One of the primary predictors of successful Product Managers that I’ve seen in my time is the amount of curiosity that they are willing to express in their work and in their lives. This makes a lot of sense when you think about it, given that Product Management is all about having a broad swath of experience and ability from which to pull in their daily lives. A well-rounded person is nearly always more likely to be a more effective Product Manager than someone who strictly focuses on one or two disciplines.
Here are some of the reasons you, as a Product Manager, should be as curious as possible…
Curiosity Feeds Humility
One of the common faults that I find in newly-minted Product Managers, and occasionally even in veteran Product Managers, is a lack of humility — often this is evidenced in a belief that they alone are the arbiters of what the customer and/or the market wants. And it’s easy to fall prey to this trap in your career — when everyone is asking you what should be done, or what the users want, or what the competition is doing, it’s entirely natural to begin to see yourself as the hub around which all the spokes of the company revolve. But this is a very dangerous game to play, as it’s simply not true the vast majority of the time. There are other stakeholders, there are actual customers to talk with, and there are things that you don’t know that you don’t know — unless you actively seek them out.
And this is where curiosity comes in — actively seeking out the things that you may not know that you don’t know (the “unknown unknowns” in Rumsfeld-speak) requires that you accept that you don’t know everything. It requires that you demonstrate some humility both in principle and in practice. When you start seeking questions, rather than giving answers, it’s inevitable that people will see that you don’t know everything about the product, the user, or the market. And that’s okay — in fact, it’s preferable that you’re not seen in the company as some bizarre Oracle of Delphi where the product is related, because it’s necessary that people question your decisions to keep you honest.
A good Product Manager is humble enough to know there are questions that they don’t have the answers to, and curious enough to proactively discover what those questions are.
Curiosity Builds Social Capital
If you’ve read my blog for awhile, you’ll notice that I’m a strong believer that the #1 tool that a Product Manager has in their belt is social capital. It’s the currency that we collect, save, and spend in order to effectively lead through influence, and it’s absolutely essential to manage that resource wisely. The best Product Managers save social capital like it is a precious commodity; the worst blow it on silly disputes and inconsequential feature requests. Managing your social capital is as essential to a Product Manager as managing code branches is to a developer, or managing an event calendar is to a Marketing team. It’s part and parcel of the job, though it’s often neglected as a focal point in training or mentoring new Product Managers.
Curiosity is a key tool in adding credits to your social capital ledger, and it generally costs nothing from that same ledger to engage in — or at worst, it has minimal cost for a very large return. By demonstrating to others that you’re honestly interested in what they do, how they do it, or even in their non-work activities, you are directly obtaining social capital that you can spend at a later date. You’re building connections, allowing others to use their expertise, and showing a willingness to collaborate and work together, that will pay off big in the future. Nobody wants to help out someone with whom they feel no connection — either on a personal or professional level — but everyone wants to be helpful to those with whom they share something in common. Curiosity is a tool that opens those doors — it provides the opening for a Product Manager to better understand the people with whom they work, and to build the relationships that you will need to leverage in the future as you need to get things done in the company.
A good Product Manager uses their natural and honest curiosity to build connections and rapport with others in their company, to increase the amount of social capital available in the future.
Curiosity Rounds You as a Person
Setting aside Product Management, curiosity is an important aspect of our everyday lives outside of work, as much as it is inside our work environments. The world around us is almost unfathomably large and complex, with a nearly infinite number of possibilities that lay ahead of us — but unfortunately strongly limited by the amount of time we’ll all actually spend on the Earth. We never know what the future will hold — either personally or professionally — and it behooves us as individuals to make the most of the time we have, while preparing us for as many possible futures as we are able to conceive.
It’s very common for us to identify strongly with our jobs — after all, many of us spend most of our waking hours working every week, with only evenings and weekends to explore the world around us. But it’s important to realize that we are not our jobs — something that I think Product Managers often have difficulty doing, as we are often expected to be on-call and on-task even when we’re not “at work” when something important comes up. Maintaining our curiosity about the world around us — whether that’s reading a new book, taking a trip to a new part of the country you’ve never visited, or even expanding your technical skills by trying to build something on your own — never hurts us; it only helps to make us a more rounded and complete person, and that directly makes you a better Product Manager.
A good Product Manager maintains a healthy amount of curiosity about the world around them, and experiments with new things to broaden their vision and experience as a person.