Push to pull

Push to pull

We are living in an overwhelmingly Push world – products and services are pushed at us, as well as educational curricula, healthcare treatments, and political structures. The paradigm shift from push to pull, developed by John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison, proposes an alternative: instead of pushing products and services onto people, we could start by pulling in demand. We could shift from pushing top-down allocations to pulling in resources for projects. Rather than working from fixed structures, we can create varying constellations by understanding and responding to emerging patterns of user behavior. What would it take to approach the world from a Pull perspective? 

Push to Pull: how does this door open?

The Push way of doing things is the ruling paradigm in our planning and results-oriented society. Taking the example of manufacturing, the process goes as follows: design a product, find the most effective way to manufacture and distribute it, and hope to sell as many units as possible. The main driver of success will be your marketing push of convincing people to purchase your product rather than the competition’s.

Contrast this with coming up with an idea, and then seeing how much excitement and demand you can generate on a crowd-funding platform. If no one seems interested, you know immediately that it’s a non-starter. You can try out many different variations to see what works. Rather than pushing your solution unto the world, you can pull in suggestions, interest, and orders. The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset got its start through Kickstarter, and generated enough excitement to be acquired for $2 billion. Other platforms serve to pull in excitement and demand for top DJs or keynote speakers, and only start producing the event when they’ve sold enough tickets.

Education is also an instructive example of a push system. The curriculum is pushed at students who are told what they need to know in each field. The assumption is that students are not in a position to know what is good for them – this requires the judgment of professionals. The speed of learning is also fixed, even though a curriculum designed for the average student disempowers both those who cannot keep up and those who are being held back because they are not sufficiently challenged. Most of our schools are still nothing more than a production line: students are pushed through an educational program that is pre-defined, evaluated through exams, and rewarded with a degree.

Pull education is based on the needs of learners as articulated by the individual student. Students need to have a clear idea of where they want to go, and ask for the learning programs, educational materials and teacher support they need for their progress. An online platform can be of great value in matching learning needs with teaching offerings.

People with learning needs can find the best teacher to instruct them and mentor their progress. Think about how young people learn to develop romantic relationships: once the need presents itself, they actively search for information, talk to peers and ask advice from those they trust. They learn through experiment, trial, and error. While some pull models of education are clear, it is incredibly difficult to make the shift in practice. The physical infrastructure of schools, including buildings, classrooms and cohorts, is only adequate for a push model.

push to pull
Instead of pushing products and services onto people, we could start by pulling in demand. Click To Tweet

A pull model would physically look like a market place, a bazar, or a shopping mall. Online education is also still very much a push model, with various providers translating their curriculum into MOOCs – the name Massive Open Online Courses says it all. Pure pull models in online education include unstructured computer games such as Minecraft, or programming language projects that allow students to learn from each other.

Shifting from Push to Pull

The Push paradigm is characterized by specialists anticipating demands, designing, and producing things which are then pushed onto customers through marketing and sales activities. The car industry has thrived for decades by pushing cars at consumers, and producing a constant flow of new models.

By contrast, the Pull paradigm is built on access to data, resources, and people. These are attracted through network opportunities, and achieve their potential by working with others. It’s about connecting large networks of people to solve problems together. There is no longer a need to predict demand – just connect needs to pooled resources. The key is to give priority to the needs of the customer or end user. The shift becomes that the customer is in control, not the vendor: the Pull paradigm treats people as networked creators.

The push to pull shift means that instead of pushing structures or products unto people, you are pulling in demand and resources as you need them. In the case of a project in an organization, you can make a shift from top-down allocation of people and resources to pulling in resources for projects as the need for them develops and people becoming interested. In order to do this, you have to understand and respond to emerging patterns of user behaviour.

According to Amazon CTO Werner Vogels, the Pull paradigm assumes the world is not pre-allocated.

push to pull

You can pull resources and groups of people together for a specific project, then disband the group. You will have varying constellations.

There are also challenges for a Pull paradigm: one is that “you have to pull from somewhere; there has to be a source”. Another is that monitoring quality is difficult when you are pulling in a wide variety of resources.

Whereas the Push paradigm focuses on control, Pull models are more flexible in meeting rapidly-changing, real-time demands. This is especially true at times of increasing uncertainty, growing abundance, intensifying competition, the growing power of customers, and greater emphasis on learning and improvisation. The network organization Li & Fung is a prime example of a Pull organization, because it pulls together a large amount of very specialized garment suppliers.

Elements of the shift from Push to Pull

Hagel, Seely Brown and Davison distinguish ten major characteristics of Push and Pull systems. We focus on three core elements here:

The first element is the shift from a world in which demand can be anticipated to a world of uncertain demand. In a Push system, demand can be anticipated, and plans made accordingly. This is the case with education, where cohorts are easily predicted according to demographics, schooling requirements, and enrollment histories. The Pull system works on a reversed situation: demand drives production. On this side of the paradigm shift, providing a product or a service is a response to an emergent and uncertain need.

The second element is the shift from top-down design to emergent design. The Push paradigm is based on top-down design. A small group of people determines what the fashion will be, or what products will look like. Architects design buildings and city planners design neighborhoods. Software designers create operating systems and program features for the user. The Pull paradigm works with emergent design: user needs aggregate to functioning crowd-sourced software; citizens deliberate and propose amenities for their neighborhoods.


Push to Pull 5
Push to pull is a large paradigm shift that will affect every aspect of business and organizations in the coming decades. Click To Tweet

The third shift is from centralized control to decentralized initiative. The Push model works by centralized control, whether of school curricula or power plants. Corporations build themselves headquarters, aptly named in analogy with the military. The Pull model works with decentralized initiative, with many small-time producers aggregating their power sources, or lessons springing up around learning needs. Networks have no centralized command – their leadership is diffusing and self-regulating.

It's your move

Push to pull is a large paradigm shift that will affect every aspect of business and organizations in the coming decades. Organizations will need to change their mindset, business focus, strategy, operations, organization, and purpose. This is also a question of survival: pull models are economically attractive while push models are vulnerable.

How many aspects of you organization fall under a Push paradigm, and how many under a Pull paradigm? Where do you see shifts taking place, and what opportunities for shifts can you discover?

To discover how the THNK Executive Leadership Program can help you embrace a digital transformation in your business model, visit the program page.