If in doubt, pivot – An Irishman’s Diary about the business buzzword of the year

As you may know if you’ve spent time in boardrooms lately, nobody fails at anything these days, at least in business. What people now do is “pivot”. If the first pivot doesn’t work, they pivot again. And so on, until either of two things happens: (1) success or (2) bankruptcy.

This exciting new euphemism has been defined as a “structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis” about a product or strategy.

Implicit in the definition is that the previous course wasn’t working.

So in many situations, “pivot” may be a substitute for another five-letter p-word, panic. But crucially, it suggests the pivoting party is in control of the situation.


And the tactic does have useful precedents in nature. A hare fleeing a greyhound, for example, will pivot as soon as its first strategy – running away in a straight line – threatens to produce what business people call a sub-optimal outcome.

But when I hear of tech start-ups pivoting this way and that, I also can’t help thinking of those little battery-operated toys that bump into walls and furniture and then self-correct before careering off in another direction to hit something else.

“Pivot” has itself been bumping around the tech world for a few years now.

Last January, however, a magazine called thewriter.com predicted it would be the boardroom word of 2017 – fed by such growth engines as Donald Trump and Brexit.

Sure enough, this summer, the New York Times hailed the term's ubiquity in the US.

Not only is pivoting now the fashionable way to avoid admitting failure, apparently it has also joined the many American euphemisms for making staff redundant.

The NYT cited a media company that recently announced its "pivot to video".

Among other things, this meant laying off 25 writers and editors.

The popularity of pivoting in its new sense goes back to a 2011 book called The Lean Start-Up, which described, and thereby encouraged, a movement in Silicon Valley that had adopted this sort of directional flexibility as a philosophy.

Another of the movement’s buzz terms is “iteration”, which according to the dictionary just means “repeating”.

But in this context, the idea seems is to have multiple, slightly adjusted product launches, until something sticks.

And of course, there's nothing new about that, really. Inventors have long had much the same idea. Thomas Edison once said: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

The only thing in that sentence that might disqualify him from a career in modern tech is his use of the f-word, even when denying it.

For similar reasons, and others, Samuel Beckett would not have made the cut in Silicon Valley. He was too fond of the f-concept.

As he summed up once: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Mind you, this was close enough to being a motivational slogan that at least one top tennis professional now has part of it tattooed on his leg.

So maybe some Silicon Valley companies use it too.

Beckett was a lean start-up himself once, after all. In his 20s, as I mentioned here recently, he even considered working as a journalist, via something called The Irishman's Diary.

Then he pivoted towards literature. In another pivot, later, he moved from prose to plays, having his big breakthrough with Waiting for Godot. That's a play in which, as one critic said, "nothing happens twice". And it was a huge success, proving that iteration does work sometimes.

Speaking of writers, while looking up the new meaning of "pivot", I accidentally discovered that there is a French TV personality of that name: Bernard Pivot. The "t" is silent in his case, and the name sounds more "pivo", as in the Czech for beer.

But the thing he's best known for is a TV series years ago called Apostrophes, which was indirectly inspired by Marcel Proust. It seems that when Proust was a start-up, circa 1890, he once took part in a game, then fashionable, that involved filling in a friend's questionnaire about his personality.

The “Proust Questionnaire” was revived in the 1970s as the basis for celebrity interviews conducted by the aforementioned Pivot. His show ran for 15 years, attracting millions of viewers. And I know this has nothing to do with the latter-day popularity of the p-word in English-speaking countries. But to be honest, I had run out of things to say about that. So I pivoted.