Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO, Rakuten Group
If you’re not sure what to do next, ask “why?”
“Why” questions are the genesis of innovation.
- Why does it take me so long to do my job?
- Why is this new website so popular?
- Why do some country’s economies grow while others stall?
Personally, I have a long history of asking why. I’m not really a computer scientist, an engineer or a web designer. About 25 years ago when I started out, I didn’t have any deep knowledge about programming or technology. But at the time I became really curious about the power of the internet and started to dig deep into the technology behind it.
Two things I came across that seemed really powerful were the TCP/IP communication protocols and the use of hypertext. These meant you could jump from one set of information to another pretty easily, and all that information would be connected. My gut said this is going to change everything — and I started to dig into how it all worked.
When you lose your curiosity, the world narrows around you.MICKEY MIKITANI, CHAIRMAN AND CEO, RAKUTEN GROUP
Likewise, when my father was diagnosed with cancer, I didn’t want to give up and I explored all over the world to find a cure for this very difficult cancer. Unfortunately, I couldn’t save my father, but I found a very novel technology which could potentially help hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people.
And let’s look at what’s going on right now: Look at how the Pfizer vaccination works. It’s a completely new approach that was not initially developed to cure a pandemic outbreak. The inspiration stemmed from efforts to find a new way to combat cancer with messenger RNA. Some curious and creative scientists found that they could consider using this mRNA to fight COVID-19.
The curiosity of a child
Clearly, curiosity is the key to much innovation and professional success. And why is the engine of curiosity.
We tend to ascribe the word “curious” to children. Kids will ask why the sky is blue or they will open up the inside workings of a toy to see why it talks or runs. They may get into trouble for exploring places they’re not supposed to be in or for attempting something dangerous. We expect this behavior from young people as they explore the world around them. We expect them to be curious.
Fostering and supporting curiosity is not just good for the individual, it’s good for a company.
But somehow as we get older, the value of curiosity isn’t as obvious. We are told to set goals and follow rules and move our lives forward in expected ways. We are rarely asked to be curious. Indeed, a curious individual who explores outside the bounds of an assignment or job description may be criticized for straying from the set path.
Follow your curiosity wherever it goes
I believe this is why people burn out in their jobs. When you lose your curiosity, the world narrows around you. It is intellectual curiosity that makes work interesting and worthwhile, day in and day out. What’s more, it is curious employees that are able to innovate and break new ground. Fostering and supporting curiosity is not just good for the individual, it’s good for a company.
Asking questions and exploring new approaches should be encouraged at every level of the organization. And not just the introspective kind. Sometimes the best kind of curiosity is the kind that we have about others in our work and our lives.
It was the power of curiosity that led Rakuten to build the world’s first fully virtualized cloud-native mobile network. Before Rakuten Mobile was disrupting the global telecoms industry, when the idea of launching our own telecommunications business was still just that — an idea — Rakuten Mobile’s CTO Tareq Amin shared his vision for a revolutionary new network. At the time, I was considering launching a more traditional mobile network. However, curiosity quickly won out. Despite the skepticism of doubters in the telco industry and beyond, we continued to ask ourselves: Why can’t we do mobile differently? When the science and technology confirmed that our vision was attainable, we moved ahead at full speed.
Make time for curiosity
This ability to see the world differently, or with fresh eyes, is a trait shared by many great founders and CEOs. But it isn’t just company leaders that need to embrace curiosity in the workplace: We can all benefit from this approach.
Even in challenging times, I believe we must set aside time to let our curiosity roam. I’ve told my teams that even if we are not always together in the office, we must find time to get together (on Zoom or other platforms) to brainstorm and let our curiosity lead us to new ideas. Asking questions and exploring new approaches should be encouraged at every level of the organization. And not just the introspective kind. Sometimes the best kind of curiosity is the kind that we have about others in our work and our lives.
Be open to learning from others
At Rakuten, we thrive on partnerships because it allows us to explore new worlds and new opportunities and empower others. Our recently announced partnership with Japan Post — a company with great strength in logistics and a track record of serving local communities — is a good example. We are open to learning from each other.
Why is part of what leads us to great things. Too often we skip this question and go straight to “how” or even “when.” In that case, we’ve passed over the process that may give us a greater understanding about why some things succeed and others fail.
At Rakuten, our process starts with our core principles. As a company, we are deliberately reconnecting to our core principles: including holding weekly reading and Q&A sessions on Business-Do, the book I wrote to capture these principles for success. These are turbulent days in which we are called upon to make important decisions that may affect the health and safety of those around us — we all need core principles to help guide us.
For more Business-Do insights, click here.