Pivots for Corporate Innovation Teams
Image credit letsenhance.io
“Pivot fast or die!”
“The art of the Pivot.”
“Pivoting is a sign of weakness!”
There are plenty of commentaries and articles that either glorify or challenge the Pivot as an idea that lies at the heart of how great entrepreneurial teams operate. But what we see over and over again when coaching innovation and product development teams inside large corporations is that regardless of how central it is, many of these teams really struggle to execute a Pivot effectively.
In this post we’ll break down the mechanics and mindset of what Pivoting is really about. In a subsequent post, I’ll share some perspectives from product leaders and coaches on how they see teams handling Pivots in their work.
The Pivot can be easily misunderstood as a buzzword for simply changing our minds.
No product leader ever asked: “Hey I thought you guys were trying to bring value to the aquaculture market?” and got the response “Nah, too hard. We’re more interested now in how Gen Ai can help with video conferencing. Way cooler!”
This is not a Pivot. This is a decision to kill one business and start a new completely unrelated one.
Teams that are successful at executing Pivots recognize the definition in The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Pivots are “a structured course correction designed to test a fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy and engine of growth.”
The structure being referred to here means that a successful Pivot is not just a fast turn to a new strategic approach. In fact, it has three steps:
Step 1: Identify a signal that your current strategy is not delivering the expected traction to support your product vision.
Step 2: Test a hypothesis about a new strategy that you believe can drive traction to support your current vision, and gather evidence that the new approach is likely to be better than the old one.
Step 3: Execute the Pivot by leveraging the learnings from the test to deploy a new strategy.
Because of the extraordinarily high level of uncertainty that accompanies innovation initiatives, teams need to be open to the reality that they’ll learn new information requiring one or more course corrections on their journey. While they stay true to their original vision, the strategy they ultimately employ to get some form of traction might be radically different from the strategy they assumed on day one. The presence of the high levels of uncertainty and the ability to respond decisively as learnings emerge is the reason why the Pivot is at the heart of entrepreneurial work.
Successful innovation teams don’t react impulsively to every data point that invalidates an assumption and Pivot wildly as a result. They test to see if the data is anomalous or is in fact signaling that they need to Pivot. When they run experiments to validate key assumptions, they track key metrics and instead of discounting anomalies or emerging challenges to their success criteria, they flag them and are patient enough to see if a pattern is emerging.
For example, when kicking off a new initiative in the insurance sector a team I coached recently had an assumption that their target audience was older, repeat buyers. They soon found out that this segment was not especially interested in the value proposition being presented. Instead, first time buyers of the insurance product repeatedly showed up in interviews and other experiments as having real pain points that they were eager to resolve. Informed by this body of evidence the team performed a customer segment Pivot and began focusing on this new segment as the strategy for launching their product into the market.
A central principle guiding the Pivot is the desire to avoid waste. Teams that fall in love with their initial value proposition, solution approach, or go-to-market plan are missing out on opportunities to avoid massive amounts of waste. The earlier we can identify a strategy that is bearing zero fruit, the earlier we give ourselves the option to leverage available resources, to explore potential alternatives and see if a new hypothesis might deliver the elusive traction we are searching for.
We all saw that during the pandemic, corporate behemoths and even government agencies were able to quickly implement new approaches to how they worked and how they served their customers. How was it possible that government agencies were suddenly able to turn on the ability to sign documents digitally, for example? How was a global conglomerate able to implement work-from-home secure tech policies in under a week when historically it had taken them months or years to accommodate their policies to new realities? The impact of a crisis forced organizations to recognize the signals of massive waste and explore alternatives so they could better leverage their resources, and quickly implement new approaches. In some cases this was haphazard but in many they quickly executed structured Pivots. If we can maintain this mindset even without the presence of a crisis, we can drive our teams and our organizations as whole to be far more entrepreneurial and agile.
Challenges to Pivots
Let’s talk through a primary challenge to the idea of Pivots, particularly when it comes to corporate innovation teams: If you Pivot too soon, you lose connection to your founding strategy.
For VC funded or bootstrapped startups there exists a certain allure to gutting it out and persevering for 1, 2, or 3 years, proving to the world that you had an enlightened vision and you have the endurance to see it all the way through.
In the corporate environment there is simply no capacity to support heroic death marches. Leaders running a corporate innovation portfolio do sometimes need to adjust their timeline expectations and prepare to wait longer to see revenue. But if a team consistently presents evidence that their hypotheses for the product, their strategy, and the engine of growth are falling to demonstrate traction, there is simply no way that team will get continued support. The team and their leadership need to make crisp Pivot, Persevere or Kill decisions based on evidence and hard data. If the option for pursuing a structured Pivot is not put on the table by the team, then leaders have no choice but to kill any initiative that shows zero traction.
The availability of Pivots as a tool isn’t an excuse to haphazardly move away from an initial vision. Instead it’s a powerful way for teams to avoid running out of time or resources because their initial vision was flawed.
Executing a Pivot demands a structured 3 part process that allows a team to assess data, test out new hypotheses, and execute a change in strategy.
Pivots reflect a mindset that keeps us far away from falling in love with our solution.
Pivots demand that we operate with the agility presented during crises, even when there is no crisis at hand.
In a corporate environment the option to Pivot is a powerful tool in an entrepreneurial team’s arsenal.
* Image courtesy of letsenhance.io using the prompt: an illustrated image in cyberpunk style of a startup team working in an office in Silicon Valley. On one side of the office the white wall is clear of anything other than a single red neon sign clearly showing the words “PIVOT ALERT”.