The Art of Pivoting: Succeeding at Failure in a VUCA World


By Camille Nicita, President & CEO, Gongos, Inc.

Search the term “pivot” and you will find that this once-upon-a-time Silicon Valley term has made its way into mainstream business vernacular.  Eric Reis (The Lean Start-Up) coined the term “pivoting” to reference the shift in strategy that plagues many tech start-ups, and the importance of keeping one foot planted firmly as you shift the other in a new direction.  Dig deeper and you will find that beneath this base definition, pivoting requires behaviors such as experimentation, iteration, learning, and perhaps most intriguing…failure.

As a recovering perfectionist, I am inspired by the paradox inherent in pivoting – the contradiction that failure is not only acceptable, but often necessary for long-term success.

Reframing the Mindset

One of the greatest innovators of all time, Thomas Edison, knew that failure was necessary to achieve success.  It’s no secret Edison iterated 100+ times in creating the light bulb.  The funny thing is that he didn’t perceive his previous attempts as failure.  Edison declared,Success “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 100 ways that won’t work.”  You can parlay this to modern day times with companies like Pinterest, which was conceived under the guise of something completely different.  In fact, Pinterest began in 2009 as Tote, a mobile shopping app.  After Tote’s gradual fall, Pinterest emerged and quickly changed the face of visual social networks.

More recently at the 2014 ESOMAR Congress, Coca-Cola and BrainJuicer spoke about the smashing success of a project in which they failed together.  The success was found not in the failure, but in what they learned, how it helped them re-shape their thinking, and how they pivoted toward forward movement to ultimately create a winning scenario.  This flipping of the fundamentals—openly divulging a path of misadventure—not only raised the intelligence quotient of the audience, but left us  with a sense of fearlessness about the possibilities and what can be achieved if only we are open to learning together.

Pivoting in a VUCA World

As evidenced by our 19th Century example, the notion of iterating, learning and failing in the name of ultimate success is not new.  So, why has it become so popular now?  Companies can no longer identify a strategy and milk the path for decades.  Instead, their focus must shift to adapting to current environments. We live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, and we are expected to respond accordingly.

While seemingly risky—if you stay grounded in your company core values and competencies—the art of pivoting is likely to create new forms of value for customers.  Pivoting is a “both/and” proposition catapulting the typical “either/or” mindset to a secondary position.  I’m a strong believer that it’s better to be decisive than to do nothing at all; or worse, wallow around in analytical limbo.  Forward movement—even a misstep—has the potential to produce progress.

Overcoming the Fear of Failure

Accepting failure is counterintuitive to most companies, yet pivoting is open to its proposition.  If that is the case, then how do you shutterstock_4174486decide if failure is right for you?  As Ed Catmull (Creativity Inc) so eloquently asserts, “the key is to learn from failure and to reframe it as an investment in your future.”  Like most things, perhaps easier said than done.

So why subscribe to the notion of pivot?  Quite frankly, the danger of inertia outweighs the risk of possible failure. In order to get accustomed to overcoming the fear of failure, we first must make it okay to fail.

Here are five starters:

1.  Know thy company.  Being intimately familiar with your company’s strengths and honest about its weaknesses is essential to pivoting.  Honor that and be disciplined – this will ensure one foot is grounded and the pursuit is unwavering.  Just like a mathematical compass, the whole idea of pivoting is to absorb risk within your circumference of safety.  This comes in the form of truly knowing, living and breathing your core values and core competencies.

2.  Do not let the Wild West prevail.  On the surface, experimentation may sound like a free for all.  Though contrarily, pivoting forces the setting of expectations, metrics and accountability.  Like any good experiment, hypotheses are established and feedback loops are created for communication and measurement.  Establishing a ripe environment for learning and iteration will also breed collaboration.

3.  Model the behavior.  From our earliest experiences, most of us are taught that failure is taboo, especially in the work environment.  Disbanding this fundamental principle is not easy, and must be endorsed and reinforced from the most influential people within your organization.

4.  Start small.  Pilot programs are to pivoting as a harness is to a horse jockey. Both allow some control in what could be a fast-paced, if not, unwieldy situation.  Pilot programs enable organizations to become accustomed to short-term, small-scale experiments that have the potential to scale or fail on anything from employee perks to larger strategic initiatives.

5.  Identify gymnasts—offer parachutes.  We’ve been taught to evaluate people in the workplace based on competencies and skill sets.  But in this complex world where change seems to be the only constant, a person’s penchant for learning and adopting new skills may be the trump card.  Identify agile individuals who can best serve in an environment where they feel safe. Create this by accompanying the job change with a parachute for a soft landing elsewhere within the company if things don’t go as planned.

So, is pivoting the antidote to perfectionism? I suppose that depends on whether you are brave enough to risk failure in the name of long-term success.  Personally, I see pivoting as a prescription for the courage needed to create, develop and continually evolve into the next best version of ourselves.

Pivoting, as with all forms of art, often mirrors the artist’s goal to create or transform something, and in the process is often transformed herself.

As published on Business 2 Community.