a huge part of what makes companies successful. I look at curiosity as the spark that ignites the process that everybody is trying to achieve. Think of it as baking a cake. If your goal is to bake a cake, you’ve got all these ingredients. You have eggs, milk, flour, and whatever it takes to bake the cake. You mix it together and put it in the pan and oven. What happens? If you didn’t turn on the oven, you get goo, nothing happens.
That’s a huge problem that organizations are trying to get. Instead of cake, they are trying to get productivity. They were trying to make money. They know the ingredients. They know they want motivation, drive, engagement, creativity, communication, all the soft skills and stuff. They are mixing those ingredients and what they are not doing is turning on the oven. The oven, the spark is curiosity. If you don’t turn on the oven, no one gets cake. That’s what I’m trying to talk to companies about.
We know that kids are naturally curious. I love a picture from the San Francisco Museum of Art from Life Magazine in 1963. They have these two little girls who are adorable looking through this grate on the wall that they can see behind the air conditioning vent. They are supposed to be looking at all the artwork on the walls because it’s the San Francisco Museum of Art but what do the kids do? They want to see what’s behind the vent. We were all that way.
Three-year-olds ask their parents about 100 questions a day. At that age, you are just curious. You want to find out how everything works. There’s some time that we eventually lose some of that. Think about it, when did you stop wanting to look behind the vent? Did somebody say, “Stop that, get up, you are getting dirty. Don’t look behind there?” We get that. That’s what our parents do. You have to behave but we have seen a big decline in curiosity and creativity.
There are some great TED Talks about the creativity aspect, which ties in similar to what we see in curiosity. It peaks around age five, and then it tanks as soon as you go through school and about the age of 18 through 31. We are even seeing low levels. Sir Ken Robinson has a great talk about how we educate people out of our creativity and competencies. George Land also has a great talk about his work with NASA. He looked at the kids and followed them.
At age five, he found that 98% of children were creative geniuses, and then by the time they were 31, only 2% were. It was a huge difference. George Land says that we have convergent and divergent thinking. He talks about it in terms of we put on the gas and trying to come up with all these great ideas but at the same time, we over criticize them and put on the brake. Anybody who drives a car knows that if you put the brake at the same time you put on the gas, you don’t go far.
That’s what’s happening to our curiosity and creativity. I thought, “This is interesting because curiosity can translate into serious business results.” CEOs get that but a lot of them are not investing in the culture of curiosity but some of them are doing some amazing things, so I want to talk about what is the cost of lost curiosity. There are many aspects of what costs companies. We know that they are losing $16.8 billion due to emotional intelligence if you ask the Consortium for EI or if you look at Gallup’s numbers, they are losing $500 billion a year due to poor engagement.It's great fortune to be able to have a really great adventure and then to be able to leave and say you left pretty close to the right time. Click To Tweet
I have seen everything with communications. Holmes has it at $37 billion, and I have seen much higher. It depends on where you look but we are talking tens to hundreds of billions for each of these issues, emotional intelligence, communication, and engagement. It’s a huge problem out there. Companies know that they are losing money but they don’t recognize the value sometimes of curiosity. When we talk about curiosity, there’s a big innovation factor. We want to be more innovative but we are worried about job loss and jobs being automated.
The majority of the Fortune 500 companies from 1995 are gone. No one wants to be Kodak or Blockbuster. We know that Netflix ate Blockbuster’s lunch. The reason those companies are not here is that they looked at things from the status quo way that they have always done things. They didn’t want to cannibalize their product and the success they had. If you do that, the world keeps moving and you get stuck. That’s a huge problem.
What was interesting to me to study curiosity is that there are a lot of researches on curiosity but there are not the great statistics I would like to see. There’s a State of Curiosity Report that Merck did in 2018, and it showed that curiosity was higher in larger companies than smaller ones. It was 37% versus 20%, and then Millennials were more curious than Gen Z and Boomers. The US had a higher level of curiosity compared to China but maybe they weren’t as high as Germany. That’s just one report. I would like to see a lot more research done. It’s fun to look at what experts have shared regarding the value of curiosity.
