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Channeling curiosity with The King's Fund's Pritesh Mistry
Episode 525th November 2022 • The King’s Fund Embracing Digital • The King’s Fund
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Curiosity in the workplace can unlock innovation, positive change, and new futures. But how do you harness this key digital skill? The King's Fund's Digital Fellow Pritesh Mistry shares thoughts with Sharon Jones.

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SHARON:

Hi I’m Sharon Jones, Head of Digital Innovation at the Kings Fund and today I’m speaking to our very own Pritesh Mistry, Digital Technologies Fellow from the Policy Team. Our topic of discussion is curiosity and how nurturing a curious mind can be beneficial in the workplace. Can you tell us a little bit about what a Digital Fellow does? This sounds a bit like a role that didn’t exist a couple of decades ago.

PRITESH:

Yeah, so it’s a relatively new role I suppose, but in some ways it’s also partly an old post that’s an extension of the well-established role of a Policy Fellow, but I focus on digital technologies which is I suppose in some ways quite new in health and care. But we’ve all been using digital technologies for a long time So as part of a Policy Fellow we research and learn about what’s happening in the NHS and social care and we try and ensure that government plans and decisions are best for patients and staff. As part of that I focus on kind of the tech stuff. I suppose the things that I like to focus around are culture, co-development, what works for users, the skills and there’s that whole kind of … there’s a lot of evangelism about technology and what’s possible. But I think it’s a lot of what can be made to happen is down to us and it’s how people use the technology and what we’re comfortable with. Sometimes that can be simply with deciding what we mean by getting the best from technology. So yeah I focus on digital technologies, probably less around the technology itself and more round the people part of it.

SHARON:

It sounds about right. If you’re going to embed these practices in technology it always has to start with people. I would imagine in your role you need to have quite a curious mind. What does curiosity mean to you and how does it apply to your everyday work?

PRITESH:

This is a great question. To be honest I think everyone is curious. I think we all start as kids as being really curious and trying to find out what’s happening in the world and trying to understand the world and kind of we carry that with us all through our lives. I think what matters is where you direct that curiosity and the time and the space you have to bring that back to what you’re doing. So you can be curious about sport, cooking, tech, design, music, anything really and there’s so much to learn about and continue to find out. It’s amazing how much is going on in the world. I think curiosity can be thought of in many different ways. It’s kind of the entertainment side of curiosity, what new music is out there, what’s happening on my favourite show. A similar thing, what my colleagues are doing this weekend. That kind of curiosity about our colleagues helps to understand who we’re working with, what their interests are, what they like to do, what they don’t like to do, how they work, how they don’t work. Then maybe there’s a more directive kind of curiosity that starts with a specific question and it might lead to a rabbit hole of facts and interesting things. You follow your curiosity. I’m sure we’ve all fallen down rabbit holes and not really ended up where we thought we’d end up and learnt a lot of things along the way. So yeah recently I was reading about the A-level results, just yesterday, as we’re recording this and what happened in the last two years with the lockdowns and how AI has been applied and why didn’t that work. Yes it’s about A-level results, but yes it’s also about AI. That’s having applications in healthcare and some of that might be kind of what … the problems might also be happening in healthcare. So some of that is directive curiosity as well.

SHARON:

Yeah that’s really fascinating. Did you want to … I just wanted to rewind a bit of your answer there and talk a bit about that AI bit. Did you want to talk about why it might not have worked in that A-level kind of setting, just as an example and make it quite accessible for our listeners.

PRITESH:

Yeah sure, so I suppose I mean in the way that it’s in a parallel with healthcare in some respects is that there’s this expectation of AI that it can do a lot. Whereas in reality it can do some things very well and those things that it can do very well are very specific. So when you try and get a bit of technology to do something bigger than it’s well suited for, then it fails. That’s what we’ve found with some of the AI in the A-level results. It can get you so far, like with self-driving cars for example. It can keep you in the lane, but it can’t deal with spontaneous occurrences. So you still need to have someone there to help drive the car. So you still need to have someone there to check the A-level results. You still need to have someone there to check your test results. Because it can deal with maybe 50% but it’s the other 50% of things that aren’t usual.

