In the process of finding product-market fit with a new product, it’s challenging to know exactly when to pivot and when to persevere. Making a pivot decision too early, or without enough evidence, can lead you away from a valuable opportunity. Making a pivot decision too slowly, on the other hand, can lead you to spend time and resources on a product that doesn’t deliver customer value.

Pivot decisions are challenging because they are not a perfect science. Even when you’re operating with a rigorous, data-driven process, the choice of when, how, and where to pivot requires judgement, intuition, and risk. In this article, I’d like to lay out some practices that can help product managers reduce the chances of pivoting at the wrong time. 

Two types of pivots we make when validating new products 

When iterating toward product-market fit, there are two types of pivots that product managers typically make: the mental model pivot and the execution pivot.

A product’s mental model is the set of hypotheses and assumptions that explain how a product works to deliver value to customers. If you pivot on the mental model, you are updating your understanding of your customers’ pain points, and how your product works to solve them. 

An execution pivot hinges on the details of a specific iteration of your product, such as design, UX, copy, navigation, and so forth. In an execution pivot, you’ll tweak these details in order to better execute against your product’s mental model. (Marty Cagan refers to this type as the “discovery pivot.”) 

(Note: This isn’t an exhaustive list of all pivot types; these are pivot types that are common in bringing a new product to market. Companies can also pivot on the vision, business model, strategy, and so forth. For more types, see here and here.) 

It’s important to keep these types of pivots in mind, since they affect your product development trajectory in different ways. A mental model pivot is a more fundamental change in your product’s direction, and, as a result, is typically more expensive to make. Execution pivots can be small and iterative, and should be made frequently as you shape your product to actualize, and validate, the mental model.  

Now let’s explore these pivot types in the context of two parts of the discovery process: the customer discovery phase and the product validation phase. 

To make solid pivot decisions, start with a strong product mental model as a foundation

Before you build your new product, it’s important to develop a strong product mental model.  Without this foundation, you risk making premature or misdirected pivots in the execution phase. 

The goal of the mental-model-building phase of discovery is to become an expert on your potential customers. There are many ways to do this research – user research, surveys, competitive analysis, market analysis, pricing analysis – and you’ll have to find the methods that best fit the context of your company, industry, and product. In most situations, conducting a high volume of customers in one-on-one interviews is a simple and effective method to build up a strong customer mental model, especially if the problem landscape is new and ambiguous. 

In this phase of discovery, you’ll make rapid mental model pivots until your mental model starts to solidify. Since this phase generally occurs before you build (i.e. execute) your product, you won’t be making any execution pivots at this point in the discovery process. And, since this phase happens before execution, mental model pivots are relatively inexpensive. 

Once you can demonstrate a strong level of certainty about your customers, document the mental model in detail. You should define the full customer problem landscape. You should have a clear hypothesis as to how customers will use your product; how they will activate, retain, and so forth. You should specify the outcomes that will confirm or disconfirm your mental model. (For more on rigorous writing in the customer discovery process, I recommend reading Stephen Blank’s “Four Steps to the Epiphany.”)

The written mental model acts as an anchor that you can reference as you’re validating your product with users. It prevents you from pivoting too early when faced with execution challenges. And, if your product isn’t successful after several execution pivots, it helps you pinpoint exactly where your mental model needs to be updated. 

Once your mental model is documented, test your product with users

After you have formed a strong mental model foundation and have articulated your assumptions in a document, the next step is to validate your product with customers. This could be in the form of a prototype, a minimum viable product (MVP), or an experiment. 

As you’re testing out your product, expect to make a lot of execution pivots. A common mistake in this process is to pivot on the entire customer mental model based on one or two failed tests.  It’s hard to build a new product perfectly, without iteration, so be prepared to persevere with several different approaches of copy, onboarding, user experience, and so forth.

Another type of mistake is to cling to certain elements of execution. If you find yourself holding on to details that are not essential to the mental model, then it might be time to reconsider them.

One tip here is to interview users after they’ve used your product. By interviewing users, you can diagnose whether there are elements of the product execution that are blocking users from receiving value. This can also be an effective way to check the underlying assumptions of your product mental model.  

There are cases where, after several unsuccessful iterations and attempts, you may conclude that your mental model needs adapting. These are tough decisions to make; you need to figure out, for example, the opportunity cost of persevering relative to the opportunity cost of making a pivot. But, if you make sure to exhaust several iterations of your product before tweaking the mental model, you’ll greatly reduce the chance of pivoting without the right level of evidence. 

TL/DR

Making a pivot decision is tough. There’s no simple formula for when to pivot; often, these decisions involve a bit of intuition, judgement, and informed risk taking. However, if you follow a strong product development process, you can reduce the chance that you’ll make a bad pivot. Here are some guidelines to help you improve your pivot decisions:  

  • Be aware of what type of pivot you’re making: Are you tweaking your product’s execution, or are you changing your point of view on your core assumptions about how your product delivers value (the mental model)? 
  • Before setting out to build and test a product with users, ensure that you have a strong mental model that is articulated in writing.
  • As you’re validating your product, keep in mind that you’ll likely make a lot of execution pivots in order to achieve the right success state. If you find that, after several execution pivots, your product still isn’t performing as expected, you might need to update your underlying mental model.
About the speaker
David Prentice CollegeVine, Product Manager Contributor

David Prentice is a Product Manager who is happiest when actualizing ambitious visions, fine-tuning high-quality user experiences, streamlining complex interfaces into simple interfaces, learning by talking with customers, binge-building dashboards, collaborating with cross-functional teams, and shipping products that make a meaningful improvement in the lives of their users. He currently works at CollegeVine, an education startup dedicated to bringing high-quality college guidance to every family, and has led the creation of a new app to help students optimize their college choices. Prior to CollegeVine, he managed brand, platform, and research teams at two of the world’s largest online travel companies. PM-life aside, David is a music, art, and history nerd, who lives in Boston with his girlfriend and three cats.

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