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2019

It is in our best interests to ask ourselves clarifying questions as we struggle with design puzzles. Are we pursuing the right solution? Are we even focused on the right problem? 

Every improvement helps. That said, it is tempting to want a slick, impressive layout for a course when the real need is better content. It is tempting to want greater speed building course content when the real need is a better UX plan with a student-centered rationale. We sometimes want our courses to be more entertaining when they really need to be less confusing. 

"The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency."

Bill Gates

Innovations in technology are changing our world faster than futurists can line up to predict what is next in business or education trends. Anyone who is old enough to remember standing in line to register for a college course or life before Google knows that there is no going back, and we don't want to. Nostalgia for what is lost has little value until it contributes to what is next.

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

Examining trends in Leadership and Organizational Communication reveals familiar, deceptively simple issues with severe impact. Organizational growing pains are utterly predictable and unavoidable, yet they stand as a somewhat positive marker of success. Growth is good, right? Unfortunately, growth is also laden with missed opportunities and unaddressed issues that grow as companies grow, with deep roots and scaling repercussions.

Solutions may be counter-intuitive to leaders because the same skills and vision needed to create successful companies can become the precise limiting factors for stable growth. Most companies and innovations would not exist without a leader's skills and attitudes, yet these same entrepreneurial skills often require being consciously set aside in order for organizations to move to the next level. Case in point is one of my favorite user experience UX heroes--and cautionary tale--Steve Jobs. 

Playing to Your Strengths versus Tackling Your Growth Edges

Long before documentaries, books, and feature films charted Jobs' amazing comeback and world-changing innovations, he was also a scary Silicon Valley poster-boy for purging hugely-successful companies of their founders in order to reach the next level. His maniacally-long work hours cut down legions of talented employees through burnout. Since stability and balance were not his virtues, he did not value it in the people around him. Converting the public to his elegant taste seemingly led rise to a belief that the rest of his decisions were infallible as well. Which, of course, they were not.

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One takeaway is: Whatever skillset leaders use to create their companies will tend to be over-used. Eventually, those same overused skills will aggravate the lingering weaknesses. Organizational needs may change and mature. The temptation is for leaders to just add more of what worked before. After all, it works! Until it doesn't.

For contrast, consider Starbucks' Howard Schultz who is generally lauded as a visionary leader. He was gracious enough to acknowledge a tough phase for his company when they had reached a peak of success and were risking a crash due to losing touch with customer feedback. (Check out fascinating interviews with Schultz and other thought leaders.) In a nutshell: An entrepreneurial founder tends to keep momentum by ignoring distractions from naysayers and charging ahead with a vision, inspiring people to join along the way. When that same company is a success, leaders do not readily change gears. 

Addressing the Little Things

Starbucks grew fast, outrunning feedback from customers and low-level employees while essentially labeling any unpleasant news as coming from complainers and their "negativity." Then the business was blindsided by the realities of shop closures as organized protests smeared the company image. Starbucks' growth and global reputation teetered until they reconsidered their strategies and the limiting attitudes toward feedback and complaints that were now embedded throughout the company.

Not surprisingly, a leader's attitudes become the organization's attitudes for better or worse. If the boss does not value customer complaints, no one else is motivated to accept feedback either. Starbucks re-blossomed when top brass gathered people with varying skill sets to manage communications and invited input from every employee. Now, each Starbucks Barista is considered the top advertiser and the top investment for retaining customer loyalty. 

Making room for complementary skills--not complimentary--is the mark of a mature leader. (See the book: The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make.) Leaders get successful by paying their dues, often fighting distractions to their vision and supplying the bulk of effort to successfully create a new product or innovate at the foundational level. Continued growth beyond a launch can be treacherous territory unless conscious effort is expended to stabilize and solidify innovation.

This ideal of stable growth is the product of cooperation from teams who duplicate the passion, but not the methods or personality of the original leader. Bold leaders set themselves apart when they cultivate differences, including skills and viewpoints they lack. Fine-tuning and addressing the little things like user complaints, employee ideas, and unpleasant feedback stabilizes organizations through the dangers of fast growth. Sometimes these small adjustments move beyond stabilizing and open the flood-gates for exponential growth, therefore, valuing interaction and openness is the next level of growth leadership. 

In the UX process of discovering what is useful and usable, learning moments (*mistakes) have an upside: lots of cautionary examples to share. Enjoy this selection of standout bloopers and rookie mistakes.

