Book Review: The Power of 'Pull'

By Margaret M. Clark Mar 1, 2011

Admittedly, the subtitle to the book The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion, seduced me faster than you can say, “” My earliest understanding of the colloquial use of the word “pull” involved scoring a summer job with the Connecticut State Police Department when I was 17 by virtue of the fact that my father was active in state and local politics. This was certainly not corrupt but not something you went around bragging about either.

Today, I realize that this would be considered “networking” and that those who are skilled at it are admired and even envied. So “pull” for me has a slightly suspect tinge to it, but I sensed that these authors were talking about something different that might be of real use to me.

The book opens with a story about five kids who learned how to surf together in Maui and reached their twenties poised to win spots on the World Championship Tour. Maui was not known as an incubator of champion surfers. In fact, no Maui-bred wave rider had ever made the pro tour. So how did this group of kids beat the odds and make it to the top of their game?

Essentially, the youth—supported by parents—applied the principles of “pull,” defined as “the ability to draw out people and resources as needed to address opportunities and challenges.” In addition to making expert surfers out of little boys, the power of pull influences success in other contexts, such as online gaming, open-source software development and apparel manufacturing, among others. Pull, the authors say, “allows us to harness and unleash the forces of attraction, influence and serendipity”—keys to success in our rapidly changing digital world.

Drawing us in with breaking waves and the story of surfer boys, the authors—all leaders with the Deloitte Center for the Edge, a research arm of the global consulting giant—laid the foundation of their theory of pull as it might play out in work and organizational life.

From Push to Pull

The authors posit that “pull” is about being systematic in combining work and life to pursue our passions, finding others who share our passions but bring different experiences and perspectives to challenging performance needs, and creating conditions where we’re more likely to happen upon interesting people resources, and opportunities—“even as we contribute the same chances to others.”

Before we can grasp where we are going, however, we need to understand where we have been living: in the old world of “push.” Push in a business environment involves “forecasting needs and then designing the most efficient systems to ensure that the right people and resources are available at the right time and the right place, using a carefully scripted and standardized process.” In other words, management.

Push has dominated every area of our lives: school, work, media, religion, diet, you name it. In all those arenas, somebody else has assessed the needs and prescribed the means of meeting them. We’ve just gone along for the ride—or not. But because of a radical transformation the authors call the “Big Shift”—“a fundamental reordering of the way we live, learn, socialize, play and work”—push no longer works.

Push-oriented institutions will wither away, and pull-based organizations will ‘develop and adopt

new ways of creating and capturing wealth in the digital era.’

The Big Shift encompasses three waves: First is the rapidly evolving digital infrastructure powered by technology that drives ongoing, exponential increases in microprocessing power and data storage capacity; development of standards for packet-switched communication networks; and improvements in fiber-optic technology. Contemporaneous public-policy changes that removed “barriers to the movement of people, products, money and ideas” within and across nations have intensified the impact of this trend, allowing more vendors to enter the marketplace, fueling global competition while increasing economic instability.

These developments, the authors say, have transformed the nature of companies from “places that exist to drive down costs by getting increasingly bigger… [into] places that support and organize talented individuals to get better faster by working with others.”

The second wave of the Big Shift involves the devaluation of “knowledge stocks” and the emergence of “knowledge flows” that are unhindered by geographical or institutional boundaries. Estimating that “developed economies today are somewhere in the early part of the second wave of the Big Shift,” the authors argue that proprietary technology and specialized marketing and production techniques are no longer sufficient to guarantee long-term business success. Product life cycles are shorter, and market share fluctuates at an increasingly rapid rate. To stay afloat, companies must create and tap into high-value knowledge flows “involving the creation of new knowledge” inside and outside their organizations.

Knowledge flows at the core are valuable, but knowledge flows at “the edge” offer greater potential for profitable growth. Moreover, tacit—as opposed to explicit—knowledge is the most valuable but most difficult to access. Doing so “typically requires long-term trust-based relationships. … “[T]acit knowledge is held by individuals, so if firms want to enhance their participation in tacit knowledge flows, they must find ways to expand and enrich the social networks of their employees, helping them to connect with other individuals on relevant edges.”

During the third wave of the Big Shift—yet to come, they say—push-oriented institutions will wither away and pull-based organizations will recreate themselves so as to “develop and adopt new ways of creating and capturing wealth in the digital era.”

Pull = Access, Attract, Achieve

Access is the first level of pull. Digital technology has enabled the rapid growth of large-scale networks of individuals who share common interests. That access, in turn, increases “our ability to pull from that network the resources and people we require to address unexpected needs,” the authors explain.

For example, the authors recount the story of Li & Fung, a China-based apparel company whose business model involves customizing customers’ supply networks down to the individual item of clothing. It does so by working with many thousands of business partners in dozens of countries, applying “a deep understanding of the capabilities of each of its partners. Its role is to identify the appropriate partners, define and sequence their roles in the supply-network process, and perform quality checks to ensure that each customer is getting exactly what it needs.”

