The Power Of Pull: Joi Ito And Yossi Vardi Have Pull, And So Can You (Book Excerpt)

Editor’s note: The following set of excerpts is from the recently published book The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things In Motion by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison. The excerpts are taken from throughout the book.

Joi Ito, Information Magnet

As the number of people we can connect with expands, our ability to pull from that network the resources and people we require to address unexpected needs expands along with it. Using the tools and platforms emerging today any of us can now find a person in a remote part of the world who just happens to have the knowledge or expertise required to help us out. This goes beyond the reasonably straightforward search engines with which we’re all familiar. Those engines are tremendously helpful. But they mostly help us access information. Today’s search engines are far less adept in connecting us to people or to products. (One of us has a friend from childhood named Jonathan Smith. We’d love to reconnect with him, but a search engine query yields more than 46 million results.) Search engines are rapidly deepening their capabilities. Meanwhile, we can supplement them with our own social networks to find what we need when we need it.

Joi Ito experienced this first hand a while ago while traveling. Joi, as it happens, is about as experienced a traveler as they come. In his multiple roles as successful entrepreneur, adviser to big companies, angel investor, gamer, guild leader, and CEO of Creative Commons, Joi is rarely in one place for more than three days at a time. Now he’s in Dubai, rubbing shoulders with Pakistanis. Then to Milan for a public debate with a distinguished lawyer who’d recently called him a “pirate” in an Italian newspaper—and who will be a friend by the time Joi leaves town two days later for Tokyo. Then San Jose for a stretch, and on to Amman to meet with Princess Rym Ali of Jordan.

Seasoned as he was, Joi wasn’t prepared for what happened the first time he visited India. He’d arrived in New Delhi at 3am for a conference. The hotel, when he got there, was in a sketchy area of town—too sketchy, it turns out: he’d been dropped at the wrong hotel, one with the same name as the hotel where the conference was taking place. If he hadn’t been so tired, Joi might never have gotten out of the taxi. When he turned around to look for it now the driver had left already. The lobby clerk, after Joi finally managed to wake him up, handed him half a bar of soap and a padlock for the door of a filthy, heatless room. No drinking water. No towels. No broom for the rat droppings in the corner. Needless to say, the power outlets didn’t work either. Joi was by his own admission getting nervous as he fired up his Nokia GPRS with the last of his batteries and signed on to Internet Relay Chat. Minutes later two guys living in New Delhi asked him who he was, where he was, and advised him not to go outside until morning. Then, they told him, take a right out the hotel and a left on the following street—walking neither too fast nor too slow—and soon he should be able to find a cab the heck outta there, and over to the right hotel, on the other side of town.

Joi never met the two guys, either before or after they helped him. But that night in
New Delhi they were just what he needed.

Yossi Vardi, Mr Serendipty

Yossi Vardi founded his first company in 1969, when he was 27 years old. Since then he’s been an investor in, or godfather to, more than 70 Israeli tech companies. Perhaps his biggest success was the co-founding of Mirabilis, the company behind the first instant messaging technology, ICQ (“I seek you”), which AOL bought for $400 million in 1998. Yossi is also one of the best connected people in technology. “Yossi is a super-node,” British Technology executive Gary Shainberg told Business Week in 2008.

Only when the apple fell from the tree did Sir Isaac Newton begin pondering the nature of gravity. Only by setting sail for India did Columbus find America. Only by trying to relieve angina did a researcher at Pfizer discover a remedy for erectile dysfunction later marketed as Viagra. Only by going to a conference to hear presentations on the future of the Internet did Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page meet Israeli entrepreneur Yossi Vardi, who later gave them an important key for monetizing search results.

The innovation Yossi suggested was deceptively simple: put a vertical line down the Google search results page, dividing paid search results on the right hand third of the page from free search results on the left hand two thirds of the page. This small visual design alteration instantly made the integrity of Google’s search results visible and apparent by separating free results from those for which advertisers had paid. The change instantly set Google apart from its primary competitors at the time, where the line between paid and free search results was unclear. The uses of serendipitous encounters and discoveries could fill a whole book. In fact, it already has—Robert K Merton and Elinor Barber’s wonderful The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. Yet most of us, despite the role serendipity has played in our own lives— introducing us to our future spouse, perhaps, or informing us of a job opportunity—tend to think serendipity occurs on its own, a function of fate or maybe blind luck. “But serendipity doesn’t just happen in a serendipitous way,” says Yossi Vardi. “You have to work for it.” Serendipity can be methodically, systematically shaped by our choices, behaviors and dispositions.

The Power Of Pull

Whether it’s in online gaming, amateur astronomy, open source software development, apparel manufacturing, or online music remixing—what is it that makes one set of circumstances right for individuals or institutions to flourish while others yield weak or even depreciating results? How can a group of obscure motorcycle assemblers in China challenge the best Japan has to offer? Why does World of Warcraft remain the most popular online game, despite competing titles that keep coming along to challenge it—and failing? How can a big software company attract into a sprawling virtual community everybody it needs to get a difficult new product adopted quickly? What, in other words, does it take to turn passion into success?

