By now, you might be grudgingly inclined to agree: there’s no recovery because this isn’t just another humdrum recession. You might even be on the verge of grumblingly conceding: the Great Stagnation just might be a crisis of a set of obsolete institutions (corporations, accounts, jobs, markets, even «profit» itself), left over from the industrial age. And, perhaps, you might even be coming around to the notion that rebooting prosperity begins not with bailouts, or stimulus packages, or better leadership, but buildership: building an updated set of institutions that are a better fit with a roiling, fragile 21st century.
So now what? How do we finally get started — right here, right now, in the real world?
Every once in a while, a book comes along that blows my mind, makes me gnash my teeth and say to myself, «Wow! That’s amazing.» The last one was Gary Hamel’s epic Future of Management. The latest is The Power of Pull, by John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison [Obligatory disclosure: both Johns blog for HBR.org. This review was my idea, and the opinions expressed here are, obviously, my own.] Here’s why.
The unvarnished truth is that while there are tons of books you can read on product, service, and even business model innovation — and while there are tons of books that chronicle the great crisis — there are just a handful about institutional innovation. It’s an art in its infancy, but, ironically enough, it’s also probably the force you’re going to have to master if you want to survive the Great Stagnation. Pull isn’t just a chronicle of the past, or a set of predictions about the future: it’s a pioneering, authoritative guide to getting hands-on with 21st century economics, igniting new institutions, creating stuff of greater worth, and, just maybe, rebooting prosperity.
The richest, most nuanced books are also the hardest to describe. So trying to review Pull is like trying to catch the wind. Let me, nevertheless, endeavor to draw out just a few of the key lessons that resonate with me.
Flows, not stocks. Economists divide the world up into stocks and flows: think, literally, stockpiles of the many different kinds of resources, and the stuff that flows into or out of them. Arcing through Pull is the central idea that while 20th century advantage was created by hoarding stocks, 21st century advantage will be created by gaining access to richer, more intense, higher velocity flows.
Relationships, not transactions. You can buy or sell bits of stocks in isolated, arms-length exchanges. But surfing a set of flows usually requires deep, enduring, trusted relationships — because flows are like always-on sets of transactions that happen in continuous time, embedded in a social and cultural matrix.
Emergence, not planning. Access — the relationships that power flows — can’t be engineered, planned, or forced. Rather, it’s emergent: my relationship with you depends on your relationships with Sophie, Joe, and Abdul. So the challenge isn’t nearly as simple as «hire biz dev manager, make a list of prospects, befriend them.» Rather, gaining access to flows is nonlinear, complex, irreducible, dynamic: it requires thinking carefully about interdependent sets of payoffs, and structuring your network, in collaboration with your neighbors, to (loosely speaking) tune, tweak, and optimize the payoffs that matter most for all.
Serendipity, not determinism. «Unexpected encounters that surprise and delight» — that’s how the authors describe serendipity, the upside of getting all the above right. If success is down to being in the right place at the right time, think of serendipity as designing the structure of your network to maximize the chances of making exactly that happen. It’s an astonishing insight, one that literally turns network economics upside down: instead of seeking «network effects,» structure the network for maximum effect. When an organization can do so, it can attract the resources it needs in real time, instead of merely stockpiling them quarters, years, or decades in advance.
Potential, not «product.» When serendipity happens, your potential — your capabilities and capacities — grow. Here, I’ve argued, maybe a little too passionately at times, that measuring tomorrow’s success in yesterday’s terms is a sure path to staying stuck in the past. Pull doesn’t try and make a convoluted case that all the above is merely a path to more of yesterday’s empty success, whether GDP, profit, or shareholder «value.» Rather, it makes the case that it’s potential that matters — and one of the great challenges of the next decade is turning our thinking away from the former, and toward the latter.
How did we find ourselves in this Great Recession? it just might be the assumptions in yesterday’s dogma. If I had to pinpoint it, I’d say it’s a dogma of three doctrines. It’s objectivist, mechanistic, and static: it’s about «objective» paths to better «performance,» «today.» The result of these three great doctrines? An economy built to ceaselessly, relentlessly, and perhaps mindlessly churn out more mass-made «product» and maximize shareholder value by the nanosecond; the natural world, the future, your community, and our shared values can all go to blazes. In other words, there just might be a link between yesterday’s dreary dogma, and today’s dismal, dog-eared depression.
Instead of cramming that moldy old paradigm down our gullets — and hoping we’re so enamored by interesting examples, florid prose, or yet more jargon that we don’t notice or protest — John, JSB, and Lang do something, well, radical. They challenge it with a novel perspective. It’s one that, a little bit like my own, is uncompromisingly constructivist, humanistic, and dynamic. It says: the economy’s what we create every day, with every decision we make. And we can, with small steps and big dreams, create a better one. It’s a perspective anchored in creating real, enduring value, by doing stuff that matters most, in a messy, complex — and very fragile — human world.
So don’t just read Pull because it tells you what to do next. Read it because it paints a nuanced, compelling picture of why to do next — because it will help you see, and more importantly, feel, the contours of a new paradigm for 21st century prosperity.
Umair Haque is Director of the Havas Media Lab. He also founded Bubblegeneration, an agenda-setting advisory boutique that shaped strategies across media and consumer industries.