How to embrace big moments of change
Advice and tips on how to manage seismic moments of change reflecting on one of our biggest moments at FutureLearn: when we received £50m of new investment.
I’ve written about how you can apply principles of good product development to evolving your product culture as you grow. This article builds on the idea that you need to embrace big moments of change.
In general, I suggested that the best way to manage change is by continuously deploying improvements to how you work and using tools like regular retrospectives to help you do this.
However, I also suggested that occasionally big moments come along and when they do you need to embrace them. These are often necessary times of turbulence, where some sort of pivot is required. But for them to be positive, you need to be proactive, find the opportunities and turn the disruption into force for good. You also need to tell a compelling story that your team can feel part of.
Here’s some pieces of practical advice about how to embrace big moments. I deployed these during one of FutureLearn’s biggest moments: when we took on £50m of new investment from Australia’s SEEK Group.
For FutureLearn, this was a huge moment. Up until that point, we had been wholly owned by the UK’s Open University, a 1960s pioneer of distance learning and a charity under Royal Charter. New investment meant not only significantly more money than we had ever taken on — and the expectations of hyper growth that came with it — but also a new shareholder with a much more commercially savvy approach on the other side of the world.
This understandably created a lot of excitement but also uncertainty about what it would mean. There were two phases to this. The first was the lead up to investment. The second was once investment happened, the new owner became public and the changes that came with it.
Create clear timelines
The process overall took about 9 months from going out to the market to completing the deal. During this period, the key thing was to share whatever could be shared in terms of the process that we were following and be as clear as possible about the times where we might know more. Then it was to make sure that we came back to people at the milestones we’d set out, even when in the event, there wasn’t always much to report.
As a leadership team we were unable to share who the potential investors might be for legal reasons. This felt strange at an organisation where one of our values was ‘Be Open’. So we also needed to be clear about what would be possible to share, what wouldn’t and why not.
This helped the team understand why some things couldn’t be answered and meant that generally people were respectful of this. Sometimes they even needed to be encouraged to ask more.
Don’t appear to be evasive or mysterious: be clear about what you can and can’t share and then be as honest as you can about what you’re able to. People will respect this.
We also needed to keep people focused on the day-to-day, due to the uncertainties of the process, timelines and outcomes. This meant finding the right balance: talking about it enough and not appearing to go quiet but not letting it become a distraction from what was important right now. This is where being clear about the milestones was really helpful. “We’re not going to talk about this until x date and then we’ll give you an update”.
Being as open as you can is important. If you don’t tell people things, they will fill in the gaps and often assume the worst — it’s human nature. Create a positive narrative, even if it’s about when and how you will remove the uncertainty.
Hopes and fears
Then, as the deal got close to being done and more people were drawn into the process, it became important to help the team mentally prepare, find ways to cope with any anxieties this created.
During this moment, I did something which was simple but surprisingly effective. I would recommend this to others in situations where a big change is about to happen. I ran a Hopes and Fears session with my team.
We spent an hour or so together, first spending a few minutes quietly writing down on post-it notes the things we were hopefully about and what they were fearful of. Then we shared them with each other. This enabled the team to articulate what they were excited and worried about, discuss it as a group.
It helped them to decide what was real and what was imagined. It gave them the opportunity to think about if there were things that we could do as a team to help our hopes become real and mitigate the things we feared might happen. Even where there weren’t any obvious specific actions, the simple act of sharing them was enough to make people feel more comfortable once investment landed.
The session made the team feel more in control of the change and empowered to embrace it. It helped them — and me — understand the things that were bothering them by articulating it or hearing others frame it better than they could. And it meant that they could support each other through it: we were all in it together.
The Big Retro
The second thing I’d recommend is something I did was after the investment happened.
A new owner and the forming of a new board also led to the creation of a smaller executive team. Up until that point, I had co led the product organisation in partnership with a Chief Technical Officer and Chief Experience Officer. The introduction of a smaller exec team resulted in me stepping up to represent the entire product organisation.
These changes in the leadership team understandably created a moment of reflection that led to both the Chief Technical Officer and Chief Experience Officer deciding independently that now was the right moment to move on. The departure of these two popular and talented leaders (who were also my own personal support network) created uncertainty in the technology and design teams and the product organisation as a whole that I was keen to quickly address.
I decided to run something I dubbed ‘The Big Retro’.
This was essentially five, one-hour retrospectives where we mixed teams up and asked people to think about the things that they couldn’t change within their teams. Things that were bigger about our product culture: what we should keep doing and protect, what we should change and what ideas did they have for making improvements.
Most of the themes that emerged were not surprising. But there were some interesting new insights and specific emphasis, along with lots of good ideas for what we could do to improve.
It gave me the opportunity to publicly reflect on some of the areas the team felt particularly strongly about and commit to doing something about them, which was seen as positively by the team. It also provided some real insights and stories from my team to share with the new exec — and incoming product team leaders — to get up to speed with.
This simple, low-investment activity enabled me to turn a moment of worry into an opportunity for positive change that the team bought into because they’d all been involved in it. I could reference the findings and confidently explain why we were making the change, rather than it appearing more of a personal hunch. And I could tell a positive story.
With big moments of change, you need to help your team feel part of it and empowered to make it a positive opportunity. If you do, rather than feeling disturbed by change, they will feel exhilarated by it. And teams that feel exhilarated are more likely to do great things.