To Pivot or Not to Pivot

My friend and former colleague, Alessandro di Fiore, along with Daniel Isenberg wrote an interesting piece on pivots in Harvard Business Review recently. Their advice, in short is not to pivot automatically or too quickly. They provide several illuminating examples of organizations that have done well during the coronavirus pandemic by staying the course. This article is adapted from my response to their piece.

My colleagues and I at Harvard's National Preparedness Leadership Initiative have studied both crisis leadership and pivots extensively, I see wisdom in this article though not in demonizing pivots. A pivot, in its true sense, involves holding some things constant while changing others. The decisions about what to maintain and what to change are critical. Change nothing and you'll likely succumb to changing conditions. Change everything and you'll amplify the chaos while possibly taking injurious missteps. The approach I discussed with a group of senior executives recently was to think of your strategy as three simple components: assumptions, an objective, and a path to that objective. In a crisis, you first look to see which of your assumptions (about the market, supply chain, your workforce, etc.) is still valid and which are not. Look at your path to see if it is still clear or is it now blocked with rubble or pockmarked with potholes. And see if your objective is still a viable goal. The answers to these questions informs whether and how much to adjust or stay the course.

I particularly like the di Fiore and Isenberg's admonition to slow down decision-making. In any crisis, there are some decisions that must be made quickly. That does not mean, however, that all should be made in haste. The tool we use help crisis leaders and their teams establish a rhythm that allows for varying pace to meet the specific contingencies is the the POP-DOC Loop: perceive-orient-predict (POP) then decide-operationalize-communicate (DOC). The challenge for executives is to quickly line up the decisions they anticipate needing to make and then prioritizing them, thinking through the operational considerations, assigning people to gather data to inform probabilities, etc. Getting into a leadership rhythm helps in setting the appropriate pace for each of the decision paths.

Crises unfold over arcs of time. We have mapped five distinct arcs, or phases, of the first months of the coronavirus pandemic. With each, the early activity is rapid and highly transactional to meet immediate threats. Over time, the activity becomes more transformational as the organization adapts to the next normal. Finally, as the initial threat recedes, activity becomes transitional to the extent that original efforts must be maintained while new transactional activities arise to address the next dimensions of the threat. Leaders influence the speed and efficacy of initial steps; they guide the transformation process; and they prepare the organization and its extended enterprise for transition. Done well, the impact of the threat (the height of the arc) is flattened and the time to resolution (the width of the arc) is shortened.

All in all, thanks to Isenberg and di Fiore for advancing the discussion of pivots. The word has become overused and ill-understood by too many. Greater insight is what is needed. What are your thoughts on pivots (and non-pivots)?

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