In the The Lean Startup, Eric Ries introduced the concept of the pivot as “changing course with one foot anchored to the ground.” The pivot allows an organization to “keep one foot in the past and place one foot in a new possible future.”

While Ries defines the pivot in terms of needed changes to entrepreneurial strategy, the pivot is a particularly useful concept for change leaders at all levels of an organization. The advantage of the pivot as a guiding image is the balance it strikes between the two feet – both of which are critical for a successful change of direction:

  1. the drive to explore new directions and futures (the non-pivot foot),
  2. and stability leveraging the best of what was and what is (the pivot foot)

Change leaders naturally tend to focus on the first lever – creating forward-looking momentum inspired by the idea of a brighter future. Fewer invoke the past and present as a positive lever for change. Some go so far as to oppose the two, characterizing what exists as the problem, the burning platform, or as a brake and resistance to be overcome.

However, underweighting the pivot foot results in off-kilter change initiatives, unhinged from important realities or organizational principles and alarming the populations they are supposed to be supporting. The pivot concept re-establishes the importance of the past and present as the axis on which the organization can turn toward a new future. It thereby re-enforces a simple truth about change: one of the most powerful tools in a change leader’s toolbox is what isn’t changing.

The pivot concept re-enforces a simple truth about change: one of the most powerful tools in a change leader’s toolbox is what ISN’T changing.

So, how can change leaders employ stability and constancy to mobilize an organization to make a change? Two easily accessible means are:

  1. Specifically naming environmental details that will remain the same going forward.
  2. Communicating continuity of core values, strengths and identities.

Familiarity in our surroundings is reassuring. From a neurological perspective, certainty and routine tend to activate reward centers in the brain. Because change often triggers a threat response – putting us on guard and closing us off to new ideas – leaders can build bridges to the future state by also detailing the familiar things that won’t change, for example:

  • The team is moving to a new office and our product portfolio is moving with us.
  • Our ERP system is changing; our teams aren’t.
  • While we are updating the evaluation process, our current performance objectives remain unchanged.

The same approach can be applied to core values, foundational stories and identities. A recent HBR article describes research showing leaders were more effective in leading changes when they “also communicated a vision of continuity, because a vision of continuity instilled a sense of continuity of organizational identity in employees.” For example:

  • Our reputation as industry innovators will be re-inforced with the opening of our new, state-of-the-art production facilities.
  • Our steadfast commitment to service will remain a cornerstone of our work under the new ownership.

By establishing a pivot foot in familiar environmental elements and stable core values and identities, leaders and organizations can clear obstacles and harness powerful sources of positive energy to drive in new directions.

Appealing to consistent, higher order identities and values present in an organization’s history, mission and foundational stories is an effective way of inspiring change from a position of strength through connection to constants. Approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry take this approach one step further to discover and inspire change action through a process of actively remembering “the organization or community’s successes, strengths and periods of excellence.”

By establishing a pivot foot in familiar environmental elements and stable core values and identities, leaders and organizations can clear obstacles and harness powerful sources of positive energy to drive in new directions.

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