How should you think about all of this? Should you join in on the celebration of pivoting as the key to entrepreneurial success? As an entrepreneurship educator and researcher, I am generally supportive of the pivoting metaphor as well as the underlying focus on experimental learning. However, in our rush to embrace concepts such as pivoting, failing fast, and others, I am also concerned that we may actually be losing sight of why the pivoting metaphor is in fact, a useful one. The concept of pivoting, of course, is drawn from the sport of basketball, wherein the player has one foot planted while allowing degrees of freedom by rotating the other foot. However, think back to the last time you heard somebody invoke the term pivoting. How was the term being used? My guess is that they were using the term interchangeably with the notion of adaptation, without any regard for what was remaining the same. When we speak of pivoting in new ventures, we are now hyper-focused on the benefits of changing direction (even 17 times!), but we have lost sight of whether or not our other foot has remained steadfast.
As entrepreneurs, what do we lose when we over-focus on change and adaptation? Well, for one, we lose time and resources. We have to dismantle any existing routines and associated efficiencies we might have developed around the current business model, and then our organizations have to spend time and new resources learning to execute on a new one. As you well know, the length of your entrepreneurial runway is finite, and with every business model change, you are speeding toward the edge of that runway. Second, by changing our business models we risk losing our own commitment to the venture and even losing the loyalty of our stakeholders. In a recent study, I illustrate how most entrepreneurs feel a sense of psychological ownership over their early ideas (Grimes, 2018), and other recent work has built on this, revealing that the early external supporters of your business are also likely to develop a sense of identification with your business models (Hampel and Tracey, 2019). Constant changes to your business are thus likely to threaten not only the flow of resources and support into your organization but also your own willingness to persist.
With all of this mind, let me offer you an alternative model of entrepreneurial success to that of “fail fast and break things.” Let’s call it structured flexibility. It’s an approach that recognizes that although new ventures clearly need to be adaptive, they also need to ensure that as they change, they are upholding their core. Keeping one foot rooted in the central values and ideas that made you decide to become an entrepreneur, while allowing yourself the flexibility to experiment with new directions. This may seem paradoxical, but as F. Scott Fitzgerald opined in 1936, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” I believe this is particularly true in the context of entrepreneurship, wherein founders are faced with a number of seeming and ongoing trade-offs.