My post last week on the innovation buzzword “disruptive” got me thinking about another overused and abused example in our corporate lexicon — “pivot”.
The idea of a pivot was first coined by Lean Startup writer, Eric Ries, as a type of course correction that startups can make as they find product-market fit. Here’s how he first described it in a blog post in 2009:
“I want to introduce the concept of the pivot, the idea that successful startups change directions but stay grounded in what they’ve learned. They keep one foot in the past and place one foot in a new possible future. Over time, this pivoting may lead them far afield from their original vision, but if you look carefully, you’ll be able to detect common threads that link each iteration. By contrast, many unsuccessful startups simply jump outright from one vision to something completely different. These jumps are extremely risky, because they don’t leverage the validated learning about customers that came before”.
The idea of a pivot was quickly adopted by Silicon Valley startups, but also jumped the tracks far beyond the startup world (from big brands to presidential campaigns). I think the word lost some of its meaning along the way. It started to be described as any sudden change in a company’s direction. Companies started to use the word pivot after any failure, whether or not they understood the problem.
A pivot is not a wholesale change in strategy because the old strategy failed. It’s changing one dimension of the old strategy and testing to see what works. As Eric framed it, a pivot is distinct from a jump. Ben Yoskovitz described the concept this way — “A pivot is a shift in one aspect of your startup’s focus based on validated learning.”
I think that pivoting is also linked to a key tenet of Eric’s Lean Startup methodology, failing when stakes are relatively low. Trying to pivot after a colossal failure or when the stakes are really high is too late.
I like this other takeaway from Ben Yoskovitz: “Pivots aren’t ‘get out of failure free cards’”.
(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)