Vivian Shen is the CEO and co-founder of Juni Learning.
When I was young, maybe 8 or 9 years old, I was a voracious reader. My mom would drop me off at the local library on the weekends, where I’d wander the stacks of books and spend afternoons reading anything and everything. It was magical: Turn down a random aisle, find a book, and enter a new world of science, or magic or history — wherever my curious mind wanted to go. If I had a question, I’d search out the answer inside of a book, and there were no bad questions.
Today, I’m the founder and CEO of Juni Learning, an online learning platform dedicated to teaching kids new skills and fostering their imaginations. We teach kids to code, we teach kids to build robots, we teach kids to create games and apps, and we teach kids to explore. Each day, I’m reminded that we work for curious minds. And it’s this trait, curiosity, that I’ve also tried to foster in my own team as we build the future of education.
Curiosity, simply, is an inquisitive, innate desire to know and learn. In a professional environment, curiosity lends permission to be creative, to challenge the status quo and to do our best work. The constant quest “to learn” inherently produces better results, cultivates a happier, more fulfilled team and instills a sense of ownership in the work that isn’t attainable by doing things how they’ve always been done.
Much like the “network effect,” which states that the value of a good or service grows exponentially as more people use it, curiosity, when allowed to thrive, creates an analogous boon for organizations and teams. I call this “the curiosity effect" — the more curiosity is unleashed among colleagues, the more curious the entire organization becomes, and, ultimately, the more an organization thrives. The journey to becoming a more curious organization — to unleashing the curiosity effect — isn’t easy and it’s never quite done. Here are some things we’ve learned along the way.
Embrace “childlike” thinking and a culture of exploration
Our users are literally children, and kids, often having no filter, are invaluable critics. We’re fortunate to have users that naturally have a childlike wonder, give us honest (sometimes too honest!) feedback, engage with our content and unabashedly share ideas. While maybe your customers aren’t bright-eyed children and tweens, every company has equivalent resources and ways to surface new ideas: users who love the product and want to be part of making it better, new employees, hackathons and open brainstorms. Creating a curious culture also means removing barriers to open discussion and ideas. We create space for teams across all levels to contribute, to question and to share feedback, fighting any notions that the “higher ups” have the right answers. Adopt a “no dumb question” policy, and encourage teams to dig deep into data and research to identify opportunities and potential solutions. My team leans into this by keeping curiosity front-and-center in the analysis process, diving into the proverbial rabbit hole and allowing for exploring the best answers as they arise.
Curiosity and creativity can’t thrive without some structure. Structure is not the enemy of creativity, rather the right structure focuses ideas and speeds innovation. As a leader, I embrace and extol the virtues of design thinking — empathizing with our users through research, defining their needs, ideating potential solutions and prototyping and testing these solutions quickly and iteratively. We provide structure and context for curiosity and new ideas, by identifying the goal first, and then allowing the best path forward to unfold as we embark on the questioning journey together. While we want to embrace our inner child, sometimes we still need to color inside of the lines and focus on an end result – in our case, we’re trying to create magical learning experiences for kids. There are many ideas that, while good, simply don’t map to our mission. A good structure encourages forward movement. Innovation may zig and zag, but it’s important to keep progressing towards your goal.
Measurement matters too. Which ideas are working and why? We’re constantly iterating and examining to identify forward progress — and we adjust quickly and often to strategically move closer and closer to the goalpost. Based on mounds of data, user feedback and a commitment to the cutting edge — we’re fanatics about monitoring the barometers of success, and stay analytical and nimble in our approach.
Create the curiosity effect
Many organizations prioritize efficiency over exploration to the detriment of creativity. In competitive work environments specifically, there is often a drive to be first, to be right and to arrive there autonomously — stifling healthy investigation and teamwork. Another common sentiment among fast-moving, quickly growing companies is to avoid bringing attention to a challenge without proposing a solution. And so, many continue operating in the status quo. But allowing the unknown itself to be a barrier is a pitfall. By creating the environment for curiosity to thrive — taking those deep dives into the unknown — while also providing guidelines and structure to harness and advance the best ideas, organizations can unleash the curiosity effect. The free flow of ideas in pursuit of shared goals builds on itself and everyone feels part of the creative process.
Build new worlds
Even now that I’m older, I find that immersing myself in the fictional worlds of the characters in books made me perceive my own world differently. It’s allowed me to embrace the new and unfamiliar and helped shape my perspective as a leader. If you’re looking for inspiration to upend your approach and stir curiosity within you, I encourage you to look in unexpected places — a book, a podcast, the quietness of a getaway trip. Unplugging from the everyday is an important and underrated practice on the journey to becoming the best leader that you can be. While I read my share of business and leadership books in my ongoing quest to learn from great entrepreneurs, I also often turn to fiction for inspiration; a great work of fiction invites you into new worlds in a way that little else can. What is building a great team or company if not engaging in some level of world-building? How will this world work? Where are we going? Which library aisle should I wander down next?
Curiosity is an incredible attribute. Humans are inherently thirsty for knowledge, and companies are inherently good at stifling it. If founders, leaders and those on a quest to change the world from within a company can tap into the magic of the curiosity effect in their own organizations, they will see the cumulative network effect and experience firsthand how the best companies and leaders are set apart by the childlike curiosity that is inside all of us.