Healthy, high-performing product teams have a culture of curiosity. These teams know how powerful curiosity is—and how easy it is to lose (especially as your company grows).
Curiosity is a muscle, and if you don’t use it, it atrophies.
In this post, I’ll explore how product leaders can foster healthy curiosity that keeps teams aligned and the product on track. Throughout this blog series, we’ll look at this in three key sections:
First, I’ll explain exactly what I mean by “curiosity,” why you should care, and outline a simple framework to visualize how this plays out.
In part two, we’ll zoom into the product lifecycle, explore dangers that pop up as we shift from discovery to delivery, and talk about the temptation to stop asking questions.
Finally, in part three, we'll explore the five elements of a culture of curiosity, and how to foster them for your team and organization.
Let’s get started.
First, a quick story about curiosity
My wife and I have three kids, and our middle son, who’s eight, has a naturally high sense of curiosity.
Recently we were at the library—quiet, peaceful—when, out of the corner of his eye, my son sees a fish pond outside. And before I know it, he’s off like a lightning bolt. He runs at a dead sprint through the door out to the pond.
And suddenly, the library erupts into chaos.
Yeah, you guessed it—the door was an emergency exit door, complete with a piercing alarm.
After things settled, it was a great teaching moment: encouraging his curiosity, and reminding him to be intentional about how. Especially if there are huge red signs about alarms.
As I was putting this together, I asked my son to define curiosity. His answer: To wonder.
I think this definition holds up when applied to product. That spirit of wonder is a beautiful thing—the compulsion to learn something new.
But we need to pair wonder with intentionality and action to make it work in the product sense. We’ll visualize this in the next section.
The curiosity grid
As you assess how your team, your org, and you as a product professional relate to curiosity, use this chart to assess where your org falls.
Let’s look at what each square means.
Lower left: For product people, apathy about the product or customer is like a poison.
The risk: When you don’t care, you can’t make the right product decisions. Apathy is what you hope happens to your competitors, and pray it never happens in your own org. No one wants to be in this square.
The fix: The truth is, you can’t wave a wand and cure apathy. But there are some exercises you and your team can do when you feel passion wavering:
Find ways to connect what you’re working on to something you do care about. For example, maybe you’re working on a seemingly forgotten corner of the mobile app. What story could you tell yourself to build passion? Perhaps you weave it into the story you want to tell about your career: How you built magic out of a dusty corner of the app! Or maybe it’s the tech stack–get curious about the tech, spend more time with the engineers, and come out smarter.
Start each team meeting with a customer quote. This is a simple way to help the team recenter on the customer and the outcomes, and the role each team member plays in reaching those goals.
Lower right: Lots of organizations are in a state of myopia. You’re building, shipping, executing. And it feels great! Your team has a strong sense of purpose and a clear finish line. The dangers in this square are:
Having such clearly defined goals that you’re blind to opportunities to deliver something better, and
Seeing the opportunity, but the organization has so much inertia toward the original goal that it’s impossible to pump the brakes and pivot.
The risk: It’s so easy to get addicted to action, and your learning muscles begin to atrophy, and it becomes easy to slip into apathy. If you don’t fight to stay curious about the customer’s needs and problems, the product drifts.
The fix: The trick is understanding the myopia square—it’s where “action” is all that happens. How do we fight it? What does a myopic environment need? A dose of wonder.
Upper left: The product team in the upper left square is wondering—about data, customer behavior, journeys. The spirit of exploration is alive and well on this team. (You might say they’re running through the emergency exit door.)
The risk: Tons of questions are bouncing around, resulting in scattered priorities and half-finished designs.
The fix: Curiosity needs to translate into clarity, action, and direction. The idea or insights is just part of the equation—the magic is in the follow-through.
Upper right: When high curiosity blends with a bias toward action, you achieve intentional curiosity. The most successful product teams care deeply about the customer and are motivated to act on the insights they uncover.
Of course, it’s unlikely that your team fits neatly into one box at all times. In the next post, we’ll look at how you might flow between boxes during the product lifecycle.
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