You Are One Pivot Away From Oblivion

For anyone that’s read my writing for any reasonable period of time, you’ll understand that—despite my love of process—I’m not at all a fan of process for the sake of process. To put not too fine a point on it, I abhor it. If you are going to take the time to create process, there have to be reasons. There have to be real problems felt broadly, collective commitment to solving those problems and a context-appropriate solution if anything positive is going to come out of the effort.

In other words, one size doesn’t fit all. And I certainly get why large bureaucracies WANT one size to fit all. Efficiency, economy, control, and all of that. It’s just not a proposition that in my view is going to get any traction whatsoever.

This is why I find the eco-system known as “start-up culture” entirely baffling. Start-ups are supposed to be the innovators and the experimenters. They are the entrepreneurs seeking out new problems, finding better solutions, building better mousetraps and then trying to make us buy them. They are theoretically nimble, organic, plugged-in and not terribly fussed about how things have been done before.

And yet, certainly over the last decade, there has been a seemingly insatiable demand by those launching startups for a clear process of how to do it. And the market has responded, with gurus the likes of Eric Ries, Steve Blank, Kate Rutter and Laura Klein. They want you to attend their Lean Startup conference. And everyone wants to be a part of the Y Combinator incubator. The consequence is everything trying to do the same thing the same way and get different results. The outcome of that should be fairly predictable.

Of all of the startup concepts that most frustrate me, it’s the idea of the “pivot.” It’s a term that was [coined by Eric Ries. And it’s an extension of the essential entrepreneurial philosophy of “fail fast, fail often.” In effect, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. If something isn’t working for you, then go find something else that will.

Not only are these valuable ideas, they’re ones I espouse. My work is all about adaptation, experimentation and reinvention. The ideas underlying the pivot are ones that I’m totally on board with. It’s what the idea of “pivot” has become that has driven me up the wall. It has now become an article of faith, written in scripture and accepted as dogma, that you MUST pivot. That you should pivot early. That you should be looking for your pivot.

You should forget what you’re doing now, because it’s wrong. Wait until the next thing, after you pivot, because it’s only then that you’ll really know what you’re doing. You have to change course to achieve success, and if you keep doing what you are doing now you will fail. And this notion leads to a lot of bizarre and counterproductive behaviours. “We need to pivot soon.” “When are we going to pivot?” “What are we going to pivot to?” “We haven’t pivoted yet! We’re going to fall behind!”

This drives me batty on a philosophical level, without question. It’s the kind of attempt at codifying conditional “might happens” as mandatory “will happens” that gives process a bad name. But it also completely frustrates me on a personal level. And there’s a good chance that—given sufficient time—it’ll frustrate you as well.

In and amongst all of the other personal challenges that I was wrestling with at the end of 2017, December saw the complete failure of virtually all of my technology. The computer I used as a desktop died. My laptop started crashing repeatedly. My iPhone shattered (admittedly, it had some help). And in the midst of fixing all of that, the WiFi router also abruptly lost the will to live.

In the ensuing re-installation of what essentially constitutes much of my world, I discovered a few more technological hurdles I was previously somewhat oblivious to. In particular, a few years ago I found a wondrous little tool called Transporter. A little glowing flying saucer of a gadget, it let you plug a standard USB hard drive into it to become your own personal, secure DropBox. I put a second unit in my office and I had instant off-site backup of all my data.

The magic of this was that all of my current files stayed current and in sync, no matter what computer I was on. I could work on my laptop for a bit, and then head in to my office where I could pick up exactly where I left off on my desktop computer. I had absolute trust in where my files were, and absolute flexibility in where I chose to work. Given my typical level of mobility, that was an awesome thing indeed.

In the ensuing four years since I bought my first Transporter, a few things happened. The company that made it got acquired. And the new company, Nexsan, did a pivot. Rather than selling amazing and awesome consumer devices for a ridiculously reasonable price, they would instead offer their wares to the corporate market for tens-of-thousands of dollars. One doesn’t need to be a rocket science to see the potential profitability of that move. But in making that decision, they also decided to completely abandon the consumer market that they build their reputation on. The Transporter was declared (in the lovely vernacular of the tech world) “end of life” and the company stopped providing support on 1 September 2017. A piteously short life, indeed.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. My beloved back-up solution is no more, and I find myself with a whole bunch of technology to reinstall well past the end of the organization’s support period. Much research and exploration and one leap of faith later, I’ve found new solution that is possibly just as effective and even more flexible—and perhaps even a little more reliable—than what I had. This is a very happy thing. But that’s not the moral of the story. Not by a long shot.

The products that we put out in to the world (whether that’s an actual product, or a service we provide, or a project we are managing) matter. Real people depend upon them to do real things. They have an expectation that a solution will work, and it will keep on working, until their problem changes or someone invents an even better solution. (And that even better solution is what we used to recognize and praise as innovation). Offering something, and then ‘pivoting,’ is—to put not too fine a point on it—pulling the rug out from under people that actually cared about what you were doing.

That’s likely to have more than a few emotional responses. Speaking personally, I can attest to disbelief, anger, frustration, betrayal, resigned frustration and an absolute commitment to never give Nexsan another dime of my money. I rather suspect that I’m not alone in processing all of that. We can call this grieving cycle for the new millennium, perhaps.

