The term “pivot” is probably one of the most overused and abused terms in today’s product teams.  If you’re not familiar with the concept, see Your Business Plan Is Wrong.

As I work with different teams I find the term used in so many different ways.  Mostly the different uses of the term are pretty harmless.  It is often used as a synonym for “change.”  I’ve heard teams refer to a “pivot” of their technology stack (e.g. from Java to Ruby), or a “pivot” of their development process (e.g. from Scrum to Kanban), or a “pivot” of a dedicated product team to work on something else (I guess this is supposed to make the team feel better about the new assignment, because pivots are something cool teams do).

But there is a much more serious problem in how teams think about pivots:  I see too many teams and startups giving up on their product vision too early.

The purpose of this article is to try to highlight this issue by contrasting the two very different types of product pivots.  I call the two types “Vision Pivots” and “Discovery Pivots.”

Vision Pivots

Your product vision describes the big picture of what you are trying to achieve, typically over a 2-5 year timeframe.

The product vision is not something we give up easily on.  The vision is typically why people join a company or team, and it’s a compelling problem that we all believe is worth solving.  We know it’s hard.  If it was easy, it would not take us several years to solve, and it probably would have been solved already by lots of others.

I think that Jeff Bezos says it best when he argues: “Be stubborn on vision, but flexible on details.”

In a nutshell, the job of the product organization is to make that vision a reality.  So we don’t work for a few weeks or even a few months and then just declare it’s not happening and we should do a pivot.  We will typically work hard for many months on a product vision and not even entertain the possibility of giving up.

That said, it’s also the job of the product organization to be able to distinguish vision from illusion.  If we determine that the vision itself is the issue, that is when a vision pivot may be in order.  In my experience, this is usually because we find we’re solving something that customers just don’t care enough about.  In other words, there is no real market.

Fortunately, we have some very good techniques for quickly validating the market.  In my experience, this is not usually the issue.  The problem is that too many teams give up before they can come up with a good solution that meets the needs of this market.

Discovery Pivots

In contrast, while working on making the product vision a reality, during product discovery we will need to try out a great many ideas.  We expect that many of these ideas won’t work, and the ones that do will require several iterations.  So it’s critical in product discovery that we not be wedded to particular solutions or features or approaches.

We should be open to alternative models to monetize, or different ways of fueling growth, or different features to drive activity, than the ones we expected.  Remember, these are all just details.   Your vision is not to offer a subscription model vs. a transaction model.  That’s just one particular approach to monetization.

So long as we find a way to make the product vision come true, we’re good.

The reason this is so important is that I see too many teams giving up on their product vision too early.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most of the time, especially with startups, I see them failing not because their vision was bad, but because they gave up on their vision too soon.

This is why it’s so essential that a product team be strong at product discovery.  Product discovery is how we get as many iterations towards our vision as possible.  Our objective of course is to get to product/market fit before we run out of money (or management runs out of patience).

And being good at product discovery means being very open to the many forms of discovery pivots.

I think I understand why so many teams are confused about all this.  We all love to talk about the very visible vision pivots that created products and companies like Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Groupon.  However, what’s talked about a lot less is the much more frequent discovery pivots that are less visible yet lead to the consistent improvement behind successful products.

To summarize:

A discovery pivot moves you closer to realizing your product vision.

A vision pivot puts you on a path to a different business with a different vision.

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