A Pivot to Disruption: And other silly phrases that signal weak thinking.
By David Shaw

Strong ideation around curated big data will help us think outside the box and create highly scalable deliverables that expand our bandwidth. If we lean in and take a deep dive into our ecosystem, we can disrupt the business model, and pivot to become rock star growth hackers. 

OK, I’m not sure what the word salad in my first paragraph means.

It’s filled with words you’ve read and heard a lot, and maybe found yourself using. And they sort of make sense, when strung together. But do they really do anything other than obscure meaning, and hide flaws in our thinking, while seeming to sound up-to-date?

Business schools, business consultants, and the annual flood of business books spend a lot of time dressing up old ideas with new words in a struggle to remain relevant and, dare I say, hip; as if these new words have more power than what was used in the past. And then these words seep into the media, general usage, board meetings and cocktail parties.

But all of these words are just new vocabulary for old ideas, and while they sound sexy, they often move us further from actual meaning, and further from actual thinking. 

Take “pivot,” which is one word I just hate, and yet hear or read at least five times a day. The common understanding of the word is “change,” but it usually means something along the lines of: “What we were doing wasn’t working, so we’ll try something new.” The problem is that pivot really means to face a different direction while keeping one foot completely planted where it was. When we pivot, we don’t really fully change.  We just present ourselves with a new view from the same place we already were.

What’s the difference between pivot and change?  Early in the last century, some carriage makers pivoted to a narrow market of decorative vehicles drawn by horses for use in royal weddings and park tours, and others changed to add internal combustion engines. Nearer to our own time, some retailers pivoted to a variety of strategies (big box, upscale, discount, super discount), while others changed quickly to digital ordering and delivery. 

The pivoters are still trying to catch up, because they still have that one foot in the same place it always was.

But I guess pivoting sounds better than admitting we made the wrong choice and have to change.

“Disruption” is another one of my least-favorites. It also means change, but with the sense that it’s change over which we have had no control. When applied as digital disruption, this becomes a catch-all excuse for not getting where the world has been headed since the founding of the World Wide Web in August 1991, and Amazon’s launch in July 1994. It’s been a quarter century since the beast from Seattle began selling books online (or 22% of time since the introduction of the Model T), but everything’s now disrupted, including — I fear — our ability to think and react.

A final example: Curation. Rather than edit or choose, we curate things.  We curate content in magazines (yikes!) and on TV, we curate ideas and data, we curate our schedules we curate our social media accounts. Curation sounds great, and very high-class, but it and its results belong in a museum, a museum of failed words. 

It would be nice to get back to simply making and taking responsibility for the choices we make, which either improve our businesses and lives or don’t.

Words matter, especially the words we use to describe our businesses, markets and future. The further we move from simple words with clear meanings, the harder it is to convey meaning, create strategies and tactics, and actually make decisions.

You may want to spend some time reviewing the conversations and presentations you encounter in the boardroom, and look for the use of these and similar words, and question their meaning. (Or you could “unpack” that meaning, but please, don’t get me started again!) What exactly does your management team mean when these words are in play? And how well do you and your fellow board members agree on that meaning? How can you make decisions until you’re absolutely sure?

Thanks for reading this.  At the end of the day, it is what it is. And I welcome your comments at dshaw@directorsandboards.com.


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