Curiosity as a skill: How do we assess it?
In a previous post I talked about curiosity as a skill looked for in product management. In this one, I continue and wrap up the topic by commenting my observations on how we assess it and what to consider when doing so.
So how do we assess curiosity?
I easily came across many ways how NOT to do it. For example, I noticed this in the list of requirements of a job ad:
have installed more than 100 apps on your phone or signed up to more than 50 online services — knowing the popular user flows and trends, notice cool things and just like to keep yourself up to date of what’s out there and possible.
My first thought was “this is ridiculous” (the part about the 100 apps, but also the “cool” and “popular”; so subjective). I interpret it as they wanting to assess the candidate’s ability to stay curious about tech and UX, and their potential applications in the space in which the company operates. Regardless, I ask myself “is this the right way to assess it?”. No, I don’t think so. First, this shows more of a hoarding trait rather than a trait of being curious. Second, who is keeping count? If I have signed up to all those services, I probably deleted many of them as I may have been testing. I do not want to keep the junk. Digital clean up, anyone? Third, what if all the 100 apps are on one or two topics (e.g. gaming and photography). Is that even a wide enough perspective? I could go on and on about this one, but that’s not helpful, so let’s look at another example instead.
In one of the episodes I heard, the guest talks about objectively (he said that word!) assessing a person as incurious if in the first two minutes in a dinner they do not ask you questions. My first thoughts are: Why are they in that dinner? What kind of day did they have? What kind of people are they? Why are they together? Did someone put them there or are they there voluntarily?
So the most important thing I see missing from these examples is context. Context is extremely important.
The one example I really loved, shared by Francesca Gino, is this one:
At some point some workers went to the CEO and said, “There is a person who is stealing, you should fire him.” And they saw this worker leaving the factory on multiple occasions with pieces of iron and other materials directly from the factory. And the CEO, rather than firing the guy, decided to have a meeting with him. […] So he discovered during the meeting that this guy was bringing pieces of materials home because he didn’t have time to experiment at work. And so he was doing that at night and over the weekends. And so it’s just a great example of rather than taking a suggestion for granted, fire the worker, you explore it and you start asking question to the person and then you are actually allowing him to have more time to explore his interest. And what that led to was the invention of a machine that was one of the most successful products for Olivetti. In fact, at the time it was put on the market, it was selling at the same price of a Fiat Cinquecento, so a really high margin for the product.
In this example I see both sides are curious in a way that is beneficial to the company and that is not harmful to any of them as individuals. What this example got me thinking is that, for a company or an interviewer to be assessing curiosity, they need to be curious themselves, and care. In fact, interviewing a candidate is a skill in which you have to genuinely be interested in understanding the context of a candidate rather than looking for standard, prefabricated answers or possible answers that you thought of yourself before the interview. These answers are an example of how you think, but if you do not let yourself be surprised and be curious by how the candidate thinks, you may not learn anything new and you might be getting yourself an underperformer or, on the contrary, miss the chance of hiring a new colleague that will bring value to the team.
As a candidate, the same applies. I try to understand why am I being asked a question, what is the context of the person, the role, the team that I am trying to get to know here. True curiosity will get me to ask the right questions to understand who are these potential colleagues. It will also help me discover companies, teams, technologies, and roles I cannot possibly know of unless I stay open minded. This curiosity might lead me to find an exciting job that I could not have envisioned simply through my existing knowledge.
This curiosity is also helping me navigate the different experiences and rejections. After getting over the bitter feeling of not getting a job, I go back to my notebook to see if there’s a lesson in the experience and if I can integrate it going forward.
And no, I do not have a checklist type of suggestion of how to assess curiosity. I am suggesting here more a mindset, a way of approaching a conversation to understand the other side. I leave the details of what do you expect others to be curious about and figure out the questions to ask them based on this. Just avoid expecting/giving a very specific answer and try to get/give more context to it. Context makes the difference.
Now, let me finish this by leaving you with a list of the episodes I heard, so you can also get curious about curiosity.
- HBR IdeaCast / Episode 651, October 09, 2018 — The Power of Curiosity
- EconTalk, May 30 2022 — Ian Leslie on Curiosity
- Overthink Podcast / Episode 62, October 11, 2022 — Curiosity (feat. Perry Zurn and Dani S. Bassett)
- Digital HR Leaders with David Green, November 29, 2022 — Why Curiosity in the Workplace is Important
- Radio Headspace, October 7, 2022 — Boredom and Curiosity