If that was the extent of it, mind you, I could chalk this up to naive consequences of failing to keep in mind the caution ‘caveat emptor.’ Except that it keeps on happening. On a very minor scale, a few years ago I got sold on a lovely little note taking app for the phone called Vesper. I take notes constantly. I want them all in one place. I want to be able to find them again. And I don’t want to fight my technology to do so. This delightful piece of software not only fit the bill, but had an all-star cast of iPhone gurus behind it. All so wonderful until they got bored, abandoned it, disabled all the functionality and pulled the software from the App Store. Without warning, and with all of my notes still in the software on my now deceased phone.

And then, there’s Sente. As most of you know, I have something of an academic bent. I do research. I write papers. I went and got a doctorate, and then wrote a book based on my thesis. All of that requires a lot of writing, all of which must be carefully supported and cited (using APA style to boot). I used to use Endnote, which is the research equivalent of Microsoft Project. It’s the dominant but not-quite-functional elephant with the vast majority of market share, primarily because it’s supported by a dominant corporate player.

In about 2010, out of frustration with Endnote (and recognizing that writing on a Mac was unquestionably my happy place) I found Sente. And adored it. It was functional. It was helpful. It made writing easy. And most importantly, it made finding, storing, note taking and reading a veritable mountain of academic papers actually easy and occasionally enjoyable. Even better, it synced through its servers. I had my full library of papers everywhere: my laptop, my desktop, my iPad… even my phone, should I be so inclined.

Eight years of productive research later, however, the company that built the software made the ultimate pivot: it stopped supporting the software. The twitter account went silent, the blog abruptly stopped, and—eventually—the sync servers went away. With my entire research library contained within them.

Those libraries got me through my thesis, and contain every reference I used, and several thousand more that I did not. They collected the research I’m working on now. They have all of the interesting and intriguing papers I’ve filed away to noodle on in some future time. It is not an exaggeration to say that everything that I know about strategy, decision making and organizational behaviour is contained in those libraries.

Through the wonders of sync technology, all of them were stored on someone else’s servers. In the interests of apparently saving space, most of them hadn’t been downloaded on my laptop. And until I could briefly resurrect it (do not discount the usefulness of percussive maintenance with computers) I wasn’t sure if they were on my old desktop.

The good news is, I was able to get the PDF files of those many thousands of articles off of my theoretically dead computer. And I also have the references that go with them. The bad news, however, is I need to go through the process of finding a new reference manager, and rebuilding all of the libraries I had invested hundreds of hours in managing, refining and annotating. As you can well imagine, this is not a prospect I’m thrilled about. But it’s one I’m resigned to.

Behind all of the frustration, there are many lessons here. In our embrace of technology (and in particular, our embrace of technology making things easy) we place great faith and trust in other organizations to manage things on our behalf. Every piece of your data in the “cloud” means something stored on someone else’s server, and not under your direct control. Through malice, accident or benign neglect, it could disappear tomorrow. Know this, recognize this, and make sure you also have it somewhere that is within your direct control. Even better, keep it under your direct control at all times.

Ironically, this is what I thought I was doing with Transporter, of course. I wasn’t trusting the Dropbox’s of the world (and it is not lost on me that they still are in business). I was keeping my files close, and my access to them closer. And as a result, there was never a threat of losing them (I just lost the technology that let me manage them the way I liked). Whereas everything I had in Sente, through trust and a lack of fully paying attention to how the software stored its information, was absolutely at risk of being lost. This is a mistake I won’t make again.

But there are also lessons here for the rest of us, we who provide products and services and deliver projects. We are theoretically trying to make life easy for people. We are offering solutions that help. That shouldn’t just arbitrarily stop. If you’re going to go do something else, fine; no one expects people or organizations to do one thing forever and stagnate. But don’t abandon the loyal customers that got you where you are in the first place. Help them to transition first. Give them a graceful path to self-sufficiency, or to a different provider of services that can continue to support them. Make sure they retain control of what is theirs: their processes, their information and their data. And let them keep it in a form that is actually useful, accessible and transferable to somewhere else. Being a good solution provider relies upon the same dictum we expect of good doctors: first, do no harm.

2 Comments to “You Are One Pivot Away From Oblivion”

  1. Joe M says:

    Hi Mark, a well crafted article.
    This reminded me of a recent experience at work. I am in a small consulting firm whose consumer behavior toward technology parallels and perhaps reinforces the mindset of start ups to pivot. I am not certain what to call it, but in the course of three months at the beginning of our current 6 month old project, we switched our project organising application from Slack to Asana to Zune (?) to Trello to MS Planner. We also switched our doc filing from OneDrive to Dropbox to SharePoint, then supplementing SharePoint with MS Teams with SharePoint (albeit a different instance). In the end, part of this was because the client has an MS Office 365 license and in a way owned all the project materials. But it was painful, and as team information manager, there was a fair amount of unnecessary stress, when we could have just stuck with what the client preferred.
    It kind of sounds like a nasty mess where, as you alluded to, start-ups targetting Small to Medium Enterprises that may appear on aggregate to be fickle, unsure, adaptive and can’t spend a lot make for a far more risky business plan than the corporate client who may be just as fickle, unsure and (wantingly) adaptive, yet have deeper pockets and more license fees. :/

    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments. A good reminder that not only can we be the victims of other people’s strategies, but also that we can do it to ourselves. Especially when we have an appetite for novelty and seek out shiny new software with brand new features that we decide we just have to have.

      Sometimes sticking with what you know, even if it’s not perfect, can be the best strategy of all.

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