The Curiosity Machine

On Hendrix, curiosity, and unleashing the power of your data

31 May 2018

  • Analytics
  • Leadership
  • Strategy
  • Creativity
  • Data

Data is the answer you’ve been searching for. Data’s here to save you. All you need is more—more information, more vendors, more licenses. Once we get you set up, everything’s going to click right into place, and your business will soar. Just watch your people align, watch the profit roll in. If your business isn’t data-driven, it’ll be left behind, like a dinosaur stuck in a tar pit.”

Any of this sounding familiar?

I’ve heard the pitches: the promise of big data, the transformative power of the newest piece of technology on the block. And, while I can’t say I disagree with all of the opinions—and I’m guilty of repeating a few of them myself—I think we all get skeptical when anything is plopped down in front of us as a panacea, promising to change our world as we know it. I’m a huge believer in what data can do for an organization, but I’m enough of a realist to know that change doesn’t come from logging in to a tool and reading a chart. It doesn’t come from a monthly dashboard.

For data to change the way you work, there needs to be something else.

For that, I’m reminded of a story that I heard years ago. One that comes from a wildly different time and place. A story about a bunch of rock stars killing time in a NYC hotel between shows. A story that makes me think that, as business leaders, we’ve been missing a key ingredient in our data strategies.

“I’ve got to figure out how he makes that sound.”

Electric dataland

As a kid growing up in the Seattle area, it was impossible to not know the legend of Jimi Hendrix. He wasn’t just a native son, he was a musical titan amongst men. For me and my group of friends, there was no contest—he was the best guitar player in the world—full stop. His skills were untouchable, as if a lightning bolt had come down from the clouds, struck his right arm, and the rest was rock and roll history. “He was born to play the guitar,” some of my friends would insist. “No one will ever be as good as Hendrix, dude, he was just hardwired that way,” others argued.

But a few years ago, a story I heard about Hendrix made me wonder if there was another force at play in how he got to be so damn good.

The story was told by Billy Gibbons, a rock star famous for his long beard and Texas drawl—a legend in his own right as the front man for ZZ Top. Back in the 1960s, Gibbons’ band, The Moving Sidewalks, was lucky enough to tour with Hendrix. After every show and during every off day, Gibbons spent as much time as he could with the guitar legend, as any musician in his right mind would.

One lazy afternoon, before a show in New York, while the band members were lounging in their hotel rooms, Gibbons heard a strange sound coming from down the hall. As he approached, he realized what he was hearing—a clip of the same song, playing over and over again—and where it was coming from: Hendrix’s room. Gibbons stuck his head past the doorway to find Hendrix sitting in front of a record player. He wasn’t leaning back and enjoying the music. No, Jimi had his ear leaned in close to the speaker, pulling the phonograph needle back every few seconds, replaying the same segment of a Jeff Beck song over and over again. Pieces of Hendrix’s guitar littered the floor, the back of the Stratocaster open, its springs, switches, and other hardware actively being toyed with by the guitar legend with each replay of the tune.

Hendrix, the story goes, saw Gibbons in the doorway and looked up at him in wonder, pointing over to the record player. “How do you think he does that?” Hendrix asked as he moved the needle back one more time, leaning back to soak in the music. “I’ve got to figure out how he makes that sound.”

The curiosity machine

After hearing the Hendrix story for the first time, I realized that while the man was an undeniable force of talent, the music he made wasn’t just based on a superhuman ability to play an instrument. There was more than just talent in Hendrix—there was a hunger, a curiosity. A twinge of wondering how something works, and diving in head first to find the answer.

And that’s when it dawned on me: the thing that’s missing in organizations where things just aren’t clicking, where people have all the data in the world, but still don’t know what to do next: it’s curiosity.

I’ll make you a promise: the best people you’ll ever hire aren’t the ones working weekends or that get to meetings on time. The best people are curious about your business, about your industry, and about how things work. They’ll ask questions not just to hear their own voice, but to figure out how your world operates. They’ll ask questions that make you uncomfortable. They’ll make you smarter. They’ll make you better.

