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SXSW: Pivoting for success, lessons from netball

You might not expect it. But a popular term at SXSW has been pivot. Eric Ries, author of iconic entrepreneur text The Lean Startup, David Cohen, co-founder of start-up accelerator Techstars and Jonah Peretti, founder and CEO of Buzzfeed, have all drawn mentioned to the word.

Unfortunately, they’re not referring to the nifty footwork manoeuvre from Netball, the fast-paced sport beloved of Commonwealth countries.

No, in this case, pivot describes the concept of a business changing strategy without changing their vision.

It’s a fundamental tenet of Ries’ Lean philosophy, which entails building and launching a product or service quickly, measuring what works, learning from it as fast as possible and starting the process all over again. As Ries said in his SXSW talk: “double down on what’s working” and don’t be afraid to jettison what’s not.

Speed is key to a good pivot both in business and on the court. You’re better off doing something quickly than doing something complicated. Customers might actually like your quick, unfussy product but you won’t know until you’ve tried.

And leave emotion at the door. Don’t be wedded to a strategy if it’s not working. Both Flickr and Slack (the latter recently valued at £800m) were pivots from a company originally intended to create online games.

Also like netball, the pivot implies keeping one foot firmly in place as you shift the other in a new direction. By doing this, new ventures can take what they have already learned from past success and failure, and apply these insights to the new project. The data-driven content production factory that is Buzzfeed is a classic case of fast iteration and the learning loop. Its committed to testing in the real world “to learn and get better every day”. In fact, that feedback loop is so key to its business model that Jonah Peretti revealed they have so far stayed away from diversifying into traditional media channels such as TV or print, due to the lack of data to complete the loop.

However, although this iterative process increases the likelihood of success you have to be prepared to embrace failure. David Cohen of Techstars proclaimed: “If you’re not failing everyday you’re not trying enough”.  In his discussion group at SXSWi, Cohen also introduced the concept of the centre-flow – your vision – to help create co-flows, which incorporate potential new projects, ideas and opportunities. Cohen’s take on the pivot reminds me of Vizeum’s own 70/20/10 approach to media investment. The core 70% investment is our centre-flow, investing in proven channels and from this come the co-flows – innovation within our proven channels (20%) and pure, untested innovation (10%).

So, how can we further apply the concept of the pivot to marketing and communications?

Eric Ries says his Lean philosophy applies not just to start-ups but to anyone “creating something new under conditions of uncertainty”. This is reminiscent of Gethin James’ award-winning IPA Diploma paper, Confronting Complexity, in which he states that “in a complex world, planning only provides the illusion of certainty and control”. Our target audience doesn’t read the comms plan!

Therefore, we must be prepared to up the pace on the 20% and 10%, as our proven channels might not remain successful in a rapidly evolving media market. By testing unproven channels with smaller budgets we can mitigate the risk but testing frequently is key, we can’t learn if we’re not testing. Finally, don’t fear failure, we are always tempted to cover up or dismiss the under-performance of a campaign but these are the best opportunities to learn.

So, with the tenuous netball analogy long forgotten, I’ll leave you with the words of Eric Ries, “How many productive failures are you going to have this year?”

James Schad is Innovation Director for Vizeum
To find out what Chrissy and James from the Innovation Team got up to in Austin search #southbyviz on Twitter