If you follow news about tech startups, you have undoubtedly heard the term “pivot.” It’s a hot idea in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs, and is closely associated with the Lean Startup movement. In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries defines a pivot as a “fundamental change to [a startup’s] business strategy” borne out of necessity, such as failing to gain traction and/or making a crucial discovery about customers’ needs.
One example of a text pivot involves Twitter, the popular social network that launched in 2006. Twitter did not start out as a social network. Twitter’s origins lie in Odeo, a long-forgotten podcast directory whose founders realized that an internal communications tool for sharing short messages showed more promise than downloadable audio programs.
It should be noted that pivots have been part of the technology landscape for many years. One of my favorite examples of a company repeatedly pivoting is Nintendo, a Japanese company that dominated a large segment of the global video game industry for more than three decades. It started out as a manufacturer of Japanese playing cards in the late 1800s, pivoted into toys and food in the 1960s, and pivoted once again into video games in the late 1970s. It is now known for iconic games and gaming platforms, including Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., Pokémon, and the NES, Nintendo Wii and Nintendo Switch gaming consoles.
For media, pivoting encompasses everything from a major shift in work under development, to a complete reset. An author tearing up a poorly received manuscript and starting over from scratch is a pivot. So is a situation in which a film studio dumps the director and brings in a new writer to overhaul the script. A news magazine that rebrands itself and switches to an all-online video format represents a pivot, as it will require shaking up the creative team and developing a new online audience.
However, pivoting does not refer to new elements, higher production values, or some other improvement being applied to a work in progress. When a musician takes a demo version of a new song and re-records it in a professional studio, that is not a pivot. Nor is a book moving from the idea stage to a rough draft, or a new video game entering the soft-launch phase after three months of prototyping and user testing. In the Lean Media context, these types of improvements are part of the iterative development process. A pivot is more substantive, and implies moving in a new direction as opposed to improving or developing an existing work.
There are chubby media pivots, like Guns ‘N Roses founder Axl Rose using a new group of musicians and production crew to re-write and re-record an album over a period of many years. Such pivots are often the result of internal problems, creative differences, and changing marketplace conditions. Such pivots lead to major shifts in the ways the works are produced, and often the makeup of the creative teams, too.
The Lean Media pivot
Then there are Lean Media pivots. A Lean Media pivot is far more likely to take place in response to issues relating to a new understanding of the audience, as opposed to internal problems or creative differences. There may not be any changes in personnel, although radical pivots may require new members with different skill sets.
A Lean Media pivot can happen at any stage, from the time the idea is conceived to after the flex launch. The earlier the pivot takes place, the fewer resources will be wasted on a project that is probably destined to fail.
On the other hand, if it’s too early the creative team may not have a fully formed idea of the media experience. There may also be insufficient audience feedback to work with. Team members may assume that the media will not resonate with audiences, but if only a few testers have been involved thus far, there’s a real risk they are not getting the full picture.
At the other end of the spectrum, waiting until much later in the development process allows the team to make a more informed decision based on lots of feedback gathered over the course of multiple iterations. There are three significant drawbacks to waiting so long to pivot, though:
- Should the team decide to pivot so late in the game, a lot of time, effort, and money will have already been wasted.
- If the pivot takes place after a flex launch, there may have to be some sort of official public statement about the change.
- If there is a situation in which some audience members liked the original media but most did not, the team may also have to deal with vocal complaints from the disappointed minority.
For these reasons, I recommend that a Lean Media pivot take place during the middle or late prototyping stage (see diagram). By this point, not only will the work be beyond the ideation stage and the first rough prototypes, but there also should be a solid feedback history that the team can use to make better-informed decisions. While some prototypes may already be public, audiences (and media critics) will generally be more forgiving if the media is clearly in the midst of development as opposed to the flex launch version, which will already be quite polished.
This post is excerpted from Chapter 9 of Lean Media: How to focus creativity, streamline production, and create media that audiences love. Nintendo NES photo licensed from Depositphotos.com.