SHARON:

What do you think about … I know we talked about this earlier in the week … about the idea of like AI helping with writing? So we have a whole team who are writers here, how could AI potentially help with that or not help with that? I know it’s going down an AI rabbit hole, but I just want to explore this before I get to my other questions.

PRITESH:

Yeah no problem. So I think it’s up to the people like I say. It’s what we’re comfortable with. There’s still people out there who create art with film photography for example. But there’s people who use digital photography. So it depends on how we want to work and what’s the best tools that allow us to do what we want to do and that’s the impact and how people can generate that impact and what brings the human creativity when it comes to writing and when it’s available to flourish and how does AI support to do that. So the way it's currently being experimented with in terms of books, the authorship of books and the writing of books is very much you can seed it with a sentence, and it can help to complete that sentence. In some ways … I use a thesaurus the same way. I’ll have a word and I think actually that’s not quite the right word, or I’ve used that word too many times and maybe I’d like to use a different word, or that has a more specific meaning, a nuanced different meaning. That’s kind of what we’re doing in some ways with AI, it helps to kind of seed what the next part of the writing might look like.

SHARON:

That’s really, really fascinating. So back to curiosity, what are the common barriers when trying to create a curious culture within an organisation and what can be done to enhance that kind of thinking?

PRITESH:

I think there’s a number of things. It’s about the people, it’s about the leadership, it’s about the culture and the environment. I think there’s something about having a culture that has a willingness to experiment and encourages a willingness to experiment. So that might be helping people to have time to have ideas, encouragement to act upon ideas, but with direction of empowerment. So that’s a kind of a leadership kind of thing. It’s a consideration of how do we move away from a sunken cost mindset, so that whole kind of idea of, well we already have say a whole package of technology in our licence with Microsoft. So we’ve got Teams, we’ve got Outlook, we’ve got a whiteboard and we’ve got multiple other things as well, most of which we probably don’t even use. But there might be other tools that are specifically around say the chat function in Teams. So you’ve got Slack for example which has had a massive following and it’s been really evangelized about. But if we continue to think about, well we’ve got this Microsoft license, that already does the same thing. Well does it or does it not? And you’ve got these other standalone technologies. So how do we move away from thinking about, well we’ve already paid for that, so we need to use that. As opposed to, well how do we try and understand what else is out there and continue to move forward. We need to be open to change. So curious about how our job can change, how organisations can change, what could be better and how do we work together to be better. Part of that is also learning why others think differently. Being open and listening to others’ perspectives on that. So being able to test your own perspectives. That’s part of curiosity in a different way. I suppose really the last thing would be to add, make it easy to make change happen. How do we let people … or support people to make little changes that add up to be big changes. If it’s going to be a grind to make any change then it’s going to have to really, really matter to make a change, but you can make lots of little changes to make life easier.

SHARON:

Yeah that’s important. Because a lot of your work is … well solely in the digital space, are there technologies that you know about that aid curiosity? Or is it just a mindset thing?

PRITESH:

I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s how we direct our curiosity and I think that’s changed hugely, largely down to technology. So there’s more access to different ways to learn things. There’s obviously news, there’s social media, you can get text message groups and there’s Reddit, there’s podcasts, there’s videos, there’s audio books. Netflix has a series about the future and one episode is about health. I wouldn’t really advise it; I think it’s quite fluffy. But I mean it’s there it gets you thinking. So there’s lots of ways of accessing things and exploring your curiosity and makes it easier than ever.

SHARON:

So do you think it could actually overwhelm people because there is so much choice?

PRITESH:

Yeah partly. That’s what I was going to start touching upon, is the mindset part. That’s how you direct your curiosity. I mean our attention span … mine’s never been more eroded in many ways, so yeah it’s partly our attention span. It’s where do we place our curiosity? It’s really easy to get stuck in like deem scrolling or part of some attention-grabbing part of social media. But it’s how do we then get out of that and think about, okay what have I learnt? Or how do you reflect on what you’ve learnt and bring it back to our everyday lives and the work that we do.