Francesca Gino did a great job with the HBR article she wrote. I loved having her on the show. I hope you check out that show because it’s amazing. In that report, she talked about leaders recognize curiosity is important, and they think that they are encouraging it. We found that most of the employees don’t believe that. Only 24% feel like they are curious about their jobs, and 70% said they face barriers to staying curious and asking questions. She has done some great research. If you get a chance, I recommend reading that show and also checking out that HBR article.
I have had Daniel Goleman on the show. He was incredible. He talked about how emotional intelligence ties in. He was cute because he said he couldn’t see why I developed a measure of curiosity. It’s because I’m curious. He was talking about an article in HBR as well by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz saying that curiosity is one of the most important competencies in the future. That’s a huge plug for curiosity coming from Daniel Goleman. He was talking about younger generations questioning organizational missions more than older generations. We’ve got into a great discussion about that. I hope you take some time to read to that show.
Another great episode on the show was with Amy Edmondson, who has an incredible TED Talk. She gets into curiosity and how it ties into collaboration. She does a TED Talk about teams and teaming, and she gets into how the Chilean miner disaster was able to be resolved. A lot of it was because of curiosity. She says, “You’ve got to look at what are you trying to get done, your goal, what’s in your way, your concerns, worries, barriers and stuff like that. What resources, talents, skills, and experience do you bring?” She talks about how they did all that to get those Chilean miners out from under that rock. It is worth watching her TED Talk. All of them have TED Talks that are amazing.
A great guest as well on the show was Doug Conant, the guy who turned around Campbell’s Soup. He did that by asking questions. He asked employees what motivated them, and then he looked at how to build engagement by writing 10 to 20 personal notes six days a week. He counted 30,000-plus, which is huge. When he took over in 2002, they had 12% engagement. By 2009, they were up to 68%. He did some amazing things by asking questions, writing comments, and giving input. All that stuff comes out of curiosity.
Another great guest of the show was Zander Lurie, who is the CEO of SurveyMonkey. They are so much into curiosity. They’ve got permission to change their street address to 1 Curiosity Way. I love that. I was asking him some of the things that they do because they have a culture of curiosity there. They asked, “How can we make our products more productive for our customers? How can we create an environment where people do their best work?” He said they do skip-level meetings so that he can find out what works and what doesn’t.
Those are some examples of people who were on the show. Other examples are fascinating. Some companies like Monopoly, Ben & Jerry’s, VanMoof Bicycles, I have looked at some of them to see how they used curiosity to go a step further. Monopoly did some research because they always come out with the dog’s or cat’s version. They didn’t want to come out with another version.
They decided to come out with some research to find out what people did with Monopoly and what they could learn about it. They found out that a lot of people cheat. Over half the people cheat when they play Monopoly, so they came out with the Cheater’s Edition. That was their second-biggest release since the initial release of Monopoly. It was a cool thing.
Ben & Jerry’s got some interesting information. What they do in terms of not getting into status-quo thinking is they don’t keep flavors around forever. They research to find out what’s working. They ask questions, “What’s a good flavor, and what’s no longer a good flavor?” Instead of freaking out that their flavors are no longer successful, they celebrate them and give them a burial. I love that. They even have a headstone or whatever on their website. They show this flavor was live from this year to this year. They celebrate their success, and then they move on.
An interesting story is VanMoof. They make these bikes, and they would send them in packages in the mail through UPS or whatever they would send. A lot of them were ending up broken, and they kept trying to fix these bikes and this issue with the packaging. They didn’t want to spend a lot more money because if you make the package twice the size, you get a lot more expenses. They are trying to figure out how to do this to make their bikes not break and yet, not go over on the spending.
What they have looked at was the type of box they were using. They have noticed it was very similar to a flat-screen television box. They looked into how many flat screens broke and they weren’t breaking. The only real difference was the flat screens had a picture of a flat-screen on the box. They thought, “Let’s draw a picture of a flat-screen, a little bit of extra ink, and see what happens.” It was a dramatic difference in the number of damaged bicycles. It’s thinking outside the box.