The authors characterize the second level of pull—attract—as “techniques for drawing people or resources to us that we were not even aware existed but that prove to be relevant and valuable.” To illustrate this concept, they profile Yossi Vardi, an Israeli venture capitalist and “one of the best-connected people in technology.” Yossi “shapes serendipity,” they explain, by courting unexpected encounters with people by hanging around in the lobby at dozens of conferences per year. We all can follow this example in various environments by “making a diverse group of potentially relevant parties aware of one’s efforts while simultaneously filtering the actual encounters so that the probability of a high-quality serendipitous encounter goes way up.”

Achieving individual and institutional potential is the highest level of pull. It builds on access and attractions but goes beyond that by “focusing on the techniques required to reach new levels of performance faster and, therefore, to learn faster by working with others.”

On the premise that “individuals will increasingly reshape institutions rather than vice versa,” the authors argue that individuals first must transform themselves before institutional changes will occur. Three factors are critical to this process:

  • Trajectory, or “the path toward a meaningful destination.”
  • Leverage, meaning “the opportunity to connect with others through the mechanisms of pull.”
  • Pace, or the capacity “to move quickly when everything around us is changing at an accelerating speed.”

Trajectory is grounded in the individual’s passion. Passion is the sine qua non of a rewarding work life, according to the authors. Individuals must infuse their work lives with passion or risk being marginalized by persons who do. Passion will drive individuals to expand their social networks beyond geography and—using new modes of communication—to “identify the people who have the greatest potential to introduce us to emerging challenges and opportunities on edges that are relevant to our passions.” Shaping one’s “personal ecosystem” creates leverage to explore one’s passion, they write.

The element of pace involves maximizing one’s “return on attention.” In other words, pay attention to the “people who have the knowledge you need.” Accessing knowledge—especially tacit knowledge—as opposed to mere information is both necessary and difficult. By forming relationships with people via blogs, wikis and other social media platforms, individuals eventually will come to know whom to trust in the realm of their shared passions.

Pulling Leadership Along

Once transformed, many—perhaps most—individuals might find themselves trapped in hierarchical institutions where information flows from the top down and budgets and operating plans rule the day. What happens then?

It won’t be pretty, warn the authors. Visionary leaders can harness trajectory, leverage and pace to transform institutions. But not all institutions have the kind of leadership that questions the very foundations of the institution or that is able to “find and motivate talented individuals to engage in the task of transforming institutions rather than fleeing them.”

Moreover, executives need to widen their gaze and find ways to engage and collaborate with talented people outside the organization. Once they do that, they inevitably will be drawn toward growth opportunities on the edge, defined as “geographic, demographic and technological edges where unmet needs and unexpected capabilities tend to arise and intersect in ways that create rich seed beds for innovation.”

Leverage in the institutional setting will require “develop[ing] mechanisms to pull the core out to the most promising edges.” Techniques would include such things as reverse mentoring; engaging in low-risk, high-reward initiatives; enabling a group of passionate employees to engage around a difficult institutional problem; and establishing creation spaces that extend beyond institutional boundaries.

Punching up the pace in institutions setting depends on two key initiatives, say the authors:

  • Adopting new technology platforms.
  • Changing mind-sets.

Technology investment should converge around social media platforms and web services that can be used to pull people and data together quickly, as opposed to the core technologies that foster efficiencies in core operations, note the authors. Beefing up the former can support exception handling activities, which are not well served by core technologies. Improvements in the latter tend to yield smaller and smaller increments of operational cost-savings as time goes by.

Technology alone is not enough: Institutional mind-set must change, too. Leaders, first, need to change their own attitudes and assumptions about opportunities for business success, moving away from a “control mind-set” and toward a “collaborative mind-set.” Next, leaders should “create environments that attract and reward those with questing attitudes and mind-sets.”

Final Analysis

Overall, this book is very well structured; its themes and concepts are well-defined, clearly articulated and amply supported with cultural anecdotes and examples from business and mainstream media, as well as scholarly research—classical and contemporary—in business, economics, anthropology and psychology. The concepts of access, attraction and achievement are appealing and nicely supplemented with “Bringing It Home” sections that pose cogent questions for self-examination.

References to the literature of group dynamics are virtually nonexistent, however, which seems odd considering that the concepts of “access” and “attraction” are close analogs to the textbook concepts of “proximity” and “similarity” in the literature of group formation. This omission begs the question of how established constructs in all aspects of group dynamics might play out in the pull-based world.

Rather than address this, the authors leap to the conclusion that trust, sharing of information and collaborative work, and long-term relationships inevitably will emerge as individuals, groups, organizations—and even societies—progress through the levels of pull. Their failure to address group issues is most evident in their discussion of institutional transformation. It is easy to imagine the executive reader trying to figure out how she’s supposed to find people to run the company if everybody’s off on the edge being “passionate,” or how to integrate the inhabitants of the edge into the organization as a whole. While growth and innovation might lie on the fringes, doesn’t somebody have to mind the store?

For that reason, this work is likely to be more inspiring and useful to individual contributors and to managers and directors in functions that more naturally look to the edges for their success, such as marketing and product development. For operations heads and senior leadership who aspire to transform their organizations, it might leave them with more questions than it answers.

Margaret M. Clark is knowledge manager for SHRM.

The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion

By John Hagel III, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison

Basic Books, 277 pp.

Discuss this book or recommend others to your colleagues on SHRM Connect.Revisit HR Magazine’s “Books in Brief” archives.


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