When I was a hiring manager, I spent a lot of time defining the critical skills I looked for in a product manager, and trying out ways to assess them in a fair, yet effective way. As a job seeker, I now look at ads trying to make sense of the questions or requirements they list. Curiosity is one of those skills that’s been a lot on my mind lately: how do we define it and how do we assess it?
I went down a path of listening podcasts episodes on the topic, and here I gather my thoughts enriched by what I heard.
Historically, the farther back in time we go, the more of a negative connotation curiosity has. At least in western cultures (curiosity kill the cat…). But when we get closer to current times and to when science started playing an important role in society, curiosity is seen as a positive way to understand, learn and even change the world around us.
But even in the present we can see that distinction. There are the curious acts that we are told to avoid. The intention is to protect us from harm (when curious about what happens if I jump off a cliff) or to protect others (their privacy, for example). But there is a curiosity about trying to make sense of things by connecting knowledge from different fields and topics, in pursuit of solutions. This is the kind of curiosity we should be aiming for as product managers. The one where we make sense of things to solve problems.
The authors of the book Curious Minds: The Power of Connection challenge the notion that curiosity is a way to simply acquire information. They look at curiosity as a practice of connection. When we are curious about something, we want to connect it with what we already know. In fact, that is how we build knowledge in our brains, by building complex networks of ideas connected with one another. Curiosity for them does not lead to a bunch of loose pieces of information, but rather to the modification of our existing networks of knowledge, and to their expansion in ever-ending ways.
To be able to build these connections, though, we have to have a good amount of knowledge before we are able to ask questions that will lead us to new and valuable information. This is what Ian Leslie, author of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, says. He believes you cannot directly teach curiosity, but you can share information in a way that prompts additional questions and triggers that curious way of thinking. He argues that critical thinking can’t be taught in the abstract. A person needs vast amounts of knowledge about a topic to be able to think critically about it. And the more you know about something, the better the questions you ask, as long as you do not let the instinct to get comfortable dominate you.
In the context of product management, this means we should focus on continuously learning about our business and the context in which we operate before we can come up with good questions and connect the dots around us.
This also got me thinking about the balance between being curious and being efficient. When we want to bring a solution into production we will have tons of questions about the feasibility, viability and desirability of it. But we have to address only the most critical questions around these three areas of uncertainty, else we risk never getting things done. Being explorative without constraints can work well if one is working in a purely academic context, but in the business world where achieving goals is necessary for sustainability, and with markets constantly and quickly changing, we need to limit the amount and type of questions we work with in the benefit of making timely decisions that result in actual business outcomes.
In many of the episodes I heard, they actually talked about conformity or incuriosity as the need to keep things stable. And this is what holds some people or organizations from being curious: the fear of changing things from how they are, or the fear of being pushed away because of getting our noses where we shouldn’t. Some companies, it seems, see curiosity as a threat that can lead to mess. But Francesca Gino, in a conversation in the HBR Idea Cast, says there is no evidence of this, and that among other benefits, curious companies tend to have less conflicts as people approach differences not with judgement or rejection but with a care and interest to understand the other person’s perspective. She does mention, however, that leaders that know how to manage this effectively make a clear distinction to their teams of when it’s the right time to be curious and explore, and when it’s time to put our heads down and execute.
To close this bit, let’s stay with this definition of curiosity that I think works well to define the trait we need as product managers:
“Curiosity is the mindset that challenges the status quo to explore, discover and learn”
Stefaan van Hooydonk, founder of the Global Curiosity Institute.
And let’s agree this is the mindset that as product managers we should bring to work in order to make sense of anything that leads us to solving problems. Or more specifically, to delivering solutions users will engage with and pay for.
In the second part of this topic I will talk about how we assess curiosity as a skill.