Article

How to pivot in the face of change

By Susan Lahey

Published September 8, 2020
Last updated September 8, 2020

Something’s not working. Maybe your business didn’t take off like you thought it would; or it’s not designed to function in a pandemic. Maybe you signed on for a career not realizing that you’re temperamentally unsuited for the industry. Maybe you love half your job and hate the other half. Whatever it is, the idea of starting over from scratch is so hard. It’s easy to wonder: What if the next thing doesn’t work any better? But this is the moment for a pivot.

When you pivot, you keep one foot rooted to something in your situation that still makes sense, while you begin to change direction. One pivot might lead to another, and another, until eventually you find yourself in a new place without having made a terrifying leap of faith to get there. The pivot is a move everyone should master, because between pandemics and common variety business disruptions, pivoting has become an essential skill.

Changing course as a company

Mauro F. Guillén, a professor of international management at Wharton School, wrote an article for Harvard Business Review on how businesses have successfully pivoted during the pandemic. He also wrote a book called 2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything.

He noted in a phone interview that when people see a big change coming, they tend to do one of two things: nothing, hoping it will pass, or think “‘I have to transform everything from top-to-bottom, inside-and-out.’ Neither of those is the best way to approach a situation. The pivot lets you think incrementally, keep your options open, so you don’t make a decision that’s irreversible,” he said.

One pivot might lead to another, and another, until eventually you find yourself in a new place without having made a terrifying leap of faith to get there.

For example, he recommends trying to look at your business through a different lens. Restaurants coping with COVID-19 that see themselves as sit-down eating establishments could change their perspective, to view themselves now as a kitchen. Perhaps they can get creative and design a subscription business where they provide a certain number of dishes each week to customers. Or offer a package deal with a few other area restaurants for weekly subscriptions. Restaurants could research whether there are any particular health benefits people in the area specifically crave and address those with their food offerings. The point is, none of these changes are irreversible should they want to return to being a sit-down restaurant in the eventual wake of the pandemic. In the meantime, making one of these changes might prove a lucrative new vertical.

Another example Guillén gave is IBM, which pivoted from being a producer of hardware to a consulting firm. Instead of selling products, IBM now sells solutions. But the company still relied on the knowledge and skills it gained from it’s long history; it just applied that knowledge in a different way.

The pivot is a move everyone should master, because between pandemics and common variety business disruptions, pivoting has become an essential skill.

In the article “How to Pivot Your Business and Stay Resilient,” business coach Bruce Eckfeldt points out that there are two ways to pivot a business:

  • Find new products, services, or delivery approaches for existing customers
  • Find new customers for existing products and services

[Related read: 4 companies talk CX, changing course, and managing expectations]

If you have deep relationships with a loyal customer base, for example, you can find ways to solve their problems beyond your existing products or services. Say you run a fitness club and COVID-19 hit your business hard. You could implement stringent cleaning requirements, as many hotels have done, and schedule a few customers at a time. You could create a fitness circuit so you could manage the cleaning of equipment between customers. You could offer online fitness classes tailored for specific groups and suggest diet plans. The important question is: What do your customers really need and how can you pivot to provide it?

The other way to go, Eckfeldt said, is to find new customers for existing products and services. “One of my favorite examples is Gore,” he wrote, “which started with making high tech fabrics but branched out and found all sorts of applications for its material technology in medical, biotech, automotive, and electronics. They even figured out that their waterproof fabric product Gore-Tex works great as dental floss which is now sold as the product Oral-B Glide.”

[Related read: 4 ways customer support agents can make a career pivot]

Making a career pivot

Sometimes you’re not pivoting a business; you’re pivoting your own career. I have helped Career Pivot coach Marc Miller write several editions of his book: Repurpose Your Career: A Practical Guide for the Second Half of Life. We wrote the first version when he started his life as a career coach, shortly after the economic crash of 2008. A lot of people over 50 had lost their pensions, savings, and opportunity to retire, but didn’t want to go back to their old jobs—or couldn’t. By the second edition, Miller had been approached by a lot of people under 50, GenXers who had reached their career goals and felt like, “Now what?” and added to the first book with advice specifically for them. The third edition had to do with perpetual disruption, the gig economy, and ageism, though I know at least a couple of Millennial and GenZ readers who found the practical advice really helpful to guide their career choices.

The important question is: What do your customers really need and how can you pivot to provide it?

Miller had what he calls a “moment of clarity” in the form of a near-fatal bicycle accident— the experience helped him realize that he was sleep-walking through his career and he wanted to do something more meaningful. The world is experiencing a similar moment of clarity right now because of COVID-19. But Miller explains that people shouldn’t just throw out their old lives and lunge for a new one. They have to take stock first. They need to begin from their current education, job skills, and experience, but also assess their history for clues about what makes them feel fulfilled and enthusiastic about a particular kind of work or environment.

For example, are you someone who loves to work on only one project or are you a multi-tasker? What makes a good team, in your experience? What kind of working environment is optimal? What level of physicality do you need? And what is this current moment of crisis teaching you about the path you’ve been on?

But Miller explains that people shouldn’t just throw out their old lives and lunge for a new one. They have to take stock first.

Among Miller’s clients have been a sales expert who pivoted to becoming a metro rail pilot and then pivoted again to start his own drone business, and a singer who went into HR and now does data visualization. His clients and their paths have been so varied that you begin to see a world of possibilities.

[Related read: Consumer trends during The Great Reset: How do we want to move forward?]

Listen to your gut but lean on the data

Pivoting may be easier than making a wholesale transformation, but it’s not easy. Both Miller and Guillén recommend that pivoters collect a lot of data before making a pivot. This will instill the confidence you need to move in the chosen direction and will help shore you up through challenges. Many people, Miller has observed, jump into a new career or job thinking it will be the antidote to the problems of the last one. But because they didn’t do the research, they discover they are in as bad or worse a situation than the one they left. The data can tell a lot about whether a business will work or whether a career shift will succeed.

Stories about famous pivots can also be encouraging, too. Like how Paypal started out intending to “beam IOUs” from Palm Pilot to Palm Pilot; and how PlayDoh was once a wall cleaner; and how Instagram was going to be a basic social media site but the data told the company to focus on photos.

COVID-19 will bring a host of changes, even though some things will return to “normal.” But uncertainty and change seem to be the atmosphere in which most people live these days, so having the ability to pivot in the face of change means that you can continue moving in a direction of your choosing.

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio