Are you pivoting or thrashing?

Productivity, panic buttons, and responding to emergencies.

After many years of working with whimsical, ADD-symptomatic decision-makers, I’ve come to appreciate the difference between a strategic change of direction — the pivot — and the epileptic-amoeba-flailing in random directions, which I refer to as thrashing.

It’s like that old business dichotomy of busyness vs. productivity. From the awesome Peep Laja:

It’s easy to confuse busyness with being productive. Odds are that many of the things you’re working on make no difference whatsoever, and shouldn’t be done at all.
Your backlog is probably full of all kinds of things, but will any of them actually make a difference?

Peep Laja, email (emphasis added)

What’s a pivot?

You launch your minimum-viable product and the sales don’t come rolling in… What do you do? Borrowing from poker strategy, essentially, you have three options:

  • Double down – keep doing what you’re doing, harder
  • Fold – give up and start preparing for the next hand
  • Change up – try something else

According to, a pivot is “a shift in business strategy.” Functionally, a pivot is a high-level conversation that arises from unmet expectations and results in a revised method of meeting your goals. You develop a new strategy, possibly a complete overhaul of your business model, based on a pivot.

Here’s an example shared by Caterina Fake (which I heard on the excellent podcast Without Fail) about the origins of Flickr. I could paraphrase but Wired did a great job:

[Stewart Butterfield] set out… to make a game called Game Neverending. It was a financial failure. Flickr was merely based on a set of features broken out of the game, but it took over the company and his life. You may have heard the regrettably trendy term pivot, where a startup abruptly shifts to a new strategy and suddenly thrives. This was one of the original pivots., The Most Fascinating Profile You’ll Ever Read About a Guy and His Boring Startup

They built a game and it didn’t succeed. During work on the game, the team developed a cool inventory management interface, with a better user experience than anything else available at the time. They realized that piece of the game could be a stand-alone product for photo archival and sharing. (If you’re old enough to remember the early days of the web, perhaps you’ll appreciate how awful photo sharing was circa 2004, and how truly revolutionary Flickr felt. If not, just take my word for it.)

Build a failed game and end up launching a photo sharing service?!? THAT is a pivot. Consider: in order to implement this radical new strategy, they had to pretty much re-engineer the entire business model. (Alternately: imagine how hilarious it would be to see a photo-sharing service advertised with PUBG-style banners and interstitial videos.)

What is thrashing?

Thrashing is the kind of behavior I see a lot in small businesses, or in medium businesses with erratic leadership. Easy to observe, hard to define. Here are the symptoms of thrashing:

  • A critical priorities list with more than two entries (see Merlin Mann‘s comment below)
  • Daily edits, revisions, and amendments to requirements docs
  • “Drop everything and do X” (or frequent changes in priorities)
  • High frequency of abandoned projects
  • Teams engage in triage or fire-fighting instead of developing or creating
  • Strategy meetings that end without actionable tasks
  • Multi-page todo lists at every level of the organization
He’s right.

Let’s be clear about one thing: responding to an emergency does NOT constitute thrashing. If your multi-site ecommerce platform breaks, you have to drop everything and fix it — the same way you drop everything when your child falls down and skins her knee.

Chronic response to new ideas, changed situations, issues, or substandard results, as though they’re emergencies, produces thrashing.

There are several organizational characteristics highly correlated with thrashing:

  • Distracted, insecure, and/or whimsical leadership
  • Meetings that don’t start on time, are frequently cancelled, and/or run long
  • Overemphasis on short-term results
  • Lack of investment in planning, cost-benefit analyses, projections, and the other crystal balls of business
  • Understaffed team(s)
  • Frequent/daily overtime
  • Staff who feel too cowed, fearful, or burnt-out to push back when told to drop everything and do X
  • Leaders never celebrate victories, even small victories — either because there simply aren’t any, or changes in direction/priority render the victories obselete

Priorities change all the time — what’s the big deal?

While hitting the big red Panic Button and getting all hands to focus on a specific challenge does bring everyone’s focus to the same point, it sacrifices long-term gains as well as employee wellbeing.

Task switching = reduced productivity

Most people don’t understand the costs associated with task switching — especially those associated with complex tasks. Every time you change a team’s priorities without giving them time to close open loops, you reduce output.

Furthermore, knowledge workers know very well your best work gets done when you’re heads-down, completely consumed with your task. Setting mental bookmarks and getting up-to-speed on an interrupted task takes extra time. (The cost of any interruption is lost productivity.)

Perpetual emergency = disengagement and ultimately burnout

Back when I was in high school, I played a 4X strategy game with an interesting feature: when your cities were threatened, there was a little toggle you could switch called Emergency Mode that boosted productivity 20%. Once the emergency was over and you turned the switch off, your city spent the duration of the emergency with a 40% productivity reduction. (Like that headache and loss of focus you have after a too-late night.)

Some businesses operate with Emergency Mode toggled on all the time — as if there’s no associated drawback or penalty. That works. Temporarily.

Here’s why: according to operant conditioning theory, all stimuli lose power as their novelty wanes. Makes sense, right? The first time the little shepherd boy shouts, “Wolf!” his parents drop everything and charge to his rescue with pitchfork and cleaver in-hand. The third time, they just yell at him to knock it off. The sixth time, when he finally really really means it, they turn up their soundtracks and ignore him. (At least the wolf gets a free lunch.)

