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When is it time to pivot?

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

When is it time to pivot?

Scott Miker

When you are setting out to reach a goal, two elements are paradoxical but both are very important to your success.

You have to learn how to be flexible. This represents to some, a pivot from their original strategy. The second element is consistency. We have to take enough consistent action to start to see the fruits of our labor.

In systems thinking there is something called a feedback loop. This happens when the output of a system is fed back into the input of the system.

An example could be found by looking at someone who saves money to invest and then takes the money they earn from the investments and puts it back into the investment, creating even more value and ultimately even more money earned from it.

We can keep going with these feedback loops and they start to grow exponentially. As the output grows and then gets put back into the input, the system provides greater output still and that ultimately gets put back into the input.

But some feedback loops contain a delay. If we want a promotion at work and want to use a feedback loop we can start to take on more responsibility in our own role first. As we do that and get recognized we will be given a role with more responsibility still. If we strive to take on more once we are in that role we can keep outperforming the current role and set us up for advancements and growth.

But the initial loop contains a pause in output. There is a time delay. It isn’t that we start doing more at work tomorrow and then next Monday we get promoted. No, it usually takes a long time, sometimes years to do enough to warrant a promotion.

So if we set out on this approach and find that we aren’t getting promoted, it could be easy to want to pivot and change our approach. But doing this now will stop any momentum that is building.

The reality is that you may be just experiencing a delay in the feedback loop. If you are taking the right steps and growing your ability to lead, it may take time before you are recognized and rewarded for that behavior.

But if you aren’t taking the right steps, then the delay is really a sign that you aren’t on the right track and should change your strategy.

So how do you distinguish when it is just a delay and when it is time for a pivot?

It can be very tricky. You can go off of faith. If you know in your heart you are on the right track, stick with it. If you have a gut feeling that you are doing it wrong, then make changes and adjust to create a better strategy to reach your goals.

But even above internal feelings, I like to rely on data as much as possible. Tracking performance can shed light when things seem blurry.

Years ago when I found myself overweight and living a very sedative, unhealthy lifestyle I decided to get healthy. I would exercise and get more movement in my day but I wasn’t losing weight, I was gaining.

It was incredibly frustrating and made me often think about throwing in the towel. Luckily I wasn’t just measuring my weight. I was measuring the steps I was taking. So when I stepped on the scale and it went up instead of down, I could look at the steps I was taking to see that I was exercising and eating properly for the first time in years but that because I hadn’t done much physically in years, I would have to build up some muscle before the fat would come off. And I kept thinking that muscle weighs more than fat.

This helped me keep going. I would slowly add more and more to my workout but would keep my general strategy the same. I kept taking action and working towards my goal.

This turned out to be a delay in the feedback loop. After some time, I started to experience some weight loss. That fueled my motivation and helped me eat even better and exercise more. That would then turn into even more weight loss. In essence, I created a feedback loop that turned out weight loss and that went back into the system as extra motivation to keep going.

But it could have been easy to miss that and turn to a pivot. Instead of keeping going and being patient, I could have given up and looked for another strategy to lose the weight.

But what kept me going was a faith in what I was doing and the data that showed that I was taking important steps that I had to take in order to succeed. I looked at the process and the progress I was making there, not on the desired outcome (number on the scale). This helped me to keep going for long enough for it to start to show itself in the outcome goal (weight loss).

But I’ve also been at points where I determined a pivot was necessary. Several times in my journey to get healthy I would start to plateau. I would hit a new level of success but then would remain stagnant for a while.

After a certain point I realized that this wasn’t just a delay. Because of my new level I couldn’t just keep doing the same thing and expecting the results to continue. In order to get more out I had to do more.

Again I looked to my faith in what I was doing and the data to show me what I needed to make the decision. It felt as though I needed to change it up. I didn’t feel like I was pushing myself any longer and was just breezing through an easy workout.

I looked at the data and what I was doing. I realized I hadn’t increased my exercise in months and the scale reflected that.

So I decided to make a pivot. I added more and looked for other areas that I could change as well. At the time I realized that cardio alone wasn’t enough and that I need to also do strength training.

Once I made the change, I started to notice the delayed feedback loop again. But after a short delay, the scale started to reflect the work I was doing.

Knowing when to pivot and when to stick with a new improvement strategy is tricky but if we follow the voice inside us and look for data to confirm that we are taking the right steps we can be patient enough to reach our goals and gain the benefits that are right around the corner. It can also point us towards a pivot when the path we are on is just not taking us where we want it to take us.