The iterative worlds of SAM, Agile, and ADDIE invite a continual balancing act between "get it done" versus "get it right." -Rachael Sweeten
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  • Asking your users to design the product. Looks like designers taking the users' orders. Sounds like, "If I give them exactly what they asked for, then they'll have to be happy."
  • User relies on the "Back" button. Puhleeez.
  • User is completely stuck. Excruciating.
  • Blaming the user. Sounds like, "They aren't tech savvy," or "They just need to learn how to do this." * The user has probably just learned to hate your product and to distrust you. 
  • Shaming the user. Sounds like, "C'mon. This is really easy." *Remember, everything is intuitive for the person who designs it. 
  • Breaking the 4, no more, rule. Long feedback forms require too much recall and invite ultra-negative feedback. Prioritize to 4 main questions, unless your goal is specifically to weed out unwanted users. 
  • Overconfidence in your product. Sounds like, "What's there to change? It's fine. Those complainers aren't our target market."
  • Uncertainty avoidance. Looks like analyzing in mid-test, rushing feedback, or accepting a wrong conclusion over not knowing.
  • Shiny Objects. As a rule, designers and other primates tend to covet shiny objects like the coolest interaction and the spiffiest layout. Designing to impress other designers is satisfying--until it bombs with your real users.

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A space where news and reactions to the proposed Thoma Bravo acquisition can be gathered that would be of interest to the community. Please add additional resources, questions or concerns in the comments.

2/19/20 Update: Lots happening in the last week or so, newest updates now at the top. Phil Hill expressed it well:

Last week: Check out this wild 72-hour period of news on Instructure.
This week: Hold my beer.

Stay tuned for more news!

