Pivots Are the Answer for Product Innovation

Marty Cagan has driven product innovations at eBay, AOL, Netscape, HP and others, and now works as Silicon Valley Product Group’s product management consultant.   Today he spoke at an internal Dassault Systèmes event, and I’d like to serve up a bit of what I learned. 

Have you ever heard of “pivots” in relation to computer software roadmaps?  Probably not, because they’re not roadmapable.  You never know when you’re going to encounter one or what it’s going to be.  Even so, you should consider making room for, accepting and incorporating pivots into your product development process.     

According to Marty, pivots are “little bits of change” that make for winning business concepts. I’ll give you three examples:

  1. Flickr started out as a multi-person game.  It was too difficult and people didn’t like it.  But they DID like the image-sharing part.  The team noticed this and expanded the concept into “Share your photos. Watch the world.”   
  2. PayPal began as a concept to exchange money via Palm Pilots, but it just didn’t take.  What people liked was the concept to send money online, thus today “The world’s most-loved way to pay and get paid.”  
  3. YouTube started out as a video dating site concept.  You make a video of yourself, saying why people should date you, and then you share it with the world and hope someone will actually want to.  People didn’t feel comfortable exposing themselves this way, but they loved the idea of sharing other types of videos online.  Thus, “the largest worldwide video-sharing community.”

“Be open to pivots!”  said Marty.  But how? 

The tip is in Steve Blank’s refrain, which goes something like, “No facts exist inside the building; only opinions.”  (building =s company)  Going further, Marty pointed out that “the bigger your company, the truer this is.”  You’ve got to “distinguish vision from illusion.”

Product managers should be obsessed with validating their ideas with real users.  And Marty considers person-to-person interactions necessary at a minimum of three per week.  Every week.  Like for Flickr, PayPal and YouTube, this is where the pivots begin.  More about pivots here

Is your company open to pivots?  What organization and processes do you have in place to facilitate this? 



  • Many companies ended up pivoting – Nokia, for example, started as a paper mill company before it became mobile. Even Dassault Systemes is a pivot in a way, having spinned off from the aviation company.

    As the article points out – “focus on the broad concept of “Product Discovery” rather than the very narrow “Requirements Specification” that most people associate with product definition”. Centering a conceptual demand around a product will probably end up pivoting.

  • Excellent article Kate…thanks for sharing!

  • Kate

    Hi Feyzi and Cliff, merci for your comments. Marty also shared that he thinks cloud computing will offer lots of pivot possibilities. If true, that’s great news for many of us. I’m interested to see how companies in our space will wiggle this. Best, Kate

  • Kate – it would be great to see a post elaborating on the cloud pivots.

  • Kate

    Hi Feyzi, Marty didn’t elaborate on any specific business ideas related to pivots and cloud computing, he just emphasized the potential. I’ll see what I can do to get a related post online. best, kate