Why "pivoting" isn't my favorite metaphor for dealing with change in business

I am a wholehearted believer in the idea that building a business is basically a science experiment. You come up with an idea (the hypothesis) and then you develop a way of implementing (testing) that idea in your business. Throughout the course of implementing, you measure your growth, making adjustments to your idea (modifying your hypothesis) before you start the process again.

Observation, measurement, experimentation, formulation, testing, modification. The scientific method is pretty much all there.

Throughout the process, new ideas emerge and old ones are discarded. Healthy businesses abandon things all the time.

I’ll say that again: healthy businesses abandon things all the time. (TWEET THIS)

There’s this dude Eric Ries, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who studies and writes about startups, who calls this a pivot. According to Ries, a business pivots anytime it changes its strategy without changing its vision.

He likens this to traveling from point A (your starting point) to point B (your destination, or your vision). Along the way, you may run into a barrier. Rather than charging headlong into the barrier, you pivot, adjusting your bearings in order to find a new way to reach your destination.

(If you want to hear him explain it really well, and give a quick bunch of examples of major businesses that have pivoted in their quest for success, you can find that here.)

So with all that background out of the way, today I actually want to write about a problem I’ve run into many times in growing my own business. Basically the problem is this (and to describe it, I need to rely on both Ries’s and my own separate metaphors here):

In the absence of utter failure for a particular business idea, I’ll often tend not to pivot so much as to start testing a whole separate hypothesis. Often, I’ll also continue to hone the original hypothesis in the background.

In other words, rather than abandoning things that didn’t perform as well as I expected or desired, I’ll often keep those things while I start working on a new idea. It’s a way of hedging my bets. It’s also a way of being a little extra patient with an idea without just sitting around waiting for it to meet my expectations.

But here’s the effect:

Rather than changing my bearings in order to move around the barrier to reach my destination, it’s like I’m standing in front of the barrier throwing out grappling hooks in various directions hoping that one or more of the hooks will catch and allow me to pull myself over the barrier.

It definitely can be as exhausting as it sounds.

Now, I wish I could sit here and advocate that you just forget the grappling hooks, stop hedging your bets, and learn to abandon ideas more recklessly in your business. I wish I could because doing that in my own business would feel amazing.

Amazing in a freeing-yet-reckless sort of way.

In this way, and maybe only on this way, the outright failure of a business idea can be a gift because you’re completely free to abandon your original hypothesis and test a new one. For those of us who get a thrill from coming up with new business ideas, this can be awesome.

But here’s the reality that most of us face from day to day: the more financially dependent you are on your business, the harder it can be to truly pivot your business and start out in a new direction. (TWEET THIS) After all, the partial success of an idea usually means you’re getting at least partially paid. Abandon a partial success and you’re abandoning a source of your income.

Sure, having one sweeping success that all on its own brings home all the bacon would be amazing. For most of us, that’s the “eventually, one day, down the line, after I’ve paid my entrepreneurial dues” dream. But in the absence of that one sweeping success, most of us actually need to nurture several smaller, partial successes. Most of us need to have multiple hypotheses (business ideas, products, income streams) that we’re in various stages of testing all at once.

We need those grappling hooks.

And when that’s the case, my advice is this: do whatever you can to make your business life easier. Automate whatever you can. Subcontract or outsource things when you can afford to. And by all means for the love of all things holy, remember to regularly take the time to rein in some of the grappling hooks. In other words, as new successes take root in your business, please do remember to abandon some things completely.