Sometimes it’s just asking questions. Disney did a lot of that. They did some great questioning to find out what was happening with their turnover. The laundry division of Disney, as glamorous as it sounds, is not. They were losing a lot of people that didn’t love working there, and they couldn’t figure out why. They put out a questionnaire to their employees and said, “How can we make your job better?” They didn’t expect to get things back that they could do anything about but they did. They’ve got back great things. They’ve got back things like, “Put an air vent over my workspace or make my table adjustable when I’m folding things that work for my height.” Those are things like, “We can fix that,” and they did.
Going to the horse’s mouth, the employee said, “How can we make this better,” was huge for them. Sometimes it’s not just an employee, and sometimes it’s leaders. In the book, Cracking the Curiosity Code, I gave a story about Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. They had a lot of patients that were dying when they were being transferred from one unit to the other.
Some physicians were watching a Formula 1 race car event one night and were impressed by how quickly that Formula 1 pit crew would take the car apart and put it back together in seven seconds. They are looking at this going, “They did that with no problems, and we can’t transfer people from here to here.” They thought, “Why don’t we have these guys come in, this Ferrari team, and can show us any improvements that we could make.” They did get some great ideas, which reduced their errors by more than 50%.
We think inside of our cubicle and inside of our silos but sometimes we need to think outside of even our industry because that can be important. Some of the greatest ideas are from that. I have given you some examples. We know we came up with Velcro from a Swiss engineer hunting with his dog and came back with burrs in his fur. He’s like, “What are these things? Why are they sticking?” What he did was he stuck it under the light to look at it and saw the way it hooked together and thought, “Why don’t we try this?” In 1998, they made something like $93 million in Velcro, and it was sold in 40 countries. It did amazingly well.
You have to build a culture of learning. To do that, it’s important to look at some companies that do a great job of it. I know a top company I work with that does that, which is Novartis. Novartis does a great job because curiosity is part of their core cultural value. They encourage employees to spend 100 hours a year on employer-paid education to broaden their interests.
They do everything from paying for them to watch videos, having them perform in mini TED events, and having employees be the actual speakers, things like that. It’s cool how much they do this. They have the whole month of September as their curiosity month, and I’m one of the speakers for them. I know how much time and effort they put into this.
If you look at how much everybody talks about how they liked working at the company, 90% of employees surveyed approved the CEO. Think of how often you see that. That’s a huge thing. I know they are doing some ongoing research about curiosity with me. I’m excited about that. One of their employees is writing her Doctoral dissertation, and we are looking at the curiosity, how it compares to if you intervene and give them some information about things that are holding them back. I’m anxious to share that information when it comes out because I did a lot of research for my talks and my book, Cracking the Curiosity Code, and I looked at so much that’s out there.
We know that there are some great TED Talks from Daniel Pink, who wrote Drive. What a great book. Simon Sinek’s Find Your Why and all the stuff that he’s talking about. Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset. All those are huge. I started to look at this curiosity thing. It’s the Max Planck Institute that coined the term curiosity gene because it’s in people and animals. It creates dopamine, and it makes us feel good. If you are a bird and just flying around a bush, and you run out of berries, you are going to die if you don’t have the curiosity to look at another bush.The thing that you lose in the work from home initiative is the culture formation that happens when people are together. Click To Tweet
As I was researching for the book, I wanted to write about curiosity but I was like, “Where is the assessment that tells you what stops it?” I’m like, “There isn’t one.” That surprised me because the assessments tell you if you were curious or not. That’s all well and good because you do want to know if somebody is highly curious or not. The big five factors will tell you if you are open to experience and things like that but I want to know what stops it. Nobody had studied that, so I did. I want to know what holds us back, and I found out what it is. It is FATE, which stands for Fear, Assumptions, Technology and Environment.
I want to talk about these separately because fear is about failure, fear of embarrassment, and loss of control. Nobody wants to feel like they said something stupid in a meeting. We all want to feel like we are all prepared. We are all in the meeting and thinking, “I want to ask that but I don’t want to look dumb.” You lean next to Joe, “Joe, why don’t you ask?” It’s better for Joe to look dumb. You don’t want to look dumb. That’s a huge problem in companies. You get a lot of yes-men and yes-women because nobody wants to shake up things or look like they are trying to confront their leaders. Leaders who haven’t modeled the value of curiosity will come across that way.
