Living the Pivot

Joi Ito’s luncheon keynote yesterday keeps spinning in my head. The CEO of Creative Commons has been involved in many technology startups as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, and part of his talk explored how innovation and invention is changing in the digital age.

Particularly interesting were two approaches to innovation: agile development, and pivoting.

Agile development is an evolving practice for rapidly developing software with self-organizing groups, close interaction between developers and end users, and fast and frequent versions of the product. In contrast to the previous standard for software development that required stacks of specifications and isolated developers, agile development encourages responsiveness to the needs of the customer, low costs, and high speed. As a result, failures cost tens of thousands of dollars instead of millions, and developers and investors can try lots and lots of things to see what works.

In a world of highly specialized arts programming and cultural facility construction, agile development has some clear potential in arts and culture programs and projects.

The other key concept Ito described was “pivoting.” What’s a pivot? This venture capital blogger describes it this way:

It’s what you do when you’ve built everything according to plan and yet, the business and users aren’t materializing according to plan.

A pivot is much like an “audible” in football, where the quarterback changes the play at the line of scrimmage when he assesses the current state of play and realizes the original play won’t work.

Pivoting is an essential skill in the fast-paced world of software development, since so much is shifting and unclear in the landscape. Some services online are completely new, and nobody can know what users will find valuable until the users either show up and pay or don’t show up at all.

There have been some famous “pivots” in the online world. The online payment service PayPal was originally designed for handheld digital devices, then pivoted to become a web payment service when the original plan came up short. YouTube began as a video dating service, before it pivoted to become a video sharing site. The photo-sharing site Flickr began life as a multi-player online game.

Why am I going on and on about pivoting? Because the conversations surrounding the GIA conference suggest that much of the arts world is pivoting, or needs to. Stand-alone, professional, technically and aesthetically focused cultural organizations aren’t finding the audience or the funding they once found. The traditional infrastructure of arts and culture is coming up short on capital and low on cash.

Some major cultural institutions are already rethinking themselves not as high-art monuments but champions of creativity, expression, and community, as places where professionals and amateurs alike can share their talents (think LA Music Center’s Active Arts programs, or the Baltimore Symphony’s Rusty Musicians initiative).

There has been much discussion at the conference about the decreasing perceived value of arts and culture in many communities, and the mismatch of supply and demand. But it may just be that the community (the end-users) have a different set of values they want from culture and creative experience, and arts organizations need to pivot to meet them there.

Ito admitted that pivoting isn’t easy. It takes an ability to assess and learn from disappointment, and to shift entire teams in a new direction where some won’t want to go. The venture capital blog referenced earlier has a rather sobering paragraph on the challenge of the pivot, which could just as easily be talking about a software developer as a cultural institution or foundation (sorry it’s a long excerpt, but it’s worth the space):

Management teams have at least two constituencies when managing their businesses through a pivot — their board and their team. And, in many respects how you manage them through a pivot will depend on how you selected them. On the board member front, investors who backed ”you + a nice idea” are generally more open to pivots then those who fell for just a technology or product concept. Identify the ”you + a nice idea” board members and win them over first. They will be your ally when it’s time to convince others around the table. Managing you team can be harder. Being a CEO can be the loneliest job in the world. You have to show stoicism when your panicked. There are no shoulders to cry on. And it only becomes more intense during a pivot. Your team will be scared and look to you for signals. Show real commitment and do not allow yourself to waffle in front of them. One trick is to publicly declare your intention to pivot. It gives you no place to hide and makes your intentions explicit. After the pivot begins, expect some team members to walk. Likely these are the individuals who were more interested in working on a technology than on your team. It’s a bummer if they go, but really, it’s ok if they do. Expect that they will.