Own your biases
One of my more memorable instructors at the #Rotman School of Management shared an important piece of advice, to help us lower the hurdles in the path of advancing our leadership capabilities. “Put your biases on the table,” he intoned. I include this among the nuggets of my MBA learning and have always found the practice quite helpful. So yes, my headline expresses a heartfelt sentiment about the perceived abuse of ‘pivoting.’ Let me tell you why I believe this errant pattern of behaviour carries the potential to inflict significant long-term damage on all of us, if it continues unabated.
What is a ‘pivot’
Dictionary.com defines a pivot as, “a pin, point, or short shaft on the end of which something rests and turns, or upon and about which something rotates or oscillates.” Merriam-Webster adds, “a person or thing that is central or important to someone or something else,” for its description as a noun decryption; for a verb, it states, “the action of turning around a point.”
Considering these definitions, here are a few questions for you. What if the thing at the center, or upon which the system rests, is defective? What if that central person is flawed, and should be otherwise unacceptable, or replaced? What if the point being ‘turned around’ should never have been made, and is still invalid at its core?
‘Real’ pivots’ are typically necessary, and often helpful
In an article from April 2012, the Wall Street Journal explored the usefulness of ‘pivoting’ (their quotes) to the success of tech entrepreneurs. The article highlights the fast rate of in technology, which required companies to be nimbler, and to make necessary changes promptly, as the new MO for success.
Even then, the Journal had already clued in to the duplicitous use of the term. “Words like ‘pivot’ and the related ‘iterate’ have been used in and around Silicon Valley for several years, generally to describe failing gracefully,” it stated. Later in the article, it quotes a venture partner who states, “Pivot to me is not a four-letter word.”
That may be a fair position, if it is sincere, and when pivot implies meaningful action. After all, Facebook, Instagram, Starbucks, and even going as far back as HP, are examples of companies that started down one path and then ‘pivoted’ to another, to gain enormous success. These good pivots have brought enormous value to us all.
In sports, the pivot is essential. You cannot throw a discus well—whatever you think of the sport—or a javelin, or succeed in judo, or ever become a top-tier running back in football, without the superior body control that depends on effective pivoting. This timely and strategic ‘change of stance’ has great value to reshape, not just what you can do, but to influence how others respond.
This usefulness of pivoting is the very source material that the cynics abuse. A complicating factor is that the new pervasiveness in use of the term ‘pivoting’ is redefining the language of expectations, and doing so in a bad way. The observing mind defaults to an expectation that a pivot means you are wiser about the game and can take a more meaningful course of action. For the cynical players, the truth is more like being wiser about how to redirect blame, cast off responsibility, or run away.
A long-time saying is, ‘You can’t put lipstick on a pig.’ Well that may no longer be true, given our new found affection for, and proficiency in, pivoting. And herein lies the huge risk related to pivoting—more and more, the truth is beginning to matter less and less. Oddly enough, our time-obsessed and event driven media environment provides ideal type of exposure for the cynical ‘pivoters.’ It greases the path for them, instead of holding them to closer scrutiny. These are, in the truest sense, people who know how to seize the moment. Given that we now always only have a moment to spare, in that brief period of time, all they need to do is to look good, and the pivot away. The heck with substance and consequence.
The danger of ‘pivoting’ as an ‘escape’ mechanism may look artful to some. However, the more mature and discriminating observer will see the opportunist for what he or she really is: a taker. Ultimately, this is behaviour that many of us would not want backing up or buttressing the foundations on which we stand. Anything that fickle or unreliable carries far too much risk to deserve a position of trust.
When Pivots Are Bad, #1: No More ‘Bad’ Decisions
Speed is the new currency. No one wants to be seen as dithering or hesitant. We’re also into an era of prototyping: no more deliberate and long-range planning. If you’re into software development or process management, Agile, Lean, Rapid Application Development (RAD), and iterativity—that word again—are all the rage. In the financial markets, real-time data is the norm. Forward-looking projections are getting better all the time. Market response transcends time zones and is as active as the clock. In this frenzy of action, how do you tell the good yam from the flim-flam? The hustler’s snake oil can look eerily identical to the doctor’s medicine.
Ideally, the outcomes ought to be the point where we should be able to tell for sure. However, in this state of rapid and constant action, even that accountability becomes an optional consideration for some. If the results turn out to be other than what you planned, a pivot is always at hand. For the more Machiavellian among us, whatever the results, we can always ‘pivot’ to a ‘fix.’ Bad or undesirable results can be ‘turned around’ to look like ‘not bad’ outcomes. There is no further need for angst over one’s accountability for results. We now each have an unlimited supply of Teflon. In some—far too many—jobs that will save the ‘pivoters’ hide, time and time again.
