Can We Stop Pivoting Already?
During a low point for fictional company Pied Piper in the Season 1 finale of HBO's Silicon Valley, one of the characters tries to rally the team by saying, "We've got a great name, we've got a great team, we've got a great logo and we've got a great name. Now we just need an idea. Let's pivot."
At some point in the past 30 years, the business world made the mistake of equating change with progress. In tandem, we've all identified ourselves as change makers and disruptors. We change the game and flip the script. We adapt or die. We pivot ad infinitum and pat ourselves on the back for doing so.
The need to change and adapt isn't new -- man plans, God laughs, man adapts or man dies. But somewhere in the past decade or so, we got a little too self-righteous about adaptation.
Once upon a time, fundamentally misjudging your product market fit, who your customers are and what your key value propositions are were fatal mistakes. Once upon a time, incrementally adapting to the changes in trends, technology and customer segments was called smart management.
Eric Ries' The Lean Startup debuted in 2011, and while Ries didn't invent the pivot, his book made it popular. In his methodology, changes to any of the following areas of business constitute a pivot: key partners, key activities, key resources, cost structure, value propositions, channels, revenue streams, customer segments, customer relationships. So, anything.
Now every decision point is a pivot, some sort of existential realigning of your universe. And it does nothing to advance the way business is run. Pivots are another way for Silicon Valley to cover its ass and merchandize the learning curve all businesses go through as unique to their identity and importance. They exist only to diminish the value of smart business practices, or mask the absence of common sense. The pivot is a feign, and one that leaders use to avoid addressing the cultural effects of guessing and being wrong so damn often.
And that's why the pivot needs to die.
Big pivots are Hail Marys.
In our globalized world, business circumstances change all the time, and the smart businesses change along with them. I'll get to that in a minute.
But there's a different level of pivot that is praised in the tech sector -- the one where the company fundamentally alters its model and entire business. A completely new product, market or value proposition. The tech sector loves these stories and praises founders as geniuses for completely rehauling their business.
When I hear the same story, I wonder -- why didn't they arrive at that model the first time? What blockers does the team have that kept them from understanding their product market fit? How do you manage a team and company that was originally built for an entirely different purpose?
The quintessential pivot story is Slack. The unicorn started out as a video game company called Glitch and became Slack when it realized Glitch was a dud and its internal communication tool was worth focusing on.
Don't get me wrong -- things have worked out for Slack. But it's the rare exception and not the rule. Where others hand-wring and commend the business's agility, I wonder -- why didn't it see this from the get-go? The Slack/Glitch CEO was fresh off some successful exits including Flickr and had some clout and reputation behind him when he decided to pivot. In one interview, he stated, "We came to the conclusion that Glitch was never going to be the kind of business that would have justified the $17.2 million in venture capital investment [that we had]."
Slack may have come out as the fastest growing unicorn of all time, but let's not forget that it was in a full-fledged nosedive as Glitch. If Ries defines pivoting as ''a change in strategy without a change in vision," then what was/is Glitch/Slack's consistent vision throughout its pivot?
Slack is a case study in Hail Marys, not pivots.
Little pivots are middle management.
Of course, for every colossal pivot that's lauded there are 100 micro-adjustments to business models that get blown way out of proportion. Search the web for listicles on tech pivots and you won't be lacking, but you may be disappointed.
Does a hundred-year-old company gradually moving from playing cards to video games deserve a standing ovation? Most people are so distracted by the technology element that they forget that playing cards and video games really fall within the same scope of products (games) and same customer segments (that 18-35 demographic), and offer the same value propositions (entertainment). But where's the USPS's dramatized tale of taking the ponies out of the Pony Express?
So many of the different types of pivots we celebrate are business-as-usual to a healthy company that lasts more than a year. I've been critical of IBM in the past, but it gets credit for getting from cheese slicers to artificial intelligence without ever using the word "pivot."
Under this new framework, adopting new technologies is a pivot. Adding new revenue streams is a pivot. One article lists the most epic tech pivot as Facebook relying on ad revenue. If you watched Zuck's testimony, it appears even Orrin Hatch could've figured that one out.
Labeling these small, natural and smart decisions as "pivots" is a merely a dramatization designed to make insignificant companies look more interesting (see also: startup creation myths). Worse, these dramatizations draw attention away from companies and technologies that deliver value and results time and again. Worst of all, it presents incremental adaptation and evolution as novel and optional, and it absolutely isn't.
Are you not entertained?
In the words of Jacob Silverman of The New York Times: "Like any act of public relations, pivoting is also a performance. A key part of the act is acknowledging that you are doing it while trying to recast the effort as something larger, more sophisticated, highly planned."
While these publicity stunts continue to garner attention, enriching the stories of these companies, they're distorting and violating some of the most essential business and management lessons we've learned since the Industrial Revolution. Best practices are being trampled by romanticized business myths, and a new generation of entrepreneurs is entering the market with a firm grasp of startup lingo and an intellectual vacuum where canonical business knowledge is supposed to reside.
At some point, we have to admit that the pivot emperor has no clothes, and there's no time like the present.