The Power of Pull: Just Win, Baby

This is a review of the book “The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion” by John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison.  Finally I find a book that speaks plainly about the dramatic change that we are going though, and how a fresh approach is needed to be successful.I am not going to try to relate all the ideas from the book here, but I will focus on those things are relevant to Adaptive Case Management, and how such “Pull System” can be an advantage to organizations today.  As readers of my blog, you are probably already familiar with many of these concepts, so I won’t spend the time that the book spends on explaining the details.

What is Push?

The book spends a lot of time defining a push system, so that it can be contrasted with a pull system.  Here are a number of relevant quotes from the book about push and push systems.

Push approaches are typified by what might be called “programs” or “routines” — tightly scripted specifications of activities designed to be invoked by known parties in predetermined contexts.

Push models treat people as passive consumers whose needs can be anticipated and shaped by centralized decision makers. Push programs represent a top-down approach to dictating activities.

Because of the work required to specify, monitor, and enforce detailed activities, push programs tend to be restricted in terms of the number and diversity of participants.

This is a key reason why most large companies have worked so hard to reduce the number of suppliers in their supply chains.

The tight coupling of the procedures in these programs tends to make companies rigid and inflexible.

Push programs tend to treat all relevant resources as fixed and scarce quantities. …[their purpose is] to ensure that scarce resources are deployed to the highest priority needs.

The people participating in push programs are generally treated as instruments to ensure that activities are performed as dictated.

As companies boil their business operations into routinized practices, they suppress many of the creative instincts of their workers, who become standardized parts of a predictable machine.

All of this sounds very much like traditional BPM.  Most managers today would identify with this orientation, and would very much like to get BPM in order to achieve goals that are aligned with a push approach.  The authors summarize the philosophy of push in these points:

  • There is not enough to go around
  • Elites do the deciding
  • Organizations must be hierarchical
  • People must be molded
  • Bigger is better
  • Demand can be forecast
  • Resources can be allocated centrally
  • Demand can be met

In my mind, the biggest point of these, is the one about demand being predictable.  It seems that lack of massive detail in communications has fostered a belief that one can predict what a consumer is going to want 3 months from now.  However, information technology, particularly the massive-yet-personal social technology allows a company to be responsive in a way never before dreamed, yet you have to throw out your old notions of everything being predictable.  This is precisely in line with the message of Mastering the Unpredictable.

The Big Shift

The authors talk about the “Big Shift” which is occurring in the business world to using a pull based approach:

As the Big Shift takes hold, companies are not longer places that exist to drive down costs by getting increasingly bigger.  They’re places that support and organize talented individuals to get better faster by working with others.  The rationale of the firm shifts from scalable efficiency to scalable learning — the ability to improve performance more rapidly and learn faster by effectively integrating more and more participants distributed across traditional institutional boundaries.

What is Pull?

To contrast with push systems, here are some relevant quotes from the book:

Pull platforms tend to be much more modular in design.   …  for the convenience of the participants in the platform  … designed to be loosely coupled.

Pull platforms are designed from the outset to handle exceptions, while push programs treat exceptions as indications of failure.  Most companies in fact spend considerable effort trying to eliminate exceptions.

[Pull platforms] enhance the potential for productive friction as people with different perspectives, skills, and experience come together to try to find a solution for a specific problem.

Pull platforms are emerging as a response to growing uncertainty… They seek to expand the opportunity for creativity by local participants dealing with immediate needs.

Rather than seeking to constrain the resources available to people, pull platforms strive to continually expand the choices available while at the same time helping people to find the resources that are most relevant to them.  Rather than dictating the actions that people must take, pull platforms provide people with the tools and resources (including connections to other people) required for them to take initiative and creatively address opportunities as they arise.

Here you see a description of the elements of an adaptive case management (ACM) system which is indeed a pull platform.  It is not surprise that they point to social technologies as being ideally suited to handling exceptions.   Yet “The Power Of Pull” stresses is that this is not just a technology trend, but a big shift in the fundamental of how we run out organizations.  This quote says it best:

The changes playing out over the past couple of decades have been so fundamental that they have challenged even our most basic assumptions, the assumptions that enabled CEOs and other executives to build their institutions in the first place.

It is time to put off what needs to be done: The only way out of this stressful situation is to step back and reassess the very rational for the firm.

Executives are often unaware of the unstated and unexamined assumptions underlying their approaches.

And we all know this, because that is what makes Dilbert funny.  But intuitively understanding is not good enough, and the book supplies many good anecdotes and arguments that a big shift really is happening.  It goes on to prepare you take action, whether you take action as an individual in an organization, a corporate executive, or a volunteer at a charity.


Clearly I am now a huge fan of this book.  It reflect well precisely on trend we are seeing in the move to Enterprise 2.0 technology, and it goes beyond that to say that we are not just seeing a change in technology, but instead should be considering a whole new style of management.  Organizations designed around these new principles will be true learning organizations that provide services to customers at a much more finely tuned level that was not possible before.

It is funny that the description of the push approach is so much similar to descriptions of the centrally managed communism.  Didn’t the communist block fail due to the inability to centrally plan all aspects of running a complex society.  Isn’t the market approach more of a pull system which is completely decentralized?  Maybe what we are seeing is this trend to move away from centralized planning extended to the level of large and medium sized companies.  The pull approach sets one up to be “smart” at the edges.  Many traditional managers mistake discussions about empowering workers as being “soft, liberal, anti-competitive wishfulness” but here we see that bottom line competitiveness and profitability are likely to be at stake as the big shift progresses.

For my part I am impressed at how clearly this book lays out the shift driving systems like Adaptive Case Management.  This is particularly relevant to those who continue to believe that ACM is just another kind of BPM.  Yes, the technology is very similar, but there is a big difference in how you use it, and that makes all the difference.  A completely different approach to managing knowledge workers is needed, driving a different focus on capabilities.  I will leave you with one last quotation that can summarize the situation better than I can:

Pull platforms work in part because they use modularity to reduce the complexity that occurs when one tries to coordinate large numbers of diverse participants.  Rather than trying to specify the activities in the process in great detail (which is what the push approach would try to do), the orchestrators of the pull platform specify what they want to come out of the process, providing more space for individual participants to experiment, improvise, and innovate.  This kind of modularity – in which the outputs are specified but not the inputs – is powerfully motivating for passionate individuals.  Nobody stands over their shoulders telling them exactly which order to do things in, or how exactly to plug together or integrate various elements of the project or design.  …  As the legendary coach and general manager Al Davis, of the Oakland Football Raiders, used to say: “Just win, baby.

11 thoughts on “The Power of Pull: Just Win, Baby

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  2. Excellent post, Keith, I have read the book and feel about it just as you do.

    ACM is about a paradigm shift in how processes are being managed and it is related to ahift in management concepts. As I (and you have) said before, BPM is related to Taylor and ACM to Drucker. It is about providing IT that can flow with real-world dynamics and adaptiveness.

    Thanks, Max

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