Pulling for the Long Term
Here is an excerpt from an article written by John Hagel III and John Seely Brown for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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The Big Shift presents many challenges, including developing new practices and institutions. But from our experience, the greatest challenge will be creating a new mindset, one that stands in stark contrast to the dominant mindset of the push world. A mindset is comprised of assumptions (in this case about how to succeed) so basic that they are rarely made explicit, much less challenged and refined. Yet these assumptions drive all of the decisions and actions we take to address the growing pressures around us. Our next few postings will examine some of the key dimensions of the new mindset that is needed to harness the power of pull.
The time horizon: “Pull” does not mean thinking only about the short-term
Many of the people we have talked to about our book have the misconception that pull is driven by a short-term mindset. After all, one of the key drivers of the move from push to pull platforms is the increasing difficulty in forecasting and predicting demand and the consequent challenges this presents. If change is so constant and disruptive that it makes predicting the future impossible, what is the point of taking a long-term perspective? Pull lets you respond rapidly and effectively to near-term developments, but a short-term mindset undermines the potential power of pull. Paradoxically, successful deployment of pull techniques designed to cope with near-term uncertainty actually requires an increased focus on long-term direction.
As one moves up the levels of pull, a long-term view becomes increasingly important:
Accessing resources when and where they are needed works in the near-term but can become totally reactive if you adopt only a short-term perspective. You respond to the latest events but risk never getting enough attention and effort focused against any one initiative to make progress. Whether you own them or not, resources must be managed and used in a way that makes progress.
Achieving impact requires ensuring a critical mass of resources and attention. Easier access can lure us into spreading ourselves way too thin across too many fronts. Critical mass requires making choices about what to pursue longer-term and to avoid the momentary distractions that can drain resources and attention.
Attracting resources that can help you succeed often seems to function in the short-term (such as the serendipitous encounter just when you need it). Attract actually works better if you (as an individual or an institution) can define and communicate your long-term direction and quests. What domains are of greatest interest and what are your performance goals? These act as beacons to attract people who share an interest in, and can help support, longer-term efforts and allow you to make choices that improve the odds of connecting with those people, shaping serendipity.
Without this guidance, we compound the problem of wasted resources and lost attention that occurs with short-term reactive access — we attract people who can help with near-term events, intensifying the focus on short-term stimuli and consuming attention without making any progress toward longer-term objectives.
Achieving our full potential through collaboration and experimentation is where the long-term view is especially important. Learning, sustainable performance improvement, and talent development all occur over a longer timeframe. Interesting and challenging quests can engage the passions of the people in your organization and mobilize a critical mass of participants in the right direction. Long-term quests also help to focus all of the experimentation and tinkering, providing a clear context and framework for evaluating progress and enhancing performance feedback loops. Without long-term goals, it will be difficult for the organization to connect with individuals’ passions or to transform activities into achievement.
Resolving the paradox: the long-term guides the near-term
The paradox we cited at the outset can be resolved: the long-term view is not a detailed forecast but a high-level direction, a trajectory and a set of challenging goals, which help to focus and guide near-term efforts.
How do we arrive at a long-term perspective that is useful and relevant in a world of pull?
The following three questions frame the issue:
• What will the relevant markets and industries require for success in 10-20 years?
• What are the implications for the kind of company we will need to become, the kinds of relationships we will need to develop beyond our company, and the kind of performance we will need to achieve?
• What are the implications for the practices that we, as individuals, will need to adopt and the kind of performance we will need to achieve?
This long-term view is built on understanding the deep forces that are shaping the business landscape over decades. We have to be explicit about the assumptions we make about these forces and their impact so that we can test and monitor them. While scenario-thinking may be appropriate, you have to choose one. Usually it’s the one that seems most likely or which you have the ability to shape, to orient your actions and choices. This perspective about the future helps us make sense of the changes playing out around us, focuses our efforts and provides important feedback loops.
Pull requires alternating perspectives: short and long
The key for pull is to iterate rapidly back and forth between two horizons — long-term direction and short-term (6-12 month) action. This ability to rapidly zoom in and out — to dive into the details of near-term choices and actions and then pull back to assess longer-term implications and guide the next wave of choices and decisions — is also a key element of the entrepreneurial mindset.
This type of iterative thinking can create a powerful form of productive friction. Conflicts arise as we repeatedly test our actions and findings against two time horizons; the process of resolving these conflicts can lead to new insights about our quests. In the corporate context, we call this as a FAST strategy (Focus, Accelerate, Strengthen and Tie it together), but it applies to individuals as well. We need to alternate between evaluating and adjusting our long-term goals in response to new developments and using our long-term direction to guide near-term choices and actions. In its most powerful form, this simultaneous attention to two time horizons can become the basis of successful shaping strategies that we have discussed elsewhere.
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John Hagel III and John Seely Brown are co-chairmen of the Deloitte LLP Center for the Edge, and have written several books focused on technology and innovation. Their most recent book is The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion co-authored with Lang Davison and published by Basic Books (2010).
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