The shock of the new

March 19th, 2020

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How Covid-19 is forcing us to accelerate our thinking on distance learning. 

Gibson Biddle has spent much of the last two decades traveling the world talking to large audiences about how to improve their approach to Product Strategy. He’s also a guest lecturer at both Stanford and INSEAD. 

Last week, he was due to host a one day workshop in partnership with Beyond. However as Covid-19 disrupted his schedule, he was forced to reconsider his approach - and to think about other ways to coach the next generation of product leaders. 

In response to Covid-19, Beyond is now working with Gibson to trial his workshop online. The best response to adversity is innovation. Our enforced separation is forcing us to experiment and who knows, what we develop now might help us crack how we make online learning even more compelling than the real life version. 

Here Gibson tells his story…

It’s Thursday 12th March. It’s 2.30am. I’m in a London hotel room. My phone won’t stop ringing. I’m confused. I’ve just returned from a 2-day conference in Dublin and I’m due to speak to 60 more product leaders in under 6 hours. What is so urgent? 

One of the many people trying to contact me is my wife. She’s telling me that our President has just announced that the US will restrict air travel from Europe to the US - and that I should jump on the first flight home. My wife is a Professor of medicine at UCSF. She’s also an SVP at Bristol-Meyers Squibb, focused on their worldwide clinical trials. She doesn’t over-react. Neither do I. I haven’t canceled an event in the last three years - and I do a lot of events. However, I quickly found myself in a cab to Heathrow to catch the first flight before the airport chaos really set in. Fourteen hours later I’m exhausted and baffled - but back at home (in quarantine) with my wife and two daughters in Burlingame, CA.

And I have time to reflect.

Sometimes it takes a shock to force us into action. For many years we’ve been talking about disruption as if we really understood it. As we’ve begun to realise the full magnitude of Covid-19, we’ve been forced to get to grips with the most extreme disruption. Change is not always pleasant. But perhaps it will force us to behave differently - forever. I have already been on two board meetings (via Zoom) since I returned to California. All of the companies that I work with will endure. But the best will adapt.

I love to travel. And I love to talk to rooms full of people eager to learn. This is why I’ve dedicated the last five years of my life to doing exactly these things. But in the back of my mind, I knew that someday I would have to curtail my travel (the assumption was to lower my carbon footprint) and to increase my focus on online learning. The good news is that I’m pretty far along that path already.

For me, adapting means accelerating my progress in online learning. Here are a few things that I have learned in the past year, and I will be doing a lot more experiments with online learning in the future.

The best in-person teachers do a great job of engaging their students. In a classroom setting, teachers know they need to compete for their student’s attention by entertaining, by telling stories that pluck at their student’s emotion, and by inspiring lots of questions and giving thoughtful, highly personalized answers.

These fundamental teaching tactics are possible in an online setting. I do 2-4 webinars each month.I assign pre-reading to build commitment. I use Google Slides with a Slido integration to build in polling, word clouds, Q & A and lots of juicy “what would you do?” cases that drive conversation and land key learning concepts. And I make the participants work - so they have something to show for their efforts at the end of a session. It’s hard - I know my audience is often doing their email on the side - but I have learned how to fight for their full attention.

All of my teaching career I have used NPS (Net Promoter Score) as a proxy metric for talks and workshops. I achieved world-class NPS scores (in the 70s)  for my in-person events. And finally, after a year of experimentation, I figured out how to do the same for online audiences. I use the same in-class teaching tactics, but use very different tools and technologies for an online audience. I use a crazy combination of pre-reading on Medium, video interaction on Zoom, team collaboration using Google Slides, and lots of engagement tactics through Slido integrations with Google Slides. At the end of the day, the cool thing is I can handle large audiences, there’s no travel required, and just like Netflix members, students can learn “anytime, anywhere.” That makes all of this worldwide disruption worthwhile.