Here’s what happens, in order, as staff at all levels of the organization toggle their own personal Emergency Mode switches off:

  • Loss of urgency regarding emergency-related tasks as people survey their growing piles of business-as-usual tasks (for a while, employees may be willing to work overtime to take care of their non-emergency tasks — but not forever)
  • Disengagement from business goals as staff slowly realize leadership’s stated goals simply don’t align with their own wellbeing
  • Fractured team/business culture as leaders note the drift outlined above and struggle to reassert their authority and the urgency of today’s emergency
  • Increasingly strident and dire and drastic calls to arms as leaders struggle to motivate staff to take the situation seriously
  • (Almost always) the introduction of grave negative consequences — pay cuts, mandatory overtime and weekend work, extreme productivity goals, etc. — in a misguided attempt to get staff realigned with the mission
  • Loss of respect for leadership (for reasons that should be obvious by now)
  • Increased sick leave as employees realize the only way they can take some time off work is to pretend to be too sick to work
  • Increased turnover as individuals realize they can’t face this level of stress

… and things go downhill from here. I’ve seen some absolutely awful situations — where executives hold marathon secret meetings, only emerging to demand updates and shout at the cube farm. Where professionals resign themselves to coming to the office 4 hours early to “get work done” before leaders arrive and start shooting emergency flares. I’ve seen department heads set up allegedly-temporary Emergency Response Teams to insulate the bulk of their staff from fire-fighting missions (yes, this works, though ERT members suffer through the cycle of stimulus fatigue and burnout described above).

Bottom line? It’s bad. The same way you can’t fly an F-16 only on afterburners, you can’t run a business with the Panic Button permanently engaged.

I have a legit emergency — how can I handle it?

First off — you’re awesome for asking the question. Regardless of how it goes. the fact you’re looking out for your people means your heart’s in the right place.

Assuming you have a clear definition of the exact nature of the emergency (and if you don’t, start there!) here’s my advice:

Limit the number of staff involved

You want to keep business-as-usual running as smoothly as possible. So make a list of the specific individuals or teams you need to involve. At a larger organization, you’ll probably get managers involved and let them nominate staff based on the needs of the situation.

I strongly recommend asking for volunteers — as generals throughout history have discovered, all-volunteer units have a much higher morale and espirit de corps than conscripts.

Get the team involved

Get your team together and go through the following points.

Describe the situation

Keep in mind your team must be in-the-know — now’s not the time for limiting information. Lay the cards on the table. If anything you discuss is particularly privileged, let the team know. (It will make them feel special, honored maybe? and more invested in the outcome.)

Here’s the situation. Not to cast aspersions, not to lay blame. This is where we are. This is the challenge we’re facing.

Here are the consequences. Let your team know what’s at stake. This part also serves as a gut-check — are the consequences really severe enough to merit this response? With luck you’ll get to this stage of the process and decide you don’t need to push the big red button…

Here’s how we’re going to fix it. What are our outcomes? Remember — you have to limit this to things your team can actually accomplish. “End world hunger” seems unlikely unless you’ve drafted Bill Gates. “Feed everyone in the building” seems doable.

Set specific expectations

This is where you drop the bombs: mandatory overtime, weekend work, we sleep in the office until… etc.

Do not downplay this. If you’ve set this conversation up properly, your team will be ready to hear how you’ll all be pulling together to overcome the challenge. (Note “you’ll all”? This works a WHOLE lot better if the person convening the emergency response participates side-by-side with the rest of the team.)

Tell your team how this will affect their daily tasks. Maybe they’ll have to delegate daily tasks until the emergency is over? Maybe they’ll need to set aside a minimum of X hours per day for daily tasks? However you plan to insulate your team from their regularly-scheduled workload, let them know now.

Set specific goals

Make them specific, measurable, achievable, reasonable, and timely. You know the drill. We will continue to keep up Expectations above until we achieve these Goals.

Any questions?

Find out right now because as soon as this meeting’s over, we’re all running over to the pole and sliding down it and getting our big floppy coats on.

Don’t engage questions that don’t pertain to what you’ve already discussed. Don’t get sidetracked. Your overall goal is to get everyone aligned with the mission.

Minimize the impact on day-to-day business

As much as you can, keep all other business running smoothly. Isolate your emergency responders from business-as-usual. Sometimes, that means asking managers or directors to step in and run teams. Other times, you’ll need a lower-level staffer to step up and make decisions.

Reward your team

You’re asking a lot, so give them something in exchange. At the least, have lunch delivered (dinner, too, if you’re sitting late every night). Research on cash rewards vs. gift rewards vs. just saying “Thanks” isn’t at all clear — my best advice on this is to know your people, and know what they’ll appreciate.

When your goals are met, gather the team one last time. Thank them for their work, high-fives all around, make them feel appreciated. Then tell them to take the rest of the day off. Better yet, send them to a spa for a massage and an afternoon lounging at the pool. “I don’t want to see you till Monday at 9am,” that sort of thing.

Never forget to celebrate your successes.

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