My daughter hit me with that question right after I rolled out of bed, and on this particular day, I was able to tell her that wind is caused by differences in air pressure from uneven heating of the earth’s surface (I had just read about it in an outdoor magazine). On other mornings, my answer would probably have been “it’s air moving” and I would have left it at that.

It’s often a challenge dealing with curious minds, especially young ones that constantly have questions about the physical world and the family structure in which they find themselves (for example, questions like “Why do I have to listen to you?” or “Why can’t I take my iPad to church?”)

Curiosity is a trait we share to one degree or another, but a challenge for many healthcare leaders is how to foster and respect curiosity while also moving their staffs toward clearly defined goals. Working in an environment of deadlines and deliverables, the best response to an off-the-reservation question often seems to be the equivalent of “it’s air moving,” which is empirically correct and effectively closes down a line of thought. But that type of answer is completely unsatisfying to a truly curious mind.

Not all “curiosity” is equal. I’ve dealt with many people whose curiosity is a smokescreen for intellectual laziness. With others, it’s a form of reflexive obstructionism—they are “curious” about decisions being made and paths being taken for no other reason than to second-guess a leader and undermine their authority.

While ruminating on this topic late at night, a recent conversation I had about a hospital’s analytics effort came to mind, so I started sifting through old interview notes for the numerous analytics features I’ve written for Health Data Management.

I was struck by how often the word “curious” came up during conversations. Sometimes it was analytics leaders talking about how their curiosity led them to change career arcs and get into the analytics realm, but more often, it was an anecdote about how one of their staff was curious about what the numbers were telling them, and how that curiosity often led to odd and fruitless conversations before ultimately leading a group down an unexpected path that resulted in a significant change in clinical and/or financial operations.

Curiosity is pointless if there’s an unwillingness to act. Perhaps analytics departments are especially good at harnessing it because analytics is a fairly new discipline in the healthcare industry and is more loosely structured than the established clinical and financial hierarchies, so its leaders have more freedom to act. Or maybe it’s because analytics is bringing data analysts, statisticians and other different types of minds into the fold; those folks simply look at the data in a different light.

It’s probably a combination of those factors, along with some others that may be obvious to readers but escape me. However, healthcare has traditionally been a fairly rigid industry. Clinical practice has been slow to change, even in the face of medical evidence that it should. Information technology has had glacial adoption curves, and still does compared with the rate at which it’s embraced in many industries.

But in the past few years, I’ve witnessed a significant commitment by many leaders—and not just those in the analytics department, although they seem to be at the forefront--to shake things up, and at the root of many innovations has been a recognition that the clinical and financial practices of medicine weren’t the right response to the pressures facing the industry.

The well-worn proverb “curiosity killed the cat” has been used as caution about the dangers of unnecessary investigation and experimentation. But there’s a variation of that proverb: “curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.”  The risks and frustrations of fostering curiosity are often worth the reward.

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