SHARON:

Do you think given that we are generally quite curious creatures and we’re kind of born that way from children but it kind of changes as we’re adults, although we are … might be following hobbies etc., do you think curiosity can be like learnt in a directed way? Can you sort of break habits that you may have and kind of unlearn, to try new ways of thinking?

PRITESH:

Yeah I think so. I think we’re all constantly evolving as people, and we can all get good habits and bad habits. It’s about having the pressure release of the bad habits that we need as humans. Sometimes you do just need to dip into social media and have a little bit of a time away and sometimes you can dip into social media and learn some good things as well. But yeah it’s having less of a time waste-y kind of curiosity and more of the directed good habits of curiosity. I think that can also be a bit of a difficult habit. One of the things that I’m … I suppose my worst habit around curiosity is that it can be quite undirected. It’s then the loop of, well what does that mean? Is that actually useful? Then they could be very variable for the work that I do, from the technology itself and how it’s being applied in say like military or how start-ups are having success in China and how the culture makes such a huge difference to how technology is being used and what people are comfortable with in different countries and different cities and different places.

SHARON:

Do you think that remote working aids or hinders the opportunity to be curious within the workplace?

PRITESH:

So again I think it kind of cuts both ways to be absolutely honest. I think you do have to be more deliberate to speak and meet with people that you wouldn’t often come across. So there’s that kind of relational curiosity as you get to learn more about your colleagues and that might be more difficult to do. Just recently I had a great chat with a colleague who works in the café, about single use coffee cups and the wastage that these kind of create. They were talking about how they wanted to make the fund a greener place in essence. I was talking about the coffee shop round the corner that has compostable cups. But I only knew about that because someone else had told me about the coffee shop because we had an interesting conversation about coffee. But these are all kind of like conversations that you don’t structure. When you’re working remotely it can be more difficult to have that kind of conversation. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t, it just means you have to be more deliberate about having an unstructured conversation, which can be scary for some when you’re used to having a meeting with a particular agenda and things that you want to discuss. But then most of us enjoy a chat, we enjoy having a break in the day. It’s great to get to know our colleagues and people a bit better and it’s amazing what you can learn by doing so. Then the yes part of it is, is like I said, the technology enables us to do many different things in different ways and we can swap our commute for reading a book or listening to a podcast, having a walk and things like that. That then changes how we use the building, how we work with colleagues across different like geographies and different places. So yeah I mean I recently started having breakfast in the café, it’s the school holidays, so I’ve got a little bit more time, and I find that people stop by and have a chat and it's people from across the Fund. Whereas if I go into the Fund and work from our particular office I will see people from the team but maybe not across the fund. It makes me think about how we can better use our working space and make us connect a bit better. Because I’m not sure the office space really allows us to do that to be honest.

SHARON:

Yeah, that sounds kind of spot on. If you’re sitting in that café and you come across people that you wouldn’t have necessarily spoken to and then those conversations can lead to other really interesting things, it’s like … it does make things lot … I don’t know, more … obviously nicer, but that might spark a conversation or spark some curiosity in a way that wouldn’t have happened if you were somewhere else.

PRITESH:

Absolutely. Some of the best conversations I’ve had in the fund to date.

SHARON:

So say you’re listening to this and thinking, how does this apply to me, what three ways can you suggest that anyone from any part of the organisation can use curiosity to aid their work?

PRITESH:

So three things, I’d say firstly be curious but also think about where you direct that curiosity. I’d say ask questions and try to find out the answers, so don’t be afraid to ask a silly question. There’s no such thing as a silly question and you learn so much from asking questions. Thirdly, enjoy being curious, learning and trying to take what you have learnt into your everyday life.

SHARON:

Brilliant. That sounds really helpful. Thanks so much for taking part, Pritesh, that was great. Also thanks for everyone listening. I hope that’s given you a lot of food for thought. This is just one of a series of inhouse podcasts for the Kings Fund, all about various aspects of digital workplace transformation. Bye for now.

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