It’s Time for Pivot Planning

Was it possible for a business to plan for and adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Yes and no.

With some rare exceptions, most companies didn’t have a strategy for how to pivot their business as a result of a wide-spread global pandemic. But on the other hand, the businesses that have weathered the storm better than others, such as Netflix and Walmart, understand how to sense and respond to an ever-shifting landscape. That ability to constantly read the tea leaves of change – such as new expectations for convenience impacting digital behaviors – positioned them relatively well when an unforeseen event accelerated a digital-essential transition.

Businesses everywhere need a new playbook to prepare themselves for change, or moments when a business needs to pivot. We call this Pivot Planning. Sometimes these pivots can be positive – a cultural moment like Black Lives Matter where a brand has an unexpected opportunity to lead with purpose and authenticity, acting on meaningful change. Sometimes pivots can be negative, like a sudden boycott or service outage. Pivot Planning is about developing a readiness for action for when pivotal moments occur, even when you may not know what the ultimate action may be. Growing up in California, I liken Pivot Planning to preparing for an earthquake. Your business cannot predict when one will strike – or whether you’ll be affected – but you can certainly plan for the event and get your emergency kit and plans ready.

Good pivoters sometimes look opportunistic. When activewear company Lululemon announced their $500 million acquisition of Mirror, a company that offers online workouts remotely, to those watching it looked like Lululemon was making a smart move into the virtual fitness industry that has blossomed with COVID-19. In reality, Lululemon had already been planning for the rise of virtual fitness all along; they took a financial stake in Mirror in 2019. I doubt anyone at Lululemon predicted that a pandemic would inspire people to turn their homes into virtual gyms. But Lululemon understood that the adoption of digital workout experiences would help the company create new relationships (and revenue streams) beyond selling athleisurewear – itself an incredibly crowded market. Lululemon planned for the pivot.

The good news is that it’s quite possible for any business to plan for pivots before a change takes hold and even during it. At Isobar, we work with brands to enact Pivot Planning along four dimensions:


Rethinking the Annual Plan

Annual planning still matters. But pivot planning means that you augment the annual plan to prepare for the unexpected. Most businesses already do a look-back and look-ahead on performance when they do annual planning, but not regularly enough to accommodate sudden change. Pivot planning means doing regular plan reviews that identify changes happening in real time, as well as creating budget reserves for the unplannable. We recommend our clients allocate an emergency iteration fund for rainy days and unexpected opportunities (be it social content or a new digital experience). Consider adopting a measure of “fund flexibility” that allows decision makers to quickly see how easily adjustable their budget is line-by-line.


Doing Constant Pulse Checks

Yearly all-in reviews of consumer and competitive data are no longer sufficient to drive a successful rate of change. Smart businesses study macro trends and data to understand the variables that affect them, such as shifts in consumer behavior, but they need to go a step further: Doing regular pulse checks of changing customer needs, tracking shifts in their values, and empathizing with their changing emotions (using emotional intelligence tools such as our own MindSight). Additionally, understanding the changing competitive context in real-time is critical, whether it’s examining start-up investments to signal where the market is heading, or looking to parallel categories that are driving innovation at a faster clip. This is where an outside party can offer perspective that flags potential blind spots. We believe it is our responsibility to be the client’s lighthouse for waves on the horizon, especially as in-house teams sometimes create isolated perspectives. We look across a multitude of factors, identifying “pivot points” and scoring them to focus on the opportunities with the greatest impact. Lastly, we look at everything through the lens of what the brand has a right to uniquely say and do. As our sister agency Dentsumcgarrybowen says, “when you know who you are, you know how to behave.”


A Dedication to Collaboration

Pivot Planning is not just about identifying opportunities, but also embracing this mindset in the launch and delivery of new campaigns, experiences, products, and services. This is about embracing radical collaboration and iteration, blurring the lines between client and agency teams. Gone are the days of limiting client (or internal stakeholder) involvement to upfront stakeholder interviews, occasional reviews, and a big reveal at the end.

We have embraced active and constant client interactions, including smaller 1:1 breakouts, weekly workshops, shared decision-making, real-time prioritization – all leading to faster, better outcomes. This strengthens the relationship by ensuring innovative ideas connect faster with reality, considering details that often get overlooked such as operational scale and employee experience. As a result, prioritized ideas (that are both valuable and scalable) emerge quickly. Ultimately, we create “Look Forward” journeys that focus on a vision ahead with less time spent on benchmarking what’s in the past. All of this means more time to focus on rapid prototyping to bring concepts to market faster.


Core Teams to Make It Real

Pivoters set up their work teams differently. They use nimble co-creation pods to get work in-market quickly and adjust from there. We recommend selecting one-to-two initiatives to immediately put into market with a SWAT team (of client and agency teams complementing each other seamlessly). These initiatives can be a pilot and test, using real-time data and consumer insights to optimize the idea and provide learning, either to scale it further, adapt it to better meet changing needs, or develop subsequent initiatives. Because a pivot in motion stays in motion. 


Contact Isobar

Pivot Planning is not about a crystal ball that predicts the future. Instead, this is about embracing new ways of understanding market shifts and preparing to take action when unexpected pivots come into focus. Contact Isobar to learn how we can help you embrace Pivot Planning, and let’s pivot together.