A need to pivot. My four lessons


To pivot: a change in direction, sometimes despite great present-day success. Breathless future-facing magazines laud this move. Indeed, Fast Company’s “The Pivot” series does so as it:

…explores those destiny-altering decisions made by companies that have gone on to great success. Read more about their course corrections–and alternate endings.

I’ve recently experienced four occasions of “pivoting”, and have drawn these conclusions:

1. Mess with Success to learn, to grow and to see things differently

I used to play guitar a lot — I even taught it for a while as a teenager. Now I seem to need a reason to strum anything. Looking for one, I mindlessly volunteered to play for my daughter’s school retreat at the end of this month, leading 45 kindergarteners in tuneful melody (“if you’re happy and you know it…”). As I finally started practicing this weekend and considered which of my four guitars would work best in an open-air camp-like setting, I inexplicably opted for my newest stringed acquisition: a ukelele. I was truly messing with success as I barely know how to play this four-string instrument.

But I’m sticking with it because (a) the chords to all the songs are simple, so I’ll be encouraged to finally learn to play; (b) less intimidating than a guitar, it’s a great starter instrument for kids generally, so hopefully it’ll inspire the little ones; (c) its smaller body should make it easier to handle while leading a sing-a-long; (d) it should project better in an outdoor setting; (e) Paul McCartney swears by it.

2. Seek new opportunities in this time of flux, disruption and chaos

Screenshot 2014-05-13 07.29.13

I direct a successful graduate program for communications professionals. But if learning and work are becoming inseparable in the knowledge economy, educators need to offer their wares along a continuum of availability. Not everyone has the time or resources to pursue a full-fledged degree and advance their career at the same time. Which is why we’re launching a non-credit online certificate in Storytelling and Content Strategy this fall. It captures the fundamentals of our curriculum in a light-handed way over nine months. The most common question I get during the keynotes and workshops that I lead around the world is “Can I take your some of your classes without moving to Seattle?” Well, now you can. And we get to create a new vehicle to deliver our thought leadership to new markets.

3. Turn to face the wind to get there fast: if you don’t do it, someone else will

Headlines at Joint Base Lewis-McChord

We actually pivoted our entire graduate program last year when we announced a second masters in Communities & Networks and rebranded under Communication Leadership. There was some risk given the great (and ongoing) success of our degree in Digital Media. And yet, as I met with Lt. Col. David Johnson at Joint Base Lewis-McChord last month to discuss how we could train his soldiers and senior officers in the art of content and connection, he instinctively pointed to a slide showcasing our newest classes as “that’s the future right there — the essence of communication.” Our local U.S. Army community is facing its own need to pivot as it downsizes and refocuses its mission regionally and on the Pacific. So even as we face potential competition from education startups such as General Assembly and “digital trade school” Code Fellows (hey, I just took a workshop in Python!), we need to meet increasing demand in customized, compact curriculum for organizations in our community that are managing their own changes.

4. Always be creating, refining and collecting

Dan Satterberg's view of our local criminal justice system
Dan Satterberg’s view of our local criminal justice system

Those organizations seem to come our way on a weekly basis as they seek our support. So much so, that I see a way to capture their interest and stories, even as I look for share their challenges and potential solutions more widely. Last year, we used our Four Peaks TV show to emphasize the secret sauce of innovation and entrepreneurialism in our region, by partnering with the Bezos Center for Innovation.

This season, we’re framing the show as an on-air classroom, with useful takeaways for the viewer on the art of effective communication and conversation in this networked age. We will also cover elements of entrepreneurship, mentorship and innovation during the show, using Google Hangouts to connect our featured guest with others (both during the show, and in the fall during my “Communication through Digital Media and Networks” class in collaboration with our students).

In many ways, it’ll be “education as consultation” that captures the essence of successful communication (leading to other forms of professional success) as it solves real-time problems.

So we’re in A-B-C mode (“Always Be Collecting”) as we prepare for this new format, deploying the 4K capabilities of the new Panasonic Lumix GH4 camera. Yesterday, I turned the lens towards King County’s Prosecuting Attorney, Dan Satterberg and his team. They’re also seeking a pivot in our local criminal justice system and hope to do so through storytelling. Dan sketched a compelling story on our whiteboard about the challenges he faces. I can definitely see using this content both in the show as I interview him, and in the classroom as the students consider strategic solutions to this very tangible problem.

And yet, to quote the great sage Kenny Rogers, “you’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, know when to run.” Read this compelling Wired piece about a startup seeking Silicon Valley gold that struggled to find its footing after it pivoted away from its founders’ passion for their initial concept.

Two chances for us to connect in person in Seattle:

June 6: I’m giving a “My Favorite Things” tour at the Seattle Art Museum as part of its monthly REMIX showcase/party

June 13: Join our graduate program for its annual public student showcase/party. Free registration, free parking, free food (for the body and mind).

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