Making the Pivot When Life Churns With Uncertainty

We can never have perfect information, but there are ways to better navigate a change in direction
September 10, 2020 Updated: September 10, 2020

I remember the day I decided to pivot. 

It was right after the pandemic was announced and we held an emergency team meeting. I watched the color drain from my teammate’s face when she told me that my upcoming speaking event was canceled—and all the others were canceled in quick succession.

In a matter of minutes, we had lost a huge chunk of the revenue we were depending on. It was a devastating blow, but we didn’t waste any time. Instead of throwing in the towel, we re-attuned and determined that in-person engagements were going to be obsolete for the foreseeable future. We needed to find a way to recoup that lost revenue and drop the boundaries of the two-dimensional screen to really connect with our clients.

So, we put together a remote delivery platform at our office. We invested in a high quality dual-camera setup that allows me to recreate as much of the ‘in-person’ experience as possible. That was a huge pivot; it didn’t just happen. It was a major decision and a major risk, but we all have to take risks. 

How do you know when to pivot, and how do you develop the mindset you need in order to do it? Let me give you a piece of advice that Dr. Kendall Haven, author of “Story Proof,” gave to me. He said, “When we talk about change, rather than talk about all the things we’re changing upfront, talk about what we’re fighting to preserve; talk about what we’re fighting to protect.” Let the pivot come from what you’re fighting to preserve.

For Rooftop, we wanted to preserve the storytelling aspect and maintain that connection with the audience. Connection is everything to us and was what drove our pivot. Think about what you want to preserve in your organization, and the adjustments you have to make to protect it.

You also have to sort out what’s changed in your arena by applying the first special-operations imperative when things get uncertain: understand your operational environment.

Things are changing all the time. You have to re-attune constantly to what’s going on around you. Ask yourself multiple times per day, “What has changed?” List what you know and don’t know in relation to your goals. Review your facts as well as assumptions.

Assumptions are estimates you must make in the absence of fact in order to keep planning your pivot. Then as you move deeper into the unknown, continue to seek re-attunement that tells you whether those assumptions are still valid. When facing uncertainty, you’ll have to pivot at times even when you don’t have all the answers.

One mindset shift that leaders often miss when making a pivot is to get shared commitment from your teammates. In an attempt to be bold and declarative when storm clouds roll in, the boss shouts, “We’re going this way!” The team reluctantly rows the boat, but not really.

Leaders need to look their people in the eyes, and ask them open-ended questions that really illuminate where everyone is on the spectrum of emotion and morale. Then, after you’ve heard them out on what they think matters most, ask permission to give them your vision. Go last. It speaks volumes. Work their comments, fears, and dreams into your pivot wherever you can. If you don’t have shared vision, shared purpose, or shared commitment, it’s going to be very hard to move through change. 

Finally, know that “no plan survives the first contact with the enemy.” In other words, no matter how much analysis and strategizing you do during times of uncertainty, the fog of ambiguity will always have a vote in how things turn out.

Understand that the bulk of the resolution to your pivot will come in the realm of execution, and that’s okay. That’s what high-performing teams do. We’re not going to figure it out in the planning room. If you’re lucky, you’re going to get 75 percent fidelity on what the situation is in the arena before you launch. The rest is how you step into the realm of execution, do your job as a team in this new pivot, continuously re-attune to your arena, and over-communicate with each other.

General Scott Miller, my former special operations task force commander says, “It’s all about how we talk to ourselves as an organization as we’re going through the churn.” That’s exactly right. Keep talking about what works, what doesn’t, and what you can do better. Tweak it and keep making those adjustments to get it where you need to be. 

The pivots you make in times like this are critical. Even more critical is the mindset you bring to the fight.

Remember: Fear is contagious, but so is leadership.

Scott Mann is a former Green Beret who specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions and relationship building. He is the founder of Rooftop Leadership and appears frequently on TV and many syndicated radio programs. For more information, visit RooftopLeadership.com