Storytelling weaves together the common threads, presenting details in a compelling way that draws in the audience. When founders strike out on a new venture, there is a feeling of the newness of daring adventure, and excitement. The path is fraught with high peaks and deep, low valleys, and there are plenty of interesting scenic views and character-building experiences along the way. Many times, a company’s founder will need to make the hard but critical decision to pivot the company. The problem is that the audience (or stakeholders) that began the story with the founders are often in the dark when the trail diverges. They are left standing back at the fork in the road, wondering where the founders went.
The art of the pivot is only successful with the art of the story. There is an importance to “sensemaking” and selling stakeholders on a new strategy, say Harvard Business School professor Rory McDonald and corporate strategist Robert Bremner. “Launching an ambitious endeavor requires enormous support. You need to attract funding and staff. You need media coverage to build credibility. To get all those things, you need a good story. The story usually focuses on a problem and a solution, on a plan and a goal, and highlights the talents of the leadership team.”
To win over stakeholders and to improve the chance of success, organizations should conserve resources while endeavoring to connect with customers, business partners through new technologies and digital capabilities. With a cohesive messaging strategy and authentic, engaging explanation, stakeholders will be more likely to back the company and its leadership. It’s also important to add a little extra bubble wrap to communications and the momentum of the pivot because of the current pandemic — companies are experiencing unprecedented challenges and opportunities, and the economic ripples and varying external events have drastically changed consumer behavior.
According to Bremner and McDonald, here is how to maintain stakeholder support when a shift is necessary:
- The Pitch: Focus on the big picture. An essential for early startup credibility is an initial concrete plan that meets a specific need with a well-formed product concept and path to growth and profitability. But this same requirement can also hamper a startup down the road when it needs to pivot. Therefore, Bremner and McDonald propose creating a broad narrative without specific product features or functionality that provides extra room to maneuver. Larger abstract ideas give customers leeway to interpret what they want to see without diminishing the organization’s credibility. For example, Netflix was broadly pitched to consumers as “home video viewing,” pivoting over time from DVDs by mail to video on demand. Netflix accomplished its value proposition in all of its offerings.
- The Pivot: Signal continuity. Consistency is highly valuable, so avoid “messagingwhiplash.” Consumers view inconsistent organizations as less legitimate and less deserving of support. Bremner and McDonald also point out that the key to signaling continuity is to revise and broaden – not change – the original pitch. Companies that have successfully navigated a significant strategic shift simultaneously communicate a sense of continuity.
- The Aftermath: Move quickly but with humility. Communication mixed with transparency and empathy is an effective approach to informing stakeholders of changes that may not be welcome, especially in the event of swift retreats (in lieu of a phased withdrawal). Companies should endeavor to act with common decency. By acknowledging stakeholders – especially early adopters, buyers, and investors – with gratitude, kindness, and acknowledgment of their loyalty, companies will not find themselves in the situation of playing defense after maneuvering a major pivot.
Focusing on the big picture and providing a broad narrative will bring your audience along. Through consistent communications and a coherent message, an organization has the opportunity to keep everyone engaged. And if it’s all done with an authentic, graceful approach, the pivot will be a much easier process for stakeholders and the company alike. The story is yours to craft and your audience will be the ones to cheerlead its legacy.
All opinions & expressions are solely those of the author and not those of any other individual, institution or business.