I have had leaders look at me and say things like I had one guy who asked me to do something. I said, “I would be happy to do it. I have never had to. How do I do that?” He looked at me with disgust and said, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.” What does that make you feel? First of all, it tells you you are an idiot. It tells you that you should know this. You should lie and pretend you know things.
We get a lot of leaders who will say, “Don’t come to me with problems unless you have solutions.” That sounded good at the beginning because it sounded like we were going to get rid of these whiners and complainers that didn’t have any ideas but a lot of people don’t know how to solve the problem. If we say that, then we are saying we don’t want to know about problems. That’s a huge issue.
The assumptions that we make, that’s that voice in our head that tells us we are not going to be interested, apathetic or it’s unnecessary, “The last time I did that, they gave me more work.” We all have that voice that talks us out of stuff. Sometimes I will hold up a bottle of water in the talk that I’m giving and ask, “How heavy is this?” They will say 6 or 8 ounces, or whatever.
I will say, “It doesn’t matter. What matters is how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it doesn’t bother me. My arm is fine. If I hold it for an hour, my arm gets tired. After a day, my arm feels paralyzed.” That’s how our assumptions are or the voice in our head. It’s a fleeting thought, no big deal. We get past it. After an hour, we might hold on to it a little more. After a day, it starts to stay with us.
We have to recognize that we might be telling ourselves all these things we could maybe be interested in or somebody would help us learn but we talk ourselves out of it. Assumptions are a big thing. What I found interesting was technology was also a big factor. Curiosity is impacted by the over and under-utilization of technology. It can either do it for you, you are not trained in it or you are overwhelmed by it. Some people had great experiences in their childhood where they had a lot of foundational learning and technology.
Steve Wozniak is one. I love his book, iWoz. He talks about his dad telling him how to connect gadgets. He would come back with all these wires and get things from work and show him how the electronics should be connected, why this wire was necessary, and how it brought electricity. A lot of us don’t have that experience. A lot of us might be the greatest mathematicians in the world but if somebody just threw us a calculator or Siri did it for you, you are not ever going to have the foundation behind it.
There’s got to be times where we have high foundation days where we build without technology, we learn behind it, and then there‘s got to be days where we take advantage of it and learn how can we use it, and not become overwhelmed by it. The environment is a big one for a lot of people because it‘s everybody from your teachers, family, friends, social media, leaders, peers, past leaders, current leaders, and everybody you have ever worked with. We know that curiosity can be influenced by everybody we are around.
The numbers I gave earlier about how it peaks about age five with curiosity, and then it tanks after that, a lot of that could be going into school, and the teachers don‘t have time because they are teaching to the test. They’ve got many students in class, and they can‘t answer why all the time. Our siblings can be brutal. If you do something that they don‘t think is cool, you can take the wrath from that. It‘s challenging to look at what has impacted us.
That‘s one of the reasons why my research was interesting to me because I looked at these four factors of Fear, Assumptions, Technology and Environment, FATE. Those were the inhibitors for the Curiosity Code Index. They were pretty evenly matched. Assumptions and the environment were higher than technology, maybe but then you can have an overlap. Fear from technology, for example. It was fascinating to do the research. I studied thousands of people for years to see what inhibited them.
I started by putting a thread in LinkedIn and asking people, and then I thought, “I‘ve got interested in that.“ I hired people to do all this factor analysis and ended up doing my research because a lot of the research kept coming back in the same fashion of trying to find out if you are curious or not. I didn‘t want to do that. I wanted to find out what did inhibit us.
It was interesting to look at the difference between men and women. Men were less impacted by fear than women but they were more impacted by that voice in their heads. They were equal to women in technology but then maybe more impacted by their environment. These results are what I have seen. I would like to see more research done.
It is interesting to take a look at how these different factors impact us. What I do is train people. First of all, they take the Curiosity Code Index. I either go do the training at companies myself, I train consultants to give it or I train HR professionals to give it. If those people get certified, they get five hours of SHRM recertification credit.
