5 Hot Tips for Project-based Online Coaching

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Project-based learning is everywhere. It’s infiltrated our schools and design curriculums – and for good reason. Working on projects is how work gets done in the real world. What better way to learn than by making progress on a project you care about? 

Design Acceleration as a service

shutterstock_185785310At Shufflebrain, we design smart games and game-like experiences for a connected world. For the past 2 years, we’ve been running online experiments in design acceleration. Our clients are startup teams and entrepreneurs worldwide who want to work smarter and faster, and dramatically accelerate their design process. We help teams find product/market fit by prototyping and testing their compelling, innovative idea with the right early customers.

Offering “design acceleration” as a service is not a new idea. Janice Fraser’s Luxr was an early, influential pioneer – and many design firms and accelerators offer great services and support to startup teams.

We love being part of this larger trend to help startups find product/market fit. And we’re different in a couple of key ways.

Online-only program for distributed teams

Most startup incubators, accelerators and support programs happen via in-person meetings. There’s real power in meeting F2F – but also friction, overhead and cost.

Today’s reality is that many product teams are distributed – and people often travel while they’re working on projects. So figuring out how to work effectively when you’re NOT co-located is powerful, timely and widely useful.

For these reasons, we focused our design acceleration experiments on delivering move-the-needle results online, without requiring in-person meetings or relocation.  We’ve had some great successes, and some high-learning failures — and we’re sharing those lessons here.

Early product design with gaming smarts

Our specialty is bringing innovative products, games and services to life. We’ve led the early design efforts for many  successful games, products, apps and services – including Covet Fashion, Happify, Pley, Pedago, Rock Band, The Sims, eBay, and Ultima Online.

This front-line experience gives us unique insight into the process that leads to breakthrough hits with long-lasting appeal. We use proven design shortcuts, sophisticated templates, and “gaming smarts” to help our clients decide what to work on first, how to create a compelling core loop, and why that matters for driving long-term engagement. Although this approach doesn’t guarantee success, it dramatically increases the odds that you’re creating something your customers want and need.

5 Tips for effective online project-based coaching

In the spirit of sharing what we’ve learned, and helping others succeed – here at 5 tips for super-effective online project coaching.

Tip #1: Embrace & master asynchronous communication

Over the past 2 years, we’re tried our many different tools for helping distributed teams make rapid progress on a design problem. There’s a place for live online meetings and screen-sharing conference calls (see below) but we found that using asynchronous communication tools like Slack, email and Google Docs greatly enhanced our ability to move things forward without the overhead of scheduling live meetings.

To do this well, you need to be able to communicate effectively online – and make a point to inject the conversation with those social, emotional interactions that keep people motivated and moving forward. The  customization and extensibility of Slack makes it an ideal tool for engaging and working with a distributed team. I’ll be writing a more detailed post about how we use Slack to do this — stay tuned.

Tip #2: Create a Flipped Classroom with bite-sized materials

You don’t have to be an educator to leverage the Flipped Classroom model. This idea was first popularized by Khan Academy; they offered math lectures online that teachers could assign as homework – freeing those teachers to spend class time working with students interactively on Q&A and group projects. Since then, many MOOC providers have developed this Flipped Classroom model – with varied results (see below for more on these issues).

It’s hard to break the lecture habit – but it just doesn’t work online. In today’s world of video-sharing and online collaboration tools, there is no good reason to share lecture-style knowledge live. If you want to coach and train project teams, you’re much better off creating bite-size, modular materials that are tied to specific activities.

That said, it’s not easy to create compelling, modular, bite-size learning materials. To do that, you need to distill and clarify your message, and learn how to communicate in short, re-mixable chunks. Giving a long, rambling lecture is much less work – but also much less effective and time-efficient for the learners.

Tip #3: Accelerate progress with guided, customized templates

As a game designer and startup coach, project-based learning involves making real progress on a coherent design project. In early product development, there are certain hacks and shortcuts that can move you quickly towards product/market fit.

Once I templatized these hacks, and created step-by-step instructions, my clients moved MUCH faster through the activities. The tricky part is communicating that the templates are a starting point – NOT the exact end result. The smartest teams I’ve worked with get this right away, and use the templates to accelerate the process, tweaking as necessary. Less experienced teams need more hand-holding to customize the templates to their needs and development stage.

Tips #4: Offer expert coaching for template-based activities

Our design acceleration goal is twofold: 1)  help teams solve early design problems smarter and faster and 2) empower those teams to continue solving problems quickly by teaching them design hacks and shortcuts they can make their own.

When we started working with teams online, we experimented with short live lectures, weekly Sprint kickoff meetings, and office hours for Q&A. We found that the most effective and long-lasting results happened when we focused on guiding our teams through template-based activities – not general learning. We evolved a rhythm of introducing a topic and template, and then reviewing several drafts of the team’s results from that activity.

The biggest challenge in working this way is fear of being “wrong.” Unlike traditional education, the purpose of project-based coaching is to make rapid process on a real project – and that means reviewing and tweaking early rough drafts. For some teams,  creating a draft design that’s flawed — but useful to move things forward – is a tough step to take.

The most gratifying and successful design coaching relationships happens when the teams embrace rapid iteration, and start being aggressive about articulating and testing their ideas. Focusing our work around templates streamlines this process and gives people permission to be “wrong” on the way to being “right.”

Tip #5: Use weekly sprints to provide focus & accountability

One of the biggest problems with online learning is attrition: on many platforms, only 3% of registered students finish their courses.  This problem is partly due to a lack of accountability and focus; if the students aren’t working on a real project, with real deadlines, there’s nothing to stop them for drifting away when more urgent needs arise.

To make sure this doesn’t happen, we only accept project teams into our program who have a real project – with urgent deadlines. For these teams, we’ve found that structuring our work together into a series of connected weekly Sprints is a key piece of the online project-based coaching puzzle. These Sprints keep everyone on the team focused and productive – and keep them from becoming overwhelmed with the rapid design process.

To run effective online design sprints, we’ve leveraged the Flipped Classroom model and created a series of modular learning materials and hands-on activities (see above). We’ve found that introducing and completing these activities week-by-week yields the best results for design acceleration.

We start each week with an overview of what we’ll be accomplishing, and the templates we’ll be working on. The teams execute on those tasks during the week, asking questions as needed. We then debrief at the end of the week to reflect on what went well, what could work better, and their key learnings – AKA SCRUM Lite. This process is highly efficient – and allows us (in the words of a delighted student) to make “6 months of progress in 6 weeks.”

If you’re interested in project-based design acceleration for your team, check out getting2alpha.com – our program for super-charging your path to product/market fit.