A burning platform ignites innovation

Nick Coster

16th of March at Brainmates was a sombre day. It was the last day the whole Brainmates Team was in the office together before shifting to remote working for who-knows-how-long. In the past two months, the coronavirus had shifted from being a worrying news article and a nuisance for travellers, to a global pandemic that changed all our lives and posed serious problems to our business.

We had always emphasised the benefits of a fantastic face-to-face product management training experience and with this now out of the question for an indefinite period we knew we needed to “adapt or die”. We had been thinking about taking our training online for some time, but it was already very successful, and growing, so it never seemed like a priority. Now, as we postponed all of our March and April courses and most of our private training clients deferred – it was a necessity.

Burn the Boats

When you have no other choice but to move forward, innovation becomes inevitable. Now that everyone was in a remote working situation, there could be no half measures, no blended combination of face to face and online.

One of the things that had put us off moving to online learning was the pre-fabricated recorded videos or webinars that people can view in their own time. There is a place for these, but it wasn’t the experience that we wanted to deliver. Our Essentials of Product Management course is highly interactive and creative with many free-form exercises and collaborative activities. But how to take that online without losing any of the energy, fun and personal interaction that made it so successful?

Thankfully we had a willing partner who had already booked in a private course and was keen to proceed with the online version. It meant, however, that we only had 7 days to come up with a solution.

Setting out for the brave new world

After some research and trialling different tools and platforms we landed on a great combination of technology which we thought could deliver a great experience to the participants:

    1. Video conferencing – Zoom.com
    2. Interactive exercise boards – Miro.com
    3. Presentation – good ole Powerpoint

Nick presenting

We then needed to think through exactly how to deliver the best experience with these tools. These were the main factors we considered and how we overcame them:

  • At our face-to-face courses maintaining eye contact and engaging the audience is something we focus a lot on. To replicate this in the online course we made sure we stood up (to keep energy levels high and let us use our whole body to express ourselves) and looked directly into the camera. This really helped to replicate the live experience and to keep the audience engaged and interested.
  • There’s nothing more boring than a training course where you just sit still and are talked at the whole time. This is even worse online. Part of what makes a great course is interacting with and learning from all the other attendees as well as the trainer. We specifically chose Zoom and Miro to maximise interactivity
  • Zoom is perfect for allowing you to watch the presenter as well as others in the class and the way it switches between speakers is excellent for group discussion. We also made great use of the ‘breakout’ rooms which allowed us to split the class of 16 up into smaller groups for more intimate discussions.
  • Miro is a fantastic collaborative tool which allowed us to replicate, and in some ways better, the experience of writing and drawing together and posting on wallcharts. Miro allows huge canvases to be shared with multiple users in real-time and as it’s so easy to use, after a short learning period you can easily create and manipulate digital post-it notes, add them to a board and move them about and watch other people doing it.
  • Before the class, we meticulously stepped through every exercise in the course and created a digital representation of it in Miro. In some cases, this was as simple as providing a digital flip chart page where participants could place digital post it notes. In other cases, we reconstructed the process for developing a customer journey map and breaking this down into individual user stories.We further personalised each Miro board with attendees’ names and images so they could see exactly where to put their work and “see” each other as while they were looking at the Miro boards, they couldn’t see each other on video.We then sent individual invitations to all attendees explaining how the course would work and inviting them to a warmup Miro board where they could try out the tools to allow a faster start to the actual training.

So, how did it go?

We knew that the course content was good because of the feedback we’ve received from delivering it to nearly 3,000 Product People face-to-face. The question was: ‘Could we keep it engaging over a three-day video call?”. Thankfully the answer was a resounding “yes”!

Our Net Promoter Score (NPS) average for the Essentials of Product Management course for the last two years is +70. For those not familiar with NPS it simply asks whether people would recommend your course, business, dog-grooming service etc. 0 is neither good or bad, 70 is already very good, but for our first remote, real-time course we managed an amazing (and hugely gratifying) score of +100!

Here’s the detailed course feedback we received:

What worked well?

Firstly, our trainer, Kent Weathers, is a wonderful professional presenter. He was meticulous about getting the video display, audio and eye contact lines right so that everyone felt like they were really there.

Secondly, we knew we already had a great course, so we didn’t try to change the content too much for online. We concentrated on making it work for online, with little tweaks and changes in delivery, content, length and timing rather than ripping it all apart – this enabled us to transition quickly.

Thirdly (why does nobody ever say that?) the Zoom breakout rooms, and Miro real time collaboration boards were brilliant.

  • The Zoom breakout rooms allowed us to split the group of 16 participants in to 4 teams of 4. These virtual rooms allowed more focused collaboration without the noise of the rest of the video participants to disturb the smaller groups.
  • The Miro boards provided everyone a space for their own ideas, but they could also see what other team members and other teams were up to at the same time. It’s amazing to watch as everyone’s mouse cursor was labelled and the page was alive with simultaneous activity. Our client Product Leaders also said that in some ways it was better than face-to-face as he could make sure that everyone participated, and he could actually see what they contributed. Often in group exercises in a face-to-face class there are one or two people that dominate a group.

EPM miro board

What could we have done better?

We already knew that sitting by yourself and staring at a screen can be exhausting and de-energising, but we could have done more to keep energy levels high. We included some breaks, but we need to get better at integrating greater physical stimulus to keep the mind sharp. We’re thinking about things like short bathroom breaks, micro workouts, house sprints and other mini activities.

We also need to get people more familiar with the new tools before the training starts. This was our original intention, but time was against us. We’ll be able to do this better with more time and planning. We have learned that 16 people remains the maximum number for a great interactive, online class – as it does for a face-to-face class. While we are not constrained by physical space, we still need the virtual interactive space to have enough room so everyone can actively participate and be seen and heard.

There are some activities that we need to find new ways of working into the course, including some of the live flip chart drawings that we produce and some of the fun icebreakers that we ask people to do. We’re already thinking of innovative ways of incorporating this.

While there are definitely tweaks and ways of improving the course, we are thrilled that we were able to run it so successfully the first time. We’re also very thankful to our client that they trusted us to deliver a great experience and we didn’t let them down. When we have our backs to the wall, we can do amazing things.

We are now running remote, real-time Essentials of Product Management courses in April and May, why not come and join us?

Find out more about the course and register

Nick Coster

Nick Coster | Author

Passionate about building products and services that delight the user and customer. Ask Nick about changing Product Manager behaviour.

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