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  • Writer's pictureJake Breeden

A Culture of Intentional Pivots

Every leader understands that it's smart to learn from failure. So every company must be a happy place in which people openly share their failures. But that's not true. Instead, the concept of learning from failure is relegated to leadership off-sites hosted by outside speakers like me. Everything inside the workplace is tuned to promote success. In fact, there's a multi-prong success system inside every enterprise that includes:

  • A performance management process designed to produce predictable, repeatable success.

  • Career paths that require success in order to be promoted.

  • Investor relations departments that exist to communicate successes to shareholders, encouraging an external game of expectations management designed to reduce the chance of failure.

  • OKRs and KPIs and other goals that become measures of success, encouraging an internal game of expectations management.

  • A budgeting process that demands proof of past success in order to secure inside or outside capital for future endeavors.

With a success system so deeply embedded inside large companies, it's difficult to have the genuine, open conversations that come from frank discussions of failure. Against this backdrop, failure has a really bad brand. Trying to reframe failure as an opportunity for learning is like McDonald's trying to rebrand as a health food restaurant.

So will the success system of the modern enterprise drown out the opportunity to learn from setbacks?

Enter the mighty pivot. A pivot is simply a change in direction. Leaders and companies change direction constantly, so there are plenty of pivots to learn from. Unlike failures, which often carry a connotation of negativity and blame, pivots are viewed as positive adjustments in strategy or direction. This reframing allows for open discussions and learning without the baggage associated with "failure." Pivots occur constantly within organizations, offering valuable lessons waiting to be harnessed.

Here's how to create a culture in which people continuously learn from pivots:

  1. Spotting Pivots: Leaders must be adept at recognizing and framing changes in direction as learning opportunities. This involves analyzing the underlying reasons for the pivot and understanding the initial hypothesis that proved incorrect.

  2. Celebrating Pivots: Publicly acknowledging and celebrating successful pivots sends a powerful message. Highlighting the team or individual responsible, sharing the key learnings, and emphasizing the agility demonstrated by the pivot reinforces the desired behavior.

  3. Encouraging Pivots: Fostering a culture of continuous learning requires creating an environment that encourages calculated risks and experimentation. This might involve implementing processes for proposing and evaluating potential pivots, providing resources for experimentation, and fostering a culture of psychological safety where changes are seen as learning opportunities rather than punishable offenses.

Leaders can stop the schism between pretending to value learning from failure while focusing single-mindedly on success. Imagine a world where companies thrive not just on their successes, but on their continuous evolution, where pivots are not just tolerated, but celebrated as testaments to our collective ability to learn and adapt. This is the future we can build, one pivot at a time.

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