One year ago, I wrote that drawing up a list of things to be grateful for to share with our family on Thanksgiving might seem pointless. But, I mused, there was one thing we could and should give thanks for: the ability to pivot. The endless challenges of the pandemic gave me the opportunity to stop and think. It gave me the ability to consider new ways of moving forward by pivoting.
Now, 12 months later, I’m still pivoting. And I still believe it’s a gift to be able to do so.
At the heart of any pivot is the decision to change. It might be a small change that only makes small ripples in the way you do things in the course of your day. For others, the need to pivot means significant changes if they want to stay viable. Pivoting means changes that impact everything they do. For others, one pivot wasn’t enough. They needed to try multiple things in order to find the ones that led to the best outcome. But each and every single decision to pivot reveals a single truth: Change is hard. Just think back to every New Year’s resolution you’ve ever made. How many have you kept and how many were just a memory by the middle of February? No need to raise hands because we’ve all been there and done that. Change is HARD!
Know Thyself & Thy Organization
If you’re a fan of smart, engaging people, you might pick up a copy of How to Change by Katy Milkman. She’s a co-director of Wharton’s Behavior Change for Good Initiative and the James G. Dinan Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She’s also the go-to-person major companies want to talk to when they want to spur positive change, aka pivot. Based on her groundbreaking and original research, Milkman offers insight into why it’s so difficult to change. Recognizing that one-size-doesn’t-fit-all, each chapter in her book focuses on a specific type of internal obstacle that prevents success. She goes on to offer different strategies to counter those obstacles, giving individuals and organizations the ability to customize their approach for personal success. But she’s also a realist. The tools she offers can make change easier, but it won’t make it easy. Because change is hard.
When you’re considering pivoting, it’s vital to understand what you’re up against. You need to know the obstacles standing in your way. For example, an experiment with nearly one million patients testing the use of text messaging to encourage flu vaccinations found that sending a simple text message (“We have a vaccine reserved for you” with a specific date and time for an automatically scheduled appointment) was more effective than messaging inviting them visit a clinic or reminding them to get a flu shot. Why? Because humans choose the path of least resistance. Make it easy for us to do something and we’re there. Require us to expend effort to schedule an appointment, and we’ll take our chances with the flu. Couple a default appointment with the feeling that we’re special? You’ve got a winning strategy.
Internal Obstacles & External Critics
If you’ve faced a pivot this past year, chances are excellent you faced both internal obstacles and external critics (who can be obstacles too). Everywhere you turn for advice, you’ll hear that we are our own biggest obstacle to meaningful change. Whether it’s because we lack the willpower to take the first step or because we fail one time and give into the “what the hell” effect. (I slipped off my diet by eating a handful of fries, so what the hell, that diet is a goner.) But like most things in life, change is not an all-or-nothing strategy. It’s much more complicated, especially when you’re asking more than one person to pivot with you.
When you pivot or change, you can’t just decide to do it and then expect success to happen overnight. Milkman uses lessons from tennis to explain that when you’re playing, if you want to win, you tailor your approach to exploit the weaknesses of your opponent. In other words, you map out a specific strategy. But a strategy isn’t enough. You also need to ensure that you have the abilities you need to change.
Tennis players need to prepare to win against any opponent by training to hit the shots needed when you’re in a perfect situation and when you’re not. Turning potential failure into a win requires the ability to move forward when you’re off balance or in a less than optimal position.
Over the course of the past 18 months, a great deal has changed for me personally and professionally. As I reflect on the past year, I’m grateful for the small changes that have been successful. But I’m even more thankful for the pivots that didn’t succeed. Each one of those was a chance to learn something about my work, my strategies, and myself.
As I gather with my loved ones to give thanks, I’ll be including each one of you in my list of people I’m thankful to have in my life. My clients are the reason I eagerly look forward to going to work every day. My family is the reason I want to live life to its fullest. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to make a difference.