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RecoveringFed writes on The Power of Pull

This is a repost from my blog recoveringfed.com

About halfway through their new book The Power of Pull, John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison write about how individuals can use emerging social networking capabilities to harness personally the power of pull–pull being their term for the capability of institutions and individuals to contribute to society by becoming centers of attraction, rather than continuing with the old model of pushing their value propositions regardless of how tired these may have become. But the authors admit there is a problem, that being ” the certain reactionary peevishness with which some people dismiss social media and digital culture.” And I thought when I read that, gosh that describes many federal government employees I encountered over the last few years of my service. I routinely confronted downright hostility to platforms such as Facebook and Twitter often, I thought, based on ignorance and on this odd conviction that experts do best by working by themselves, not by sharing with others. Now, I admit this reaction may have been particular to my Agency, but my sense is that it is rather characteristic of individuals above a certain, ahem, age.

I just finished reading the book, which is both an easy and provocative read and provides a detailed and I suspect largely accurate prescription for the adjustments we need to make to become power surfers of the pull economy. (Their argument is actually much more complex so here’s a link to Hagel’sblog post introducing the book.) In any case as I read the book I came across many concepts that I think will be challenging for the federal government–not impossible mind you, but hard.

One of their more ambitious points is that “rather than individuals serving the needs of institutions, our institutions will be recrafted to serve the needs of individual.” Wow, I thought, rather breathtaking and a good example of something that will be quite a stretch for federal agencies. Many, for example, are formed around needs that are at least today considered essential, such as the military, the Coast Guard, tax collection, and intelligence. It will be quite an intellectual journey to get to where we will be comfortable having these necessary functions carried out in a manner that depends less on rules and more on personal initiative.

Hagel, Brown, and Davison convincingly argue that as we move to the pull economy we will discard the “detailed demand forecasts, operational plans, and operational process manuals [that] carefully script the actions and specify the resources required to meet anticipated demand.” I agree. The complexity of today’s age just mocks tight planning concepts–the impact the Icelandic volcano is having on our just-in-time economy is an apt illustration. But unfortunately for the federal government, we may have no choice but to remain prisoners to arbitrary budgets and program goals primarily because of the flaws in our law and budget-making processes. I suspect Congress will remain quite determined to keep federal agencies on a short leash.

One of the best sections in the book is the discussion of the need for institutions to arrange for creation spaces and for their employees to be exposed regularly to the potential for serendipity. Why? Because only the explorers in your organization can hope to spot the advantages and opportunities that will, like fireflies, constantly flash before them. (By the way the need for employees to have an explorer’s mentality is another reason to ban the use of the metaphor “short leash”.) I would think these are ideas that federal agencies could start implementing right away. But to do so we have to realize that innovation requires failure to succeed.

Hagel, Brown, and Davison also provide a warning for federal agencies given the looming shortage of skilled workers. They write that “any institution that cannot provide a powerful platform for talent development will find its most talented people fleeing their cubicles and corner offices for other ‘homes’”. Well, we all know that government workers NEVER voluntarily give up corner offices, but otherwise federal managers need to take seriously their responsibility to create an environment where talent can best develop. In a pull economy, only those organizations that can attract the best talent will prosper.

There’s a lot more insight I could point to, but they all support the conclusion that the pull economy will eventually lead to significant changes in how the mission of government is carried out. For me the change needs to begin with how we define the roles of government workers. Right now too many of them are in fact pulling at short leashes, assigned to narrow jobs that allow for little innovation. Despite public prejudices that the opposite is true, I suspect the key to better government performance is not to have government employees do less, but to encourage them to do more.

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