News and Reactions

  1. What’s Next for Instructure? (2/19/20 — eLiterate)
    "My position has always been neutral-positive on Instructure being acquired by a private equity company in general and neutral on being acquired by Thoma Bravo in particular. Instructure needs some time to move past its current growth plateau. There is a reasonable argument to be made that they could focus on doing that with fewer distractions that could harm their core work for customers if they were under private ownership rather than under the quarter-by-quarter performance pressures of the public stock market. Instructure's acquisition could be good or bad for education, depending on two major factors."
  2. Instructure CEO Dan Goldsmith Resigns and New Approach for Bravo Acquisition (2/18/20 — Phil Hill)
    "For those who have not followed corporate acquisitions before: No, this is not typical. I’ve talked to several people in the investment community who have noted that they have never seen a sales process like this before. And there will be much more to the story as the new tender offer comes out."
  3. Corporate Leadership Changes and Acquisition Updates (2/18/20 — Canvas blog)
    "First, today we announced that Dan Goldsmith has informed us of his intent to step down as CEO... As an executive team, we realize some of this can seem overwhelming, but we will continue building products and helping this community to create the best educational experiences possible. We also promise to continue to be as transparent as possible."
  4. To Our Customers (1/20/20 — Dan Goldsmith, Instructure CEO)
    "In December, we announced that Instructure had reached an agreement to be acquired by Thoma Bravo, LLC, a private equity investment firm. Our board has always had a financial responsibility to the shareholders of Instructure, but as you all know, key components of the financial health of any organization are ensuring that customers’ needs are being addressed and that innovation is continuing at a healthy pace. Financial health, customer commitment, and innovation are inextricably intertwined and must remain balanced. Thoma Bravo also appreciates this balance and shares our commitment to customer success."
  5. Insights From Instructure Preliminary Proxy Statement (1/1/20 — Phil Hill)
    "I realize that the proxy statement is primarily driven by SEC rules, but Instructure is harming its brand by its consistent focus on monetization and shareholder value with no meaningful communication to customers or prospects (I do not consider the letter above meaningful). The academic LMS market deserves better from its market leader."
  6. Instructure’s Better Possible Future (1/19/20 — eLiterate)
    "Instructure's brand has, until now, been its primary and best product. It is still one of the best in the sector, even if it is getting a little ragged around the edges. Because the brand is still good, the company can still build the relationships it needs to make good acquisitions, evangelize those acquisitions to its customers, and work with its customers on even the most sensitive (and important) product research and development efforts."
  7. Instructure’s Proposed Acquisition is a Bad Risk for Everyone (1/6/20 — eLiterate)
    "Has Instructure provided customers with a detailed and credible enough strategic roadmap to inspire confidence that they have a more compelling alternative for growth? No, they have not. Has Dan Goldsmith thus far proven, lacking such a roadmap, that his reputation for performance alone is worth betting the company on? No, he has not. No smart PE company would make an attractive counter-offer under these circumstances. There is no sound investment thesis until Instructure is able to regain its footing as a product-led company."
  8. Letter to Instructure (12/26/19 — Ethical EdTech)
    "While debate continues regarding fair market price for the company (Hill, 2019b), there is much speculation within the Community and amongst stakeholders about the role being played in the sale by the student data Instructure has spent years collecting and harvesting to inform the company’s innovations."
  9. What’s the LMS Worth? (12/9/19 — EconProph)
    "Underlying the valuation question though, is the real concern. Can we discern the plans and future for Canvas (and thereby schools, instructors, students, the higher ed system, pedagogy, etc) from this transaction? "
  10. Private Equity Firm Thoma Bravo to Acquire Instructure for $2 Billion (12/4/19 — Phil Hill)
    "Obviously this is big news for the LMS market, and it is worth noting that in the press release Thoma Bravo specifically mentions Canvas but not Bridge, which should give a hint about future plans. And perhaps more importantly, the press release explicitly mentions future growth that will or could include M&A – Instructure buying other companies."
  11. New Ownership for an LMS Giant: Private Equity Firm to Buy Instructure for $2 Billion (12/4/19 — EdSurge)
    "But whether the sale is good news for colleges and other education customers remains to be seen, Hill added. “It’s now a waiting game to see how their strategy changes,” he said. 'Don’t expect it to be the same.'"
  12. Canvas parent Instructure to go private in $2B deal (12/4/19 — EducationDive)
    "How private equity will influence Instructure's operations largely remains to be seen. And as part of the deal, the company has 35 days to entertain other offers.'"
  13. Instructure—Creator of Canvas LMS—Acquired by Private Equity Firm for $2 Billion in Cash (12/4/19 — EdWeek Market Brief)
    "Brian Jaffee, a principal at Thoma Bravo said, 'We’ve followed the impressive Instructure growth story for many years and believe Canvas is a highly unique vertical market SaaS leader with exciting scale and future growth potential.'"
  14. Seven Things We Mostly Know About the Planned Instructure Acquisition and Three We Don’t (12/4/19 — Phil Hill)
    "What does this mean for Instructure’s future? One guess is to expect the Bridge separation with increased focus on the Canvas / academic business to happen quickly. Another guess is to expect Instructure to ramp up their corporate acquisitions starting in 2020."
  15. Letter from Dan (12/4/19)
    "Working with Thoma Bravo over the past weeks, it is apparent that they support our strategy for focus on continued investment in Canvas LMS, expanding our impact in education, positioning Bridge to be more successful, and being a well-run business. As a private company, we will be able to better control our future and execute on these strategic imperatives."
  16. Instructure Enters Into a Definitive Agreement to be Acquired by Thoma Bravo (12/4/19 — Instructure Press Release)
    "The Instructure management team, led by CEO Dan Goldsmith, will continue to lead the Company in their current roles. Thoma Bravo will support Instructure as it increases investment in education technology innovation and expands internationally."

Background Information

  1. Thomas Bravo Website
    "We are a leading private equity investment firm building on a 40-year history of providing capital and strategic support to experienced management teams and growing technology companies."
  2. Instructure Considering Sale Options (Phil Hill)
    "For academic community, it is worth noting that much of the investor-based pressure is for Instructure to focus more on supporting Canvas, not less. Instructure management has made it a point to say that they are increasing investment in Canvas, but today’s news puts even more emphasis on that need."
  3. Why Instructure’s News Matters: Market history (Phil Hill)
    "Why is a potential change as mundane as having Instructure’s shares traded in public markets vs. being owned by a larger company newsworthy?"
  4. Canvas LMS Provider Instructure Considers Sale (EdSurge)
    "The last time a publicly traded learning management system provider was taken private was Blackboard, back in 2011."

Resources and Reactions on Twitter

Twitter Thread of Resources from Kyle M.L. Jones on Twitter:

Kyle M. L. Jones on Twitter: "I'm gathering literature on the Instructure sale. Seeing as this doesn't seem to be in one…

 

 

 

 

Other Conversations in the Community

I'm sure more news and reactions will be coming in and as I'll update this as they do - feel free add any links or questions in the comments, follow to stay up to date. It will be very interesting to understand what this means for the future of Canvas!

 

Photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels

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