When someone starts a new gig, the first thing many of them ask is, “How will I be measured in this job? How do we measure success around here? How do we know we’re working on the right thing?” And then we, as business leaders, tell them exactly what we shouldn’t: the answer. But that’s not why we hire smart people, right? We don’t hire people to follow orders, or to do what we did yesterday. At least, that’s not what we should be doing.

Organizations are at their best when we hire curious people and arm them with the right data. We need to be building organizations filled with people that just have to know the answer to the question they just asked themselves at 3 am, and power them with data that will point them in the right direction. Not static data hiding in three-month-old PowerPoints—real-time data that can be explored, shared, and reconfigured.

I believe that data isn’t what we’ve been promised. It isn’t always an answer. It’s a spark. It’s a beginning. It’s a curiosity machine.

“Let’s find out”

I saw this happen in a meeting the other day: I asked a question about our current open headcount. Now, without access to the right data, that question would usually have been scribbled down in a notebook as a to-do, with a whisper of, “I’ll email that to you.”

Then the meeting comes to a halt and no decisions get made. We would then spend hours looking up the data, putting it into a deck, emailing a full descriptive narrative of what’s in the number and what’s not—because the data only gets compiled the first week of the month by Carl, and Carl was out this week—all explained in self-preserving detail in the body of an email that I may or may not actually read.

Or maybe the data is added to a scorecard. One that’s updated and shared each month. A scorecard that was created because we, as an organization, didn’t know what else to do with all the data. We figured it should live somewhere and putting it in a scorecard felt like we were doing something with it. But scorecards age, fast. They are static and cold. They’re created from someone’s point-of-view and include, deep down in between the lines, someone else’s agenda determining what you are and are not seeing.

But none of those things happened. What happened instead was pretty damn cool.

She turned to me and said, “I don’t know, let’s find out.” She opened a real-time dashboard, and we dove into that number, plus all inputs feeding the results. Two people, asking quick questions and getting quick answers, sitting side by side. We explored the data, figuring out the factors impacting our hiring, seasonal trends we should anticipate, and the decisions we should get ahead of. It wasn’t “my number is better than your number” or “we’ll have to have someone pull this data.” It was collaborative, it was useful, and it was, at least in that room on that particular day, a small little slice of the future we’ve been promised.

“I believe that data isn’t what we think it is. It isn’t always an answer. It’s a spark. It’s a beginning. It’s a curiosity machine”.

The new leadership goal: fuel curiosity

Data, at its best, answers questions for your business. But it does something else—it sparks new questions within your people. It allows them to test new ideas, to fail and to succeed (and actually know the difference between the two.) But for data to push the curious side of your people, it needs to be real-time, it needs to be accessible, and you need technology that allows your people to explore what’s behind an answer, not just get an answer.

We’ve been told that the wave of data is the future, but the pundits have missed the other half of the equation. Yes, you need access to real-time data, and so do your people. But more than that, we need to evolve our thinking. To evolve how we hire and how we develop our teams.

To encourage more questions. To build less scorecards. To let our people show us where we’re wrong. To have the confidence to hire people that will think of things we, as leaders, never thought of before.

Data fuels people—the right kind of people. And when you combine data with a certain mindset, you’re in the zone. You’re building a business that’s making the most of what it has. Instead of saying “I don’t know,”you’re saying, “let’s find out.” You’ve suddenly becomes Jimi Hendrix, huddled in front of that record player in that NYC hotel room—confident in your chops, but still curious enough to know you can always be better.

Shane Atchison is Domo’s Chief Marketing Officer. He brings more than 25 years in advertising and digital marketing leadership to Domo, most recently as CEO of WPP’s POSSIBLE. A recognized digital strategy thought leader, he has co-authored two books: “Actionable Web Analytics: Using Data to Make Smart Business Decisions” and “Does it Work? 10 Principles for Delivering True Business Value”.

Read this article and more by Shane Atchison at

Need more info?