The right kind of innovation can fuel successful pivots. And, pivoting can seem increasingly necessary when companies struggle while pandemic restrictions severely curtail their business. Such tough times can unleash an urge to shift gears and to try to do something completely different. Business leaders may see such a shift as justified. They may view innovation as the key to a brighter future in a pandemic battered world where their business has experienced severe decline. And, they may associate innovation with doing most things very differently.
But, unless a company is selective about the innovation it pursues, there can be more harm than good. Building on strengths generally has good success potential as an approach to innovation. In contrast, innovation that tries to do everything extremely differently, rather than building on prior strengths, can easily turn into a disaster.
Likewise, when pivoting to an entrepreneurial start-up, sticking to strengths is an approach likely to bear fruit. This is the case because there are so many new capabilities that a start-up must develop if it is to succeed. Building on strengths shortens the learning curve, so the business can do well without incurring excessive start-up costs.
A good example of successful pivoting with innovation that sticks to strengths appeared in the November 19, 2020 Wall Street Journal article “New Entrepreneurs Emerge from Wreck of Covid Economy“ by Kim Mackrael. The article tells of a hair stylist named Ramona Wilmarth whose livelihood was affected “after California temporarily closed most in-person services in March.” According to the article, “she bought a wagon, a collapsible salon chair, and a long extension cord.” She “now visits about five clients a week outside their homes and sees another 15 a week on her brightly colored front porch, which she has outfitted with a chair, a mirror and heat lamps.” The article points out that masks are worn and the stylist gets Covid-19 tests regularly. The article also reports that the stylist’s “net income is 35% to 40% higher than it was at the salon.”
Based on my 25+ years researching business success and failure patterns, there are good reasons why the stylist’s innovative business pivot does so well. It works well because, although it is innovative, it also builds on prior strengths. Styling hair outside on porches rather than in a salon clearly is innovative. But, her innovative new business involves doing something she did well previously and she’s building on her strengths. She did have to learn to ply her trade in an outdoor environment. But, she was still using many of the same skills that she had been applying regularly at the indoor salon. She didn’t have to learn everything from scratch.
Furthermore, the business served a market need that was left unfilled as indoor salons were closed by the pandemic. There was also the added advantage of probable lower virus risk outdoors, even if indoor salons did reopen.
In conclusion, building on strengths to serve unmet market needs is generally a recipe for success. And, pivoting with innovation that builds on strengths is far superior than pivoting with innovation that does almost everything entirely differently. So, don’t get caught up in the kind of change everything imagery associated with innovation. Instead, build on strengths when innovating and your success potential will increase.