Today marks a milestone in The Power of Pull – the release of the paperback edition of the book. It's an opportunity to step back and reflect on the impact that the book has had and explore where there might opportunities to have even great impact.
The challenge of timing
The book that I wrote with John Seely Brown and Lang Davison has had significant influence despite the timing of its initial release. It was originally published in early 2010 when global business was still reeling from the worst recession since the 1930s. At a time when executives were consumed by intense short-term pressures, we came to market with a message saying that there were even greater challenges posed by a much more profound long-term Big Shift.
This wasn't exactly what executives wanted to hear. Many of them were trying to get through the day comforted by the belief that, no matter how intense the pressures they were experiencing, they were short-term and cyclical in nature. If they could only tighten their belts and hold their breath long enough, they would manage to get through this crisis and things would get back to normal again.
The distance from here to there
To compound the challenge, we highlighted the magnitude of the change that would be required to move from a world of push to a world of pull. This was not just a surface change; it went to the essence of what it meant to be a corporation and would ultimately change all aspects of running a business – strategy, operations and organization, not to mention technology platforms and belief systems. At a time when resources of any kind – financial, time and talent – were in very short supply, executives were overwhelmed by the magnitude to the change that we described.
The overlooked sub-title
On reflection, we should have given more prominence to the sub-title of the book: "How Small Moves Smartly Made Can Set Big Things in Motion." We explored the theme of the sub-title in the second half of the book, but many weary executives no doubt never made it to the second half – they were so overwhelmed by the changes described in the first half, that they likely poured an extra glass of wine and put the book to the side to be replaced by a more light-hearted or "feel good" read.
That’s a shame because the message in the second half of the book is profoundly optimistic – it makes the case that we have a set of pragmatic pathways now available that can help us achieve enormous impact with very modest resources.
From Big Bang to Pragmatic Pathway in change management
If you think about it, large enterprises have been locked into “Big Bang” approaches to change management for decades. These approaches required the investment of large sums of money up front, long lead-times for the changes to take hold and the potential of major upside many years down the road. It’s no wonder that executives had little appetite for embarking on one of these journeys – they had no financial resources to spare, they had no time to waste and little tolerance for the risk of speculative long-term returns. Change management would have to take a back seat to the needs of the moment.
Our message is different. We outline approaches that require very limited up-front investment, short lead-times and rapid iteration to accelerate learning and performance improvement. More recently we've described these approaches to change management as “Scaling Edges.” They are enabled in part by new generations of information technology (especially cloud computing, social software and Big Data) that can be deployed in much more targeted and incremental ways than the large scale enterprise applications that ruled the past several decades of technology investment. If done right, these technologies and approaches have the potential to yield far greater impact than the Big Bet model of change management.
The window of now
This is an even more important message to highlight given the timing of the release of the paperback edition of the book. We are no longer in the trough of the recession but the recovery is certainly proving more challenging and precarious than executives had originally hoped.
In recent months, we have seen an encouraging shift in executive attitudes. A couple of years ago, they could only focus on the intense short-term pressures that threatened the performance of their companies. Now, they are beginning to accept that this is not just a short-term cyclical challenge. The relief they had so desperately hoped for is simply not materializing.
For the first time, executives now appear willing to at least question some of the most basic assumptions about running their business. They are beginning to realize that squeezing harder is a diminishing returns game that is simply not sustainable. There is an openness to new and creative approaches.
When they also realize that small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion, they really pay attention. This is new and different.
And it doesn’t just apply to change management. These new technologies and approaches can be used to re-frame a whole range of pressing items on the executive agenda.
The power of small moves in driving growth
Take growth, for example. As recessionary pressures ease, investors are beginning to demand higher rates of growth. In the past, there were two ways to deliver that growth – organic growth and acquisition. But, guess what? Both of these approaches have the “Big Bet” investment profile – large upfront investments, long lead-times and speculative long-term upside. Near-term pressures may be easing, but they are still intense and these Big Bet approaches are challenging.
What if there were a third way? The Power of Pull outlines this third path – leveraged growth. By identifying and mobilizing complementary capabilities already developed by third parties, companies can deliver significantly greater value to the marketplace and grow revenue and profits with modest upfront investment and much shorter lead-times. Building or buying are no longer the only two options to growth.
The power of small moves in corporate strategy
Or take corporate strategy. In the past, this was also the realm of Big Bet plays – often literally “bet the company” initiatives that either won big or tragically failed, leading to the demise of the company. Shaping strategies – also discussed in The Power of Pull – offer a very different way to build profound structural advantage in global markets and industries. These new forms of strategy hinge on the ability to motivate and mobilize large ecosystems of participants who aggressively invest to support the shaper and who engage in powerful forms of distributed innovation that help shapers to learn far faster than they ever could on their own.
The power of small moves in talent development
And let’s not forget talent development. In the past, training programs were the lynchpin of talent development efforts – again, lots of money spent up front to develop and deploy the programs, people taken out of their day jobs, often for weeks or months at a time, to cycle through the programs and the hope that someday these programs would yield tangible performance improvement. Now, the ability to craft day to day work environments that can accelerate talent development and performance improvement fundamentally alters the economics of talent development.
We’re now able to flip the economics of talent development – rather than investing in talent development and hoping that it someday will materialize in performance improvement, why not focus on driving performance improvement and rest secure in the knowledge that it will develop talent in the process?
The ultimate reward - increasing returns
Most importantly, the pragmatic pathways that are now available to make the transition from a world of push to a world of pull offer the potential to shift from a world of diminishing returns to a world of increasing returns in business performance. That’s the ultimate “big thing” we can set in motion if we smartly make the right small moves.
But wait, there's more . . .
Of course, if that’s not enough to get you to pick up The Power of Pull, there’s lots more – everything from shaping serendipity and the pivotal role of passion in driving performance improvement to big wave surfing and new forms of innovation that will trump even the most powerful forms of technology and product innovation.
And, once you read the book, reach out and let us know what you thought of it. We're continuing to pursue an aggressive research agenda at The Center for the Edge and we're particularly interested in the questions that we left unanswered. It’s ultimately the questions that keep us excited.