The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown & Lang Davison

Published by: Basic Books, 2010
Pages: 288 pp
Price: $27.50
Reviewed by Jonathan Fanton

The Power of Pull helps us understand the implications of rapid change for ourselves, institutions and the larger society. It poses deep questions for each of us about our personal development but also challenges us to help institutions we care about to adapt. The Power of Pull will be especially interesting to those in leadership positions in universities and not-for-profit organizations as well as business and government.

The authors have a wealth of experience to help us navigate the perils and prospects of this new world. John Hagel is a business consultant who has worked at Atari, McKinsey and 12 Entrepreneuring. John Seely Brown was Chief Scientist of Xerox and Director of its Palo Alto Research Center. He is also the co-founder of the Institute for Research on Learning. Lang Davison was Editor-in-Chief of the McKinsey Quarterly and Executive Director of the Deloitte Center for the Edge. All have worked at the intersection of technology and business strategy.

A Changing Paradigm: From “Push” to “Pull”

The authors acknowledge that we live in a time where the pace of change causes anxiety and frustration. The digital revolution, public policy shifts to encourage economic liberalization, reduced barriers to entry and movement all lead to more intense competition. And while the rapid increase of knowledge flows makes it easier to access new ideas, it also threatens to overwhelm us. We need the help of institutions to harness these knowledge flows “to create and capture more value.”  But institutions need to change to attract and accommodate a new generation that is growing up in an interconnected world that requires new skills and where much of the action and interaction is online.

A core concept of this lively book is what the authors call the “Big Shift,” a world where “Pull” replaces “Push” as the critical paradigm. Push is the well-ordered, top-down world we all grew up in, a world where education occurred at a defined time with a structured curriculum. The new world of Pull honors individual initiative, celebrates collaboration, respects serendipity, sees learning as a continual process and understands that the “needs of participants can not be well anticipated in advance.”

While the authors believe that institutions remain important, they describe a new institutional model that is emerging: “Rather than molding individuals to fit the needs of the institution, institutions will be shaped to provide platforms to help individuals achieve their full potential…the success of institutions will depend on their ability to amplify the efforts of individuals so that small moves, smartly made, can become catalysts for broad impacts.”  Learning will move from a process of passive consumption to one of active creation, as students no longer simply experience content but use content to establish a context for making sense of the uncertainty that results from increased knowledge flows.  And universities will be a source of networks of trust so important in a world where progress depends on an ever-expanding set of relationships.

Lessons for Individuals and Institutions

The Power of Pull gives us good advice as individuals—for example, the importance of connecting our passions to our professional life, finding a geographic location that broadens our network, increasing the chances for serendipitous encounters, having a shaping view of our goals that provides context for managing information overload. The authors offer inspirational examples of individuals who embody The Power of Pull, including entrepreneur Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab. Each chapter closes with useful questions directed to us, such as: “How actively have you sought to develop your social network by deepening relationships with those who share your passion or who could help you pursue your passion?”  And: “Who are the five people you can identify who would have the best visibility into the knowledge flows most relevant to your passion?  Are you connected to them yet?”  The process of thinking about—if not answering—the chapter ending questions might well change the course of one’s life.

A rising generation will have different expectations of the places where they are educated and work. Institutions that adapt to the new world of Pull will be more successful in attracting and retaining the best talent. Change will not be easy for institutions and their leaders, nor do the authors imagine it will come overnight. Institutions that will prosper in the Pull environment will serve as platforms to enable students and staff to collaborate, reach across disciplinary boundaries, connect to resources at other institutions. Large institutions can start the process of change by hosting creative spaces, places that make collaboration easy, encourage teamwork, give constant feedback, bring people thinking on the edge to the core.

The Power of Pull is at once realistic about the dangers of clinging to the Push model and profoundly optimistic about the potential of a world that embraces Pull. “For the first time ever we have the real opportunity to become who we are, and more importantly who we were meant to be. Pull provides us with the opportunity to achieve our own individual potential while at the same time pursuing the enormous potential embedded in whatever institutional environment surrounds us. We now have the ability to shape a world that encourages our efforts to become who we were meant to be.”

After reading The Power of Pull I am thinking in a different way about institutions I have led. I believe the New School should resist the temptation to develop into a traditional university but rather honor its history of innovation in response to student needs. I now see more clearly that some of MacArthur’s best work was supporting people working on the edge, for example, pioneers in the field of digital media and learning. And Roosevelt House at Hunter College is one of those creative spaces in a larger institution which is a platform that enables faculty and students to collaborate in exploring new ideas. I now see more clearly the way forward in a time of rapid change. And thus I feel more confident about the future of institutions I care about, at least those which recognize “The Big Shift” and adapt.

Jonathan Fanton, a Senior Consultant at AKA|Strategy, was previously President of the John T. and Catherine M. MacArthur Foundation and President of The New School. He is currently Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College. 

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