When ‘Pivots’ Are Bad #2: The Big One – Good Decision-making Becomes an ‘Indulgence’
Think about it. If ‘bad’ decisions disappear, what on earth will happen to good decisions? In an era where we can convert bad to ‘not bad’ in an instant, who needs to labour under the burden of delivering good and well thought-out work. If we no longer bother with doing good work, what sort of catastrophe lies ahead? The Machiavellian tendencies of cynical pivoters can be as dangerous as they are audacious. This stuff will catch up with us!
Have you ever met a mountaineer who trekked up to the summit of Mount Everest by accident, or met a winning race car driver who just eased into a Formula One car as a ‘thing to do over the summer,’ or met an accomplished violinist who dabbles in her instrument as a way of relaxing after a hard day’s work as an insurance adjuster? Very likely not.
Sterling success requires deliberate and persistent action. Climbing such heights—literally or metaphorically—requires the aspirant to both admit and embrace mistakes as part of his or her development. Failure is not some bizarre and inexplicable occurrence against which you apply your magical cleansing skills. It is an informative outcome of the preceding and related actions. Real talent acknowledges, embraces, and learns from failure.
Increasingly, as we allow our world to become more whitewashed through ‘pivoting,’ substance will give way to style, emotionalism will trump reason, and expediency will become the default mode of action. This would appear to be one such example. We will witness a steady and constant debasing of the rigor, discipline, and commitment to excellence that helped us to become an advanced global society. Against this context, deviant pivoting is an undeniable form of parasitism. That pattern of behaviour makes its adherents net ‘takers’ from society. Almost invariably, the taking is for narrow and self-serving interests.
No Stage Too Large
I had this article in draft form and Brexit came along. Brexit was not my reason for writing this piece but the political event, cum international spectacle, just oozed of pivoting to such an extreme degree that I feel obliged to discuss it. I’m not sure if you followed the process closely so here is my synopsis.
A Prime Minister floats an idea that he did not believe in, out of pure expediency: to win an election that was slipping away from him. At the time, he could not really have expected the idea to win and claim his neck. No major western leader can be so suicidal. When elected, he is obligated to follow through on his ‘misdeed,’ er promise. A motley collection of opponents, within his party and beyond, latched on to the idea. When their first run of arguments did not evoke the response they hoped for from the general public, they ‘pivoted’ and made the referendum about something else. The new arguments included powerful and influential financial data, which they said were central to the issue. The country bought into the idea. Everything blew up.
The whole Brexit crowd—folks who said ‘Let’s do it,’ went, “duh?” They won and did not have a plan. Not a lack of a Plan B that is, but not even a Plan A. The winners ‘pivoted’ again and proceeded to disown the claims they made to gain their victory. Everybody abandoned ship: the guy who called the referendum, ‘pivoted’ out, claiming to be the wrong captain for the ship from there on. Might that have been a relevant intention for him to have stated at the time of the pre-election promise? The ones who were madly in favour of the decision also ‘pivoted’ away from the baby they had just birthed, for a variety of reasons. A woman who was never at the heart of the issue and did not believe in the idea, is now left to pick up the pieces and follow through on a monumentally significant decision that she did not support. How is that for sound decision making at the head of a major Western nation?
The 52% of Britons who voted for the decision to leave, as a valid course of action, are like most of us. We expect authenticity and accountability from those with decision-making power. Brexit provides us with a fresh and powerful case of how too many so-called leaders have ‘pivoted’ for inauthentic and self-serving reasons. What is less visible but equally pressing is the pervasiveness of the pivots going on around us.
Change. Should be Good
Like the rust that grows inward and damages even the most robust infrastructure, parochial pivoting promotes broad, systemic, and yet surreptitious atrophy. It is a persistent squandering of our collective and acquired stock of social good, across many spheres: fiscal, economic, technological, political and more.
Character is often defined as how you behave when no one is watching. That moral does not even seem to vaguely resonate with the cynical pivoters. They behave the way they do while we are watching.
Since we’re well into it now, pivoting is one instance when we can be happy about the temporary nature of fads. If this plague of ‘pivoting’ is a fad, and we should hope fervently that it is, it cannot end soon enough. It’s time to ‘pivot’ back to authentic and accountable leadership. Now there’s a pivot we need!