Pivot During the Whack-A-Mole Response

The probable measured response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been called a whack-a-mole response: relax lock down restrictions, monitor outbreaks, and react to outbreaks with testing and control measures (where they exist). A whack-a-mole game is an arcade game that involves hitting mechanical moles with a mallet as they pop up from various holes. Colloquially, the term refers to a repetitive task of some degree of futility. Because of the whack-a-mole response to the pandemic, businesses face a rapidly variable economic environment for the foreseeable future.

This whack-a-mole response is reactive and is necessary because of the failure of public health agencies and the governments controlling them to properly plan for a foreseeable contingent event – the COVID-19 pandemic. When proper planning is not implemented (action taken on the planning) and the contingent event occurs, all that is left is to react to the circumstance. There is a direct analogy from this public governance failure to the private business that does not do the planning to implement an owner agreement with succession and buy-sell provisions to be prepared for the foreseeable contingent events of owner death, disability, or withdrawal from the business.

The skills and capabilities developed for planning activities such as implementing an owner agreement also enable a business to plan for or react to other contingent events and to do so quickly.

In basketball, the term pivot refers to the situation of a player who has stopped dribbling the ball but wishes to move without committing a violation (double dribble or walking). The only way the player can move without a violation of the rules is to keep one foot in place while moving the other foot. This allows a semicircular movement but does not allow the “pivot foot” to move off or along the floor. The player can turn or pass, but cannot move laterally. The history of business development features several classic transitions called “pivots.”

William Wrigley Jr. began to see the value of gum while giving it away for free. He moved to Chicago in the 1890s and sold baking powder. He offered free chewing gum with his purchases. The gum proved to be more popular than the products he was selling. Wrigley then decided to manufacture chewing gum. The gum brands developed by Wrigley, Juicy Fruit, Wrigley’s Spearmint, and Doublemint, are some of the most recognizable brands in American history.

A trip to Italy and observation of the coffee culture there inspired Howard Schultz to have Starbucks sell more than coffee beans and equipment, its principal business activity at that time. Starbucks established a large network of stores that served espresso, coffee, teas, and casual food. Following large-scale distribution deals – particularly with major hotels, groceries, and bookstores – Starbucks became the largest coffee-house chain in the world.

A classic pivot in social media history is the transformation of Odeo into Twitter. Odeo began as a network where people could find and subscribe to podcasts. When iTunes began taking over the podcast niche, the company decided to change to a status-updating micro-blogging platform. In October 2006, members of Odeo formed Obvious Corporation and acquired Odeo, including the Twitter.com domain. Currently, Twitter has more than 300 million monthly active users. Twitter, Inc. is based in San Francisco, California, and has more than 25 offices around the world.

These classic examples help to define the business pivot. A business currently operating sees a new opportunity and changes its course to develop that opportunity. For businesses in these uncertain pandemic times, the environment for the next year or more will be that of constant change and uncertainty. The pivot is an appropriate response to this environment. For a business that is established, the pivot often may be necessary to maintain the infrastructure of the business while taking on new opportunities.

The success or failure of the pivot is dependent on the quality of the decision-making behind the pivot. A business with a decision-making group in place that is practiced in decision-making through continuous planning will make a better decision than will those guiding a business without an established and experienced decision-making group. If your business does not now have such a group, now is the time to establish it. If you recognize that you are without planning and reacting in a crisis, focus on creating the decision planning group. This is a time when owners can articulate their values with respect to the business, set new goals, begin actions to reach those goals, and revise the goals as is appropriate. Implement planning rather than simply reacting and hoping for something to happen.

To make a plan, you must make a series of decisions, and, if you are doing it correctly, these decisions are made through a decision-making process involving an informed and independent group including those who will be affected by the decision. Planning essentially done by one person is better than no planning at all, but the best practice is to make planning decisions by consulting a group including those that will be affected by the decision. That the opinions and knowledge of a group is considered does not change the authority or responsibility of the person charged with making the decision. Establishing and invoking a group decision-making process making decisions maintaining continual planning yields better decisions. Practice does produce better results. With the decision-making process established, when a contingent event occurs (probable or not) the revision of the plan – the changing of a goal and the actions to achieve it – will be better thought out and be more oriented to the ideal path for the business.

If the planning for the business has a dynamic format, that is if the goals of the plan are known to those acting to accomplish the goals and there are mileposts and metrics to measure the progress, then when the whack-a-mole experience indicates the opportunity to pivot, the decision to revise goals can be made quickly and when action is taken, the goals may be revised immediately as experience dictates.

A business with a decision-making group, especially one that is practiced at planning, will make the best decisions with respect to pivots. This skill may be the one that allows the survival of a business entity in these whack-a-mole times.