Learning how to pivot is a crucial skill when making your ideas happen. However, the advice to ‘pivot to digital’ during lockdown has become an unhelpful cliché. Here’s a guide on how to pivot which looks at the original problem you’re solving, the solution you created, and the people you’re serving.  

One of the most effective ways to generate ideas is to focus on problems. It was my go-to approach when running brainstorms and workshops when I worked in innovation. It’s also the advice offered by YCombinator’s Paul Graham to aspiring founders:

“The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think up startup ideas. It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself.”

From iteration to pivot

We need to maintain this problem-solving approach as our products, services and businesses grow. This involves being responsive to change, tweaking what we do to refine and improve our offer. It’s the classic iteration from the Lean Startup ‘build-measure-learn’ cycle.


However sometimes the adjustment is of a more significant order. That’s where pivots come in.

A pivot is a substantial change to what you do, and it’s not something to be taken lightly. However, it doesn’t mean you’re starting from scratch.

Reclaiming the pivot

Pivot was listed as one of the most annoying words of lockdown (another survey found that lockdown was THE most annoying word).

The advice to ‘pivot to digital’ has not only become a cliché, but it’s unhelpful and practically meaningless. It’s time to reclaim the pivot.

Undertaking a pivot is all about building resilience for the long term and learning how to pivot will help at any stage of your business. Don’t worry if the evidence suggests you need to pivot – nothing you’ve done so far is wasted. You’ve learnt a huge amount about your customers, your business and yourself. It’s all part of the journey to making your idea happen.

Different ways to pivot

The starting place for any pivot should be evidence, data or feedback that what you are doing isn’t working. Once you have evidence you can explore options of what and how to change.

Change can happen at many different levels – for this article I’m going to focus on three: problem, solution and people.

1. The problem pivot

As you get your idea out into the world, you might realise there’s a bigger, better or more exciting problem for you to solve.

If you have the wrong problem but the right solution, you’re in a great place to pivot. You’ve already developed and tested your original concept, so you’ve got the skills and experience to move forward and, you’ve got something to build on.

Immerse yourself in the new problem. Start with feedback to understand how your first customers frame the problem. You might need to do more research, so go out and talk to people who experience this new problem.

2. The solution pivot

You’ve got the right problem, but the solution isn’t right.

When this is the case you need an alternative offer. Go back to the problem to understand your customers’ needs and wants and use them to generate new ideas.

Sometimes the feedback shows that people don’t want everything, but are interested in one element of what you currently do. Take a closer look at the comments and dive into what people say they liked. What were they interested in? What expectations did they have? Which features did they want to try? Follow the positive reactions.

You might find that people don’t want the whole solution but love a single element, for example a specific product feature. Home in on this to figure out what caught their attention and why. In this case, you don’t need to build anything new; instead go out and test what’s already there, asking people just about that one element of the solution.

3. The people pivot

A people pivot happens when you have the right problem and your solution is spot on, but you have the wrong market. There are two ways to fix this: you can zoom in or zoom out.

Zoom in: You’ve got the right problem and a great solution, but as you listen to users, you might find there’s a segment of your audience that loves your idea, so focus on them. Perhaps you’d created something for pre-teen children but only those between ages 4 and 6 got really excited about it. Embrace your niche. Don’t worry that it’s a smaller market; if they love your idea they’ll be more likely to buy it.

Zoom out: if you find you’ve got a different target market all together, get to know and understand them, talk to them and gather information about their lives.

Some of the most successful startups are the result of pivots – take Slack, once named as the fastest growing startup ever. We know it now as a team communication tool, but it began as an internal system for developers working on an online game called Glitch. The game failed, but the messaging system took off, and the company behind it raised an eye-watering $120 million of investment for its ‘Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge’.

Pivot your way to personal growth

It is tough when your plans don’t work out, when your idea or business hits the buffers, or when the world changes and you’re forced to respond. It takes tenacity to keep going, as researcher Angela Duckworth says:

‘Grit grows as we figure out our life philosophy, learn to dust ourselves off after rejection and disappointment, and learn to tell the difference between low-level goals that should be abandoned quickly and higher-level goals that demand more tenacity. The maturation story is that we develop the capacity for long-term passion and perseverance as we get older.’

Learning to pivot will increase your passion and commitment to your idea. By figuring out what path to take, you’ll develop the resilience to continue.

How to Pivot

The illustrations in this article are by Cara Holland for How to Have a Happy Hustle: The Complete Guide to Making your Ideas Happen by Bec Evans. The header image is by Jamie Templeton on Unsplash