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Pivot to Transform Failures into Opportunities

Productivity
Impact
Product

30 May, 2020

Marc LeBrun, VP of Engineering at Flow Kana and a co-creator of the Apple Mac, recalls how one of his early prototypes failed to meet the original intent but how that failure turned into an unanticipated opportunity.

Problem

A friend who was a recognized expert in a certain technology hit upon an idea to make it do the seemingly “impossible”. Early experiments were quite promising, and product opportunities abounded, so he was able to recruit a few of us to join him in a startup.
 

We created some initial prototypes with good results in our test contexts and generated a great deal of interest -- and even quickly obtained a one-million-dollar initial purchase order -- easily enough to seed a very promising business. We were tremendously excited that things were rapidly getting a lot of traction.
 

Unfortunately, as we began to scale the technology, it started behaving in an unanticipated way that was far from the original intent -- and seemed to get worse the more we demanded of it as we tried to scale up to the level required to fill those key initial orders!
 

Actions taken

This alarming unfolding of events provoked two responses, one following the other:
 

  1. We tried even harder to make the technology work the way we originally envisioned it. That included writing more code, building more hardware, doing more experiments, and seeking out fancy academic experts who could perhaps help us. We became increasingly frustrated -- when we tried to do demonstrations some came off all right, but we could tell that there were problems with the technology lurking at the edges. It was hugely disappointing that our prototypes were not scaling as we expected based on the promise of the initial experiments! Of course, we persisted, applying every sort of ingenuity to achieve the original vision, but it began to feel like we were burning out chasing a phantom that was always just out of reach.
     
  1. At last, we decided to step back and admit to ourselves that this was not working despite all the time, energy and money we’d put into it. Instead, we finally asked ourselves, What can we actually do with what we've got? Instead of viewing it as a failed solution to the original problem, we pivoted to asking What problem is this a solution to? What other real needs might it fulfill?
     

This shift of perspective occurred suddenly and it turned our frustration to a galvanizing Eureka moment. We realized that there were many other possible applications, and reframed the product concept and prototypes we’d developed from the original single-purpose device that just did one particular thing into a multi-purpose platform.
 

We then had our engineers extend the platform to carry more diverse sensors. Now, instead of reporting a single type of information, we could serve customers that wanted multi-dimensional histories. This turned out to be very important in industries we’d never initially considered. We also explored simplifying further -- and it turned out that even if we couldn’t measure some parameters as accurately as we’d intended there were important and valuable real-world applications that could be enabled by mere detection of certain signals. Precision is sexy, but sometimes a single bit suffices!
 

This was a difficult mental transition that required us to redefine our original dream and to envision new options we’d never considered. However, eventually, this pivot generated new opportunities and partnerships and reinvigorated the venture.
 

Lessons learned

  • It’s necessary to dare to be visionary and dedicated to achieving the seemingly-impossible -- but being too rigidly fixated on your original plan can be counterproductive. To survive and prosper sometimes requires resilience and a willingness to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Be ready to modify or abandon early dreams in order to embrace emerging opportunities.

  • If our heart is truly set on something that is not working well, it takes a lot of courage to stop and re-evaluate everything. But sometimes the only way out of a corner we’ve painted ourselves into is by working hard to embrace different unanticipated perspectives and re-define our original goals.

  • When failure looms consider that perhaps you are actually succeeding, just at something different than what you originally intended!


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