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!)

  1. Justin Tauber says

    As Archimedes put it, “Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the earth.” A pivot requires both a fulcrum and a place to stand.

  2. Jennifer Nelson says

    It reminds me of another long standing, often overused and morphed meaning business lexicon, “the pilot.” Often, “pilot” gets used as the term for executing a tactic on a budget that is a fraction of the size that is really required by the original design or the strategic impetus for the approach. The tactic is then done in a rather impotent way, it’s not subsequently scaleable or even repeatable (as would be suggested if something was truly a pilot) and no effort is put in to assess execution or impact — again, as would be suggested if something was truly “a pilot” that the organization could subsequently learn from.

    Sometimes, I’ve heard things declared pilots after the fact, when some approach really had not impact or new management comes in and is not enamored with what was done. So perhaps the difference between the false-pilot and a false-pivot is merely how up on the latest cool business lexicon the speaker is!

  3. Bill Carlson says

    My son is a sports enthusiast and a marketer (in the order he would probably describe himself :). He came across the term “pivot” in a marketing article a while back and mentioned to me that in basketball that means keeping one foot planted in a particular spot while being allowed to move the other.

    He also pointed out that good basketball discipline dictates that you don’t stop dribbling until you know what you plan to do with the ball. Being in a position where “pivot” comes into play suggests a full stop in the player’s progress and that makes you more vulnerable and limits your options — allows your competitor to focus on you at a particular point on the floor.

    Not big on overdoing sports metaphors, but this one works for me… Never heard a basketball player praised for their abilities “in the pivot.”

  4. Joe Bentzel, Platformula Group says

    Super stuff.

    I also love how supernaturally EXPENSIVE these ‘lean’ pivots can be when the company finally has to be transparent on their actual numbers.

    Case in point is Box.

    They pivoted from their freemium file-sharing app to an enterprise ‘content collaboration’ play and according to their S1 IPO registration statement are spending $2+ for every $1 of top line revenue. Now they’re delaying the IPO because of the blowback on their sustainability.

    I’d like to see a cartoon on a few Wall Street investment bankers sitting around and saying to each other how many ‘checkboxes’ they need to back a deal. You know, ‘disruption’, a few ‘pivots’ and then a little ‘creative destruction’ (i.e. of the individual shareholder’s capital) comes out the other side.

  5. Marti Tedesco says

    As with so many terms du jour, the initial meaning gets lost along the way. Can we talk about the word “agile”? These terms strike me as having the following definitions in practice:
    pivot – the grass is always greener so I changed my mind
    agile – the inability to commit to a plan or deadline so I am “agile and flexible”
    Looking forward to your next marketoon on agile development or marketing Tom!

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