What product managers can learn from teachers about running great workshops

We have an ex-teacher turned data scientist in our team who is an excellent presenter. He’s also good at running engaging workshops on even the dullest of subjects. I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising that teachers make good presenters and workshop facilitators. A huge part of their job is lesson planning. A lesson is basically a workshop, and students have got to be one of the hardest audiences. I’ve been using this person as a sounding board for my workshops with the team and he’s given me some great pointers recently. It got me thinking about whether there were other ideas I could steal from the teaching profession to improve my product management skills. Here’s a starter for ten…

They recognise everyone learns in different ways

A long time ago, when I wasn’t very happy in advertising, I explored the idea of becoming a teacher. I remember doing some work experience in a school and being exposed to the planning that went into every lesson for the first time in my life. It amazed me. One of the things I found particularly interesting was the way teachers think about different learning styles. People take information in in different ways, and so if you want to engage a group of people then you should probably think about the 4 main learning styles:

  1. Auditory
  2. Visual
  3. Read/write
  4. Kinesthetic (or tactile)

Some people can take information in by listening to it, others like to draw it or have it drawn out for them. Plenty of people need to write stuff down to remember it (I’m one of those) and some people like to be able to carry out physical activities that help embed what they’ve learnt (that’s what having a kinesthetic or tactile learning style means). If you can find a way to include all of these styles in your workshops you’ll maximise your chances of making it memorable for participants.

Teachers plan for energy as well as content

Everyone’s energy levels fluctuate throughout the day. Nobody likes to be the last session before lunch or the first session after at a conference. But, if you’re running a workshop there are things you can do to effect the energy in the room. Sometimes it’s good to have some individual reflection time at the start of a workshop. It helps people gather their thoughts and get in to the right headspace. But if the whole session is just lots of questions and individual reflection the energy is going to dip. Planning a mixed session with some parts working in pairs, others as a whole group or small teams will help vary the energy throughout the session and keep people focused.

They know that questions are more important than lectures

Any teacher worth their salt knows that telling kids information isn’t going to result in effective learning. The trick is to know the rights questions to ask to help them figure out the answer themselves. This is a bit different from the workshops we run in an agile team because we don’t just ask questions to help people learn but because we work in a collaborative way. We get to better solutions as a group than on our own. However, the principle of thinking about the right questions is an important one. In the workshops I run I like to have some idea of where I want to get to, but I always find I get to a better place when I ask questions rather than try and participate in my own workshop and direct people to the ‘right’ answer.

They don’t forget about the little stuff

It’s easy to think you’re done planning a workshop when you’ve worked out what the activities will be. And ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ is a pretty good mantra to live by. EXCEPT when running a workshop. Don’t have enough pens or post it notes? Have a table in between everyone and the wall you want them to write on? Print outs too small for people to read? All these things are small, but they are fundamental to the smooth running of a workshop. If you make it even a tiny bit difficult for people to engage they will switch off. Because nobody feels as excited about your workshop as you do. So run through your workshop plan with someone step by step, including all the detail about when you will hand stuff out and how they will respond.

They are damn good at predicting and managing time

This take practice. I’ve definitely not got it right yet. I always think things won’t take as long as they do. This is partly about knowing your group and how chatty they are and how much stimulus they will need. I always under-estimate the amount of time it will take to share with the group the post it notes everyone has written on their own. 15 people with 5 post it notes each adds up pretty quick! And it’s the discussion that’s valuable, so plan for it upfront otherwise you’ll be checking your watch the whole time rather than listening to the juicy stuff.

They plan more than they can cover but don’t rush

Teachers always have an ‘extension activity’ up their sleeve for the geeks in the class who finish early. They know people work at different speeds. You can’t plan a lesson as though everyone is going to get to that extension activity, but it’s helpful to have thought about what else they can usefully do in advance. An extension activity is a great idea for workshops I think. It isn’t a requirement, so you don’t have to panic and rush the conversation to get to it, but it gives you the sense of security that if the group finishes ahead of time you’ve thought about what would be valuable to cover next.

They know their students

Finally, they know their audience. As we should know our teams. And if we’re facilitating a group we haven’t met before we should probably do some homework (pun intended) and find out a bit about them. Not what they know and what their job titles are, but how much they engage, how they interact as a group, whether they are introverts or extroverts.

So those are some things that I think teachers can teach us about delivering workshops. Add any I’ve missed in the comments! And thanks teachers :)