If people try to tell you that pivoting is the new thing, that it’s the fresh Silicon Valley approach to business designed for today’s fast-paced digital world, don’t believe them.

Consider Fairfield University, a private school founded just outside of New York in Fairfield, Connecticut, by the Catholic Church – a 2,000-year-old organization.

In 1941, the society that runs the Jesuit school system had acquired two properties and were finishing renovations on them. One would become a university for college students and the other a preparatory school for younger boys, both on the site of what would become Fairfield University. The plan was to open the university first while renovations on the prep school were still underway.

But then, on Dec. 7, just before the university was scheduled to open, Pearl Harbor was bombed, pulling the United States and nearly all of its college-age men into war. Concerned that they would have a school with no students to fill it, the priests engineered a classic, Silicon Valley-style pivot. They moved the prep school (for younger boys) into the finished building and opened it first.

3 lessons to help you pivot

This quick thinking, adjusting to sudden changes in the market, may have saved the university from potential financial demise. Beyond proving that pivoting is not a recent Silicon Valley invention, that even a 2,000-year-old organization can do it, it also exhibits three critical lessons to keep in mind if you want to successfully pivot:

  • Have a purpose
  • Create optionality
  • Encourage proactivity

Have a purpose

Engineering a pivot and following through on it can be gut wrenching. But the team behind the Fairfield University pivot was driven by a purpose – to spread Jesuit education around the world. Even if you are driven by more earthly concerns, the truth holds that having a purpose in place can help you pivot more successfully. It gives your team the conviction to follow through.

Does your team have a similarly inspiring mission that will give them the stamina to follow through should the market demand a pivot from you?

Create optionality

The team behind Fairfield University had designed the school to serve two customer segments. This gave them optionality, which provided greater strategic degrees of freedom.

We are often told to build a business around one core customer profile (or “avatar” or “persona”). But if you are designing your business for only one customer, you lose the option to adjust if market dynamics shift.

Are you intentionally building optionality into your strategy? Do you have a plan B or C or D?

Encourage proactivity

The priests overseeing the Fairfield University build out could have debated and fretted. They could have sent the problem up to headquarters and waited for instruction. But instead, because they operated in a more decentralized manner, they acted quickly and proactively. Research shows that your ability to pivot depends heavily on the level of proactivity you allow and encourage in your people.

Do your organizational structures and culture encourage proactivity?

Conclusion

Are you ready for the pivot that unexpected changes in your market will inevitably demand? Don’t wait until it is time to pivot. Put in place what you need to have the flexibility when the time comes:

  • Install a purpose that will give people the resolve to follow through on the pivot
  • Engineer optionality into your strategy
  • Design organizational structures and a culture that encourage proactivity