There are a lot of different versions of training that I offer. What’s interesting is when they go through the training class, the employees, when they are training about this, they get to find out their results from the CCI. It’s like taking a Myers-Briggs, a DISC or something. You get the big report back, a PDF, within a few minutes of taking it. It’s simple.
They get to get their results, and then they go through this personal SWOT analysis, which is cool because they look at ways to create SMART goals, measurable goals, those things to overcome some of these areas that are inhibiting them. Not only do they do that but then we do a similar thing for the corporation as a whole back to how they did it in Disney. You go to the horse’s mouth, to the employees and say, “How can we fix these things within the company? How can we help you become more curious?”
If there are issues with innovation, engagement, whatever the company issues are, the training classes are a great starting place to go to the employees and say, “How can we make you more curious so we can have this end product? How can we get cake?” You find out, and the trainers go back to leaders with this great report, “This is what employees would like to do to help them improve so that we can all improve and make more money.”
It’s important in the future of companies that people have to try it, explore, poke at it and question it. It’s a huge thing that you need to ask yourself about, “How can I be vulnerable and allow this culture of learning? Maybe I don’t have all the answers.” Think about what you are doing to foster curiosity. What action plans do you have? How do you do this in this tumultuous time? Thinking about this, it’s challenging for a lot of people.
I have created a free course, and a lot of people can get a lot of value out of it if they are interested in taking it. If you go to DrDianeHamilton.com and scroll down to the bottom, it offers a free course. If you sign up, it’s a simple thing. They send it right to you, and you can learn a lot more about curiosity, the factors, and see lots of videos from the talks I have given. Some of the stuff I have talked about here is in there. A lot of the chapters from the book are in there. It’s a good foundational way to learn more about curiosity. I wanted to give you that information, and I hope you check out The Curiosity Code.
- Robbie Bach
- Boys & Girls Club Movement
- Bipartisan Policy Center
- Xbox Revisited
- The Wilkes Insurrection
- SiliconCore Technology
- 3P Framework
- Robin Cook
- Sheila Barry Driscoll – Previous episode
- Billionaire Foundation
- LinkedIn – Robbie Bach
- Facebook – Robbie Bach
- Instagram – Robbie Bach
- Curiosity Code Index
- Cracking the Curiosity Code
- Francesca Gino – Previous episode
- Sir Ken Robinson – TED Talk
- George Land – YouTube
- Consortium for EI
- State of Curiosity Report 2018
- HBR article – The Business Case for Curiosity
- Daniel Goleman – Previous episode
- Claudio Fernández-Aráoz – From Curious to Competent
- Amy Edmondson – Previous episode
- TED Talk – How to turn a group of strangers into a team
- Doug Conant – Previous episode
- Zander Lurie – Previous episode
- Daniel Pink – TED Talk
- Find Your Why
- Max Planck Institute
- Cheater’s Edition
- The Curiosity Code
About Robbie Bach
Robbie Bach is best known for founding and leading the team that created the Xbox. Today he is an entertaining storyteller and catalyzing voice who writes books and speaks to audiences on leadership, creativity, strategy, and civic issues. Robbie joined Microsoft in 1988. Over the next twenty-two years, he worked in various marketing and business management roles—including supporting the successful launch and expansion of Microsoft Office. As Chief Xbox Officer, he led the creation and development of the Xbox business, including the launch of the Xbox, and its highly popular successor, Xbox 360, as well as the Xbox Live gaming platform.
Then as Microsoft’s President of the Entertainment and Devices Division, he was responsible for the company’s worldwide gaming, music, video, phone, and retail sales businesses until he retired in 2010. In his current role as a civic engineer, Robbie works with corporate, philanthropic, and civic organizations to help drive positive change in our communities. He guest-lectures extensively at a variety of colleges and universities and speaks to corporate, civic, and trade association audiences across the country. In 2015, he published his first book, Xbox Revisited: A Game Plan for Corporate and Civic Renewal. He is also the author of a new novel titled The Wilkes Insurrection.
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