How A Culture Of Learning Makes Teams More Productive

Quora is all about helping people learn–and applying those principles has helped it work smarter, says product manager Sandra Liu Huang.

How A Culture Of Learning Makes Teams More Productive
[Photo: Flickr user Wonderlane]

Quora’s mission is clear: “To share and grow the world’s knowledge.” It’s a far-reaching goal, but even the loftiest ideas can succeed if there’s a solid base to stand on–and for Sandra Liu Huang, director of product management at Quora, that base starts with creating a culture of learning within her team.


“Our broader mission is sharing and growing knowledge, and as a result we hope the people who want to work on this product care about learning or creating platforms for other people to do that,” she says.

So how can encouraging your employees to learn boost productivity? Huang lays out four guiding principles:

Make It Okay To Ask Questions

Sandra Liu Huang

“We have weekly Q&A sessions where the whole company comes together. This was true when we were 20 people and it’s true now when we’re closer to 100. People can ask questions of [CEO Adam D’Angelo], of other managers, or each other. It’s really about being encouraging of what people what to know about in the company.

The second area is making it okay to ask outside. We feel comfortable consulting with other companies we might have some connections with, where they might have similar challenges, where we might learn if we share best practices with each other. An example: Recently, we hosted a roundtable where startups came to Quora to talk about infrastructure. A lot of us use Amazon Web Services and we were starting to think about how we could improve cost. We wanted to learn from bigger companies and smaller companies what they had taken on.”

Invest In The Belief that Everyone Can Learn

“There’s a concept in this book called Conscious Business about learners versus knowers. We try to hire people who don’t necessarily have all the answers but are curious and interested in learning and growing. We’re a startup that, I think, is doing something novel. So you need people who are naturally interested in looking for solutions because not all the old solutions are going to apply. In my interviews, I’ll usually ask people what their biggest learnings were from different experiences. What I’m looking for isn’t that you’ve done great things but you’ve learned from them. The trajectory for your growth is essentially much higher if you have someone who’s really into learning versus someone who’s like, “I know everything–I’ve got it all down.”

Create Opportunities to Learn

“You can’t really learn in a vacuum–the more opportunities you have to practice, the more you can learn. One big aspect for that is making sure you have the ability to get feedback really quickly. You can launch things but if you’re not getting feedback, you won’t know what’s going on. We do that both through both qualitative feedback and quantitative feedback. We’ve always had a data team and now the data team is a substantial part of our dev team. Investing in that data team lets us run experiments quickly, get data quickly, and get feedback fairly fast without a lot of overhead. The flip side of that is having qualitative feedback. I have user researchers on my team and that’s been really helpful to directly hear from users. The combination of qualitative and quantitative gives you a better sense of reality.”


Learn to Prioritize Properly

“Working at a lot of fast growing companies, there’s a propensity for a lot of us to do everything ourselves to help the team. One thing I’ve learned over time is sometimes you need to let things fall. Early on in my career I would say, ‘Oh, we have these 10 problems and let me do everything I can to fix these problems.’ I realized that’s not the most scalable thing to do. It’s actually better to tackle the most important holes and make sure the other holes have surfaced. Because if they haven’t surfaced, you don’t really learn from the fact there are those holes and how big they are. So it’s letting those holes be there so you can learn more about them and then putting a longer-term solution in place versus you going in and patching them temporarily.”

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.