Pretty image
Sometimes when the world tells you to pivot, you really need to stay the course.

Anyone who has read Eric Ries’s excellent book The Lean Startup knows that as soon as you get a better idea what your customers want, you should “pivot” and act on your learnings.

Except it isn’t that easy. What if the world says pivot but you don’t want to? Does that mean you’re wrong? Too married to your idea? Are you going to be one of those entrepreneurs who wastes their time building something nobody wants?

Here I would like to share some thoughts around pivots. Specifically when entrepreneurs should pivot, when they shouldn’t, and why personal ideas need to be treated differently from speculative ones.

The Last Thing the World Needs Is Another Book on Agile

That was the advice I got from an ex-colleague of mine when I asked if he would consider writing the foreword for my book The Agile Samurai. From his point of view there were already enough books on agile and the last thing the world needed was another. And of course, from his point of view, he was right.

  • A ton of books had already been written on agile.

  • Agile had been around for a long time.

  • Everyone was doing it (or so it seemed).

  • And there wasn’t anything new that really needed to be said.

Taking these data points, and naively applying the concept of the Lean Startup pivot, it would have made sense to pivot the focus of my book to something sexier or new.

Except I didn’t want to.

I was married to the concept of this book. A simple 200-page distillation easy enough for management yet deep enough for aspiring teams. I didn’t particularly care if no one was going to read it. This was the book I wished I had when learning agile. It didn’t exist. So I was going to write it.

It was after writing Samurai that I read Eric’s book. And it was here that I realized that if I had blindly followed some of the Lean Startup practices (which I mostly agreed with), Samurai would never have been written. What bugged me was that I couldn’t explain why.

I know writing a book isn’t the same as forming your own full-on startup, but the question remained. Why did some ideas seem easier to pivot on than others?

It wasn’t until I came across a presentation by Adrian Smith that I found the “ideas” I was looking for.

Speculative vs Personal Ideas

There are two types of ideas when it comes to startups. Speculative and personal.

Speculative

Personal

In it for the money

In it for yourself

Would abandon quickly

Would never abandon

Have a choice whether to build

No choice—have to build

Hard work

Hard play

Requires resources of others

Requires only you

Objective, data driven

Emotional, logic doesn’t apply

Speculative ideas are all about the money. You see an opportunity and you go for it. Customers aren’t responding? No problem, pivot and experiment until you discover what they do like. Pivoting, objectivity, competition and hard data rule here and this is where the concepts of The Lean Startup and other formal methods shine. It’s nothing personal—it’s just business. This is the realm of the speculative idea.

Personal ideas are the exact opposite. You aren’t in it for the money. You pursue them because you want to. No one is paying you. Most likely no one ever will. It’s your passion. Your love. It may be your obsession. You don’t care if anyone is looking. It’s that itch you have to scratch. That mountain you have to climb. It’s not work—it’s play. And you can’t wait to get home from whatever it is you do during the day so you can immerse yourself in it for a few hours before you collapse and go to bed.

Danger Zone

And this is where people can get hurt: treating speculative ideas as personal, and personal ideas as speculative.

Treating speculative ideas as personal ones is exactly what Eric is trying to shield us against with the principles outlined in The Lean Startup. He nails it when he says there is nothing more wasteful than companies building things nobody wants. We become so enamored of our idea that we think if we simply build it others will come. Then, of course, they don’t and the rest is history. The principles of The Lean Startup serve us well here.

But the Lean Startup pivot can be applied equally naively too. If you’ve got a personal idea, don’t pivot just because the world isn’t with you. Some of our greatest inventions and creations have come about precisely because founders saw things differently and refused to pivot when the world was telling them to.

They couldn’t find validation for what they were doing because it didn’t exist. Even if they could have shown their product or idea to others, few would have got it because no one would have understood (e.g. Twitter).

And this is the most dangerous time for a work of art. Most are killed just before the finish line because we become afraid. We are afraid of what it will mean to finish. We are afraid of success. We are afraid of failure. We are afraid of what others will think. We are afraid of not following the tenets of a popular book.

And it’s this fear that kills our most cherished ideas. And I fear that when applied naively, the pivot will become another excuse to quit before our ideas see the light of day.

If this topic fascinates you I recommend Steven Pressfield's The War of Art.

Is Your Idea Speculative or Personal?

Look—startups are hard. I don’t pretend to have any magical insight or formula for making them easier. Eric’s book is excellent and I have personally failed in two startups that would have definitely benefited from his advice.

But if it’s personal, gives you great joy, and you can’t wait to get home to work on it, enjoy it while it lasts! For you have something special. Something that most haven’t experienced since childhood. The sheer joy and flow that comes from creating. And this is something that should never be abandoned.

“We think the Mac will sell zillions, but we didn’t build the Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.”—Steve Jobs

Thank you Adrian Smith for this presentation on Agile for Startups.

Jonathan Rasmusson is the author of The Agile Samurai. As an experienced entrepreneur and former agile coach for ThoughtWorks, Jonathan has consulted internationally, helping others find better ways to work and play together. When not coaching his sons’ hockey teams or cycling to work in the throes of a Canadian winter, Jonathan can be found sharing his experiences with agile delivery methods at his blog, The Agile Warrior. For more information on the Agile Inception Deck check out The Agile Samurai.

Send the author your feedback or discuss the article in the magazine forum.