Industry experts offer no shortage of good business advice, much of which carries a lot of truth and wisdom. Given my more than two decades as a human resources leader and executive, I can’t escape the one tip that rises above all others in my career: “Keep one eye on the long game and one foot ready to pivot.” I believe that agility and responsiveness are just as important as any long-term strategic plan.
The Long Game And Pivoting
To me, a long game means three to five years. Visibility beyond that horizon is generally too hard to see, particularly in a fast-moving industry, and nearer targets may lack audacity and transformative depth.
We can all think of companies that remained fatally focused on the long game: Atari, Blockbuster, Kodak and countless more. Kodak, the titan of photography for most of the 20th century, patented the first CCD-based digital camera in 1975. However, the company was so fixated on profits from its film business that it missed the digital transition and didn’t launch its EasyShare digital camera line until 2001 — a time that coincided with the debut of the first camera phone. Within years, camera-enabled phones outsold cameras worldwide. Kodak filed for bankruptcy in early 2012, a victim of its own tunnel vision.
Driving toward a long-game target involves many navigation and status checks. At Symantec, we review our long game plans on annual, quarterly and monthly bases, and any of those reviews may suddenly reveal the unexpected, either in the market or with our own execution.
A pivot updates the long game. When (not if) the rules of the game change, a pivot occurs when you update your tactics and strategy. However, a pivot also addresses short-term updates in critical business needs. This is where HR teams, through a culture and talent lens, serve as a company’s closest strategic partner. Especially at times when macro-level pressures push a corporation to take steps backward, HR can be the coach helping to move that company forward strategically in the short term. This includes CEO and leadership transitions.
HR can be imperative to a firm’s survival.
Pivots inevitably happen in response to the unexpected. So, when the unexpected strikes, what should you do? The answer — pivot — is too simplistic. We must ask specifically: How does one pivot into opportunity rather than disaster? The key lies in embracing sacrifice.
Any field in which rapid change prevails will be rife with companies attempting to pivot into opportunity. Few areas today showcase this better than the automotive industry. While companies such as Waymo, Tesla and Uber race through the infancy of autonomous driving, all sights remain on a future where Level 5 autonomous vehicles rule the roads. That’s the long-term goal. However, the discussion today has shifted to one of when, rather than if.
In part, this perceived inevitability is the result of international competition. As discussed in Dr. Kai-Fu Lee’s book AI Superpowers, China has committed to becoming the global leader in AI, including autonomous driving. There are nearly 40,000 driving-related fatalities annually in the U.S.; China has over a quarter of a million. While any death is an unfortunate tragedy, the ways in which American and Chinese cultures are working to mitigate this human cost through the race to dominate autonomous driving diverge.
Safety and risk are mutually incompatible. All significant long-term achievements, especially in a transformative industry, come with loss and failure. But if you stay attentive, plan well and know your out, then it’s possible to pivot without losing the path forward.
While there’s no secret set of instructions that guarantees a successful pivot, I have found one ingredient that definitely helps: a willingness to sacrifice.
Consider the Stanford marshmallow test, in which researchers left small children alone with a marshmallow for 10 minutes with the promise that if they could leave it alone until the researcher returned, they could have two marshmallows. The 30% of children who were able to defer their short-term gratification realized higher social, cognitive and mental health outcomes in the decades that followed. (Note: Subsequent research attempting to duplicate these findings have failed to realize the same outcomes. Some now consider the original study flawed due to a lack of socioeconomic diversity in the test subjects, who were all children of Stanford faculty and likely unfamiliar with the prospect of missing meals or having scarce access to food. Said bluntly, hunger could have a profound effect on test results when food is involved.)
When I arrived at this company five years ago, I knew my long-term plan. I wanted to make the enterprise’s HR department a modern marvel — the built-out, flawlessly executing machine. Well, when you run through four CEOs in five years, pivots happen. Every new leader needs to be brought up to speed and hopefully adopt the vision. Processes reset. Strategies shift and diverge.
Had I indulged in the immediate gratification of claiming to have the right answers or be on the plan I established, I may have been sidelined and all my plans discarded. Instead, I worked patiently with each successive CEO, pivoting, always aiming for win-win solutions. I remain committed to getting two marshmallows. We’re still driving toward that long-term vision, just via a different route.
A two-marshmallow strategy involves risk. How do you cope with the uncertainty and stay focused on the long-term goal? Often, the way to the reward of that second marshmallow is by maintaining focus on your customer. Will your pivot make your customer more effective?
If the answer is yes, you can hold firm. You can keep from rushing prematurely to market. For a master class in winning the second marshmallow, study Amazon, arguably the best company in the world at making decisions based on putting the customer experience first. And don’t forget that this is also a key place for HR’s input, because HR will be instrumental in placing the right people in the right positions to make those tough decisions that require fortitude.
To recap, you must keep one eye on the long-game goal, and you must have one foot ready to pivot when the unexpected arrives. When you pivot, let the customer’s priorities guide your direction into opportunity. Be willing to endure short-term failure and sacrifice to reach your five-year plan’s destination.