What separates successful digital product managers from their peers?

For one thing, it’s curiosity.

Your curiosity is key to understanding a customer’s business and what drives them and will help you unlock unidentified opportunities to create new value in the future.

Before I go on, just what is curiosity?

Experts in the cognitive sciences study curiosity, seek to define it, describe it, and understand its benefits. Some studies have shown that curiosity enhances learning and exercises the brain.

Charan Ranganath, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, conducted a study to learn more about curiosity and its connection with learning. He found that curiosity is linked to the release of dopamine in the brain, the same neurotransmitter associated with exercise, meditation, yoga, and sex.

“There’s this basic circuit in the brain that energizes people to go out and get things that are intrinsically rewarding,” Ranganath explains. This circuit lights up when we get money or candy, for instance. It also lights up when we’re curious. When the circuit is activated, our brains release dopamine, which also “seems to play a role in enhancing the connections between cells that are involved in learning,” says Ranganath.

Another benefit: If you are continually looking at the world and wondering “How?” “Why?” or “What if?” your brain is active and — like a muscle — it’s being exercised.

How does curiosity help improve product management practice?

  • Deeper learning about customer needs. Curiosity impels product managers to learn more about customers and their needs, including which needs are most important and what’s driving them. This exchange of ideas and information also creates a stronger bond with customers, one that is based on a foundation of empathy.
  • Greater creativity and innovation. Curiosity often leads to more innovative thinking. The curious mind recognizes novel ideas, questions patterns, and seeks to understand cause and effect. These learnings help product managers identify new opportunities and novel solutions, as well as recognize emerging threats.
  • Anticipating and mitigating risks. Curiosity helps product managers consider a wider range of business scenarios, allowing them to foresee potential risks and preemptively formulate plans for a response.
  • Avoiding unintentional bias. Curiosity helps organizations avoid confirmation bias — the cherry-picking of information that supports preexisting opinions or beliefs. Actively seeking all the information available is natural for curious people, opening new perspectives about how to approach an opportunity or a problem.

How can you help your product management team become more curious?

  • Model curiosity. Ask your team — and others in your organization — open-ended questions. Ask “why” questions, and when discussing issues, make a habit of exploring why certain challenges occur. When trying to solve a problem, slow down and explain your questions and thinking process.
  • Encourage going beyond the status quo. Sometimes, curiosity in the workplace is viewed as challenging the status quo, which might feel uncomfortable. Encourage the team to challenge how things have always been done at the organization.
  • Make learning part of the agenda. Engage your colleagues to motivate their teams to learn about other areas or practices within the company. What processes do they use? What are their goals? How do they make decisions? Ensure that the environment is favorable to questions (“There are no dumb questions”) by asking the first basic question. Not only does this foster an environment of learning, it also supports a more collaborative and empathetic culture.
  • Encourage questions. Consider conducting some exercises with your team that allow them to ask their own questions. Put a problem out to the team, and instead of brainstorming solutions, ask them to formulate as many relevant questions as possible. Warren Berger, the author of “A More Beautiful Question” said, “[Whenever] someone steps back and asks, ‘Why are we doing things the way we’ve been doing them all along? What if we tried a whole new approach?’ — that, to me, is a beautiful question.”

Curiosity can be encouraged. Just like with anything else, you must start by establishing good habits.

Join us at this year’s B2B Summit North America, June 5–7 in Austin, Texas, and digitally, to hear more about the keys to digital product management success.