The common dynamic that we see underlying all of these success stories is what we call pull, the ability to connect with resources in ways that help all participants better achieve their potential. Pull gives us unprecedented access to what we need, when we need it, even if we’re not quite sure what “it” is. Pull allows us to harness and unleash the forces of attraction, influence, and serendipity. Using pull we can create the conditions by which individuals, teams, and even institutions can achieve their potential in less time and with more impact than has ever been possible. The power of pull provides a key to how all of us—individually and collectively—can turn challenge and stress into opportunity and reward as digital technology remakes our lives.

The key thesis is that, unlike previous generations of institutional change—when an elite at the top of the organization created the world into which everybody else needed to fit— the changes required to harness the power of pull will be catalyzed by and driven by individuals, from the bottom up. As each of us brings into the workplace the practices we have mastered in our personal lives, the institutions where we work will be transformed, and our professional lives along with them. Not every one of us will make this leap equally willingly or at the same time.

To get to pull, first we’ve got to come to grips with what push is and how it permeates our lives. Push approaches begin by forecasting needs and then designing the most efficient systems to ensure that the right people and resources are available at the right time and the right place using carefully scripted and standardized processes.

Push programs have dominated our lives from our very earliest years. We are literally pushed into educational systems designed to anticipate our needs over twelve or more years of schooling, which in turn are designed to anticipate our key needs for skills over the rest of our lives. As we successfully complete this push program, we graduate into firms and other institutions that are organized around push approaches to resource mobilization. Detailed demand forecasts, operational plans, and operational process manuals carefully script the actions and specify the resources required to meet anticipated demand. We consume media that have been packaged, programmed, and pushed to us based on our anticipated needs. We encounter push programs in other parts of our lives, whether in the form of churches that anticipate what is required for salvation and define detailed programs for reaching this goal, gyms that promise a sculpted body for those who pursue tightly defined fitness programs, or diet gurus who promise we will lose weight if we eat a regimented diet. Push knows better than you do, and it’s not afraid to say, “Do this, not that!”

Pull is a very different approach, one that works at three primary levels, each of which builds on the others. At the most basic level, pull helps us to find and access people and resources when we need them. Search—including Bing and Google —is an iconic example of this level of pull. There’s a wealth of data indexed and waiting for us. Quick and easy search is ideal when you know what you’re looking for. But in a world characterized by more unpredictable change, simple access has diminishing value. We are no longer certain what to look for – we even struggle to frame the questions.

In this world, a second level of pull becomes increasingly valuable – the ability to attract people and resources to you that we were not even aware existed but, when you encounter them, you realize just how relevant and valuable they are. Think here of serendipity rather than search. Serendipity often occurs in social networks, where we unexpectedly encounter friends of friends or even total strangers who prove helpful. We’re not simply talking about old style networking, however, where you “work” a party or a conference for everybody who might prove useful to you. We’re not talking about the mutual back-scratching of the old-boys’ network, either, to fix parking tickets or an embarrassing situation with a relative. Nor are we talking about pulling strings behind the scenes, or making Machiavellian use of information. Anyone approaching pull in a mercenary, “what’s-in-it-for-me” fashion is likely to get burned. In
act, he or she will not really be practicing pull at all, as they will offer no reciprocal benefits to the people and institutions with whom they interact. Pull is a way of creating value, period, not just extracting a bigger piece of some mythical pie for yourself.

These first two levels of pull—access and attraction—are ultimately static: they assume that the right people and resources already exist and that the challenge is merely to encounter them. But in a world of mounting pressure and unforeseen opportunities, we need to cultivate a third level of pull – the ability to pull from within ourselves the insight and performance required to more effectively achieve our potential. We can use pull to learn faster and translate that learning into rapidly improving performance, not just for ourselves, but for the people we connect with—a virtuous cycle that we can participate in.

Serendipity is also one of the secret ingredients explaining the continued growth of “spikes”—geographic concentrations of talent around the world. The Silicon Valley engineer attends his daughter’s soccer match and happens to meet another engineer on the sidelines. In the course of their conversation, the engineer stumbles upon an interesting solution to a design problem he had been wrestling with for months. And so on. When talented individuals choose to live in spikes rather than, say, small towns or rural areas5 they’re doing so because it increases their rate of discovery, making it more likely they’ll stumble on what they need. Of course, it’s important to choose the right spike. If you’re interested in surfing (or your child is), it doesn’t do you much good to live in Washington, DC, even if it might be easier to get there. Thus aspiring country musicians move to Nashville, while up-and-coming software engineers go to Silicon Valley or Bangalore, screenwriters to Los Angeles, models to New York, and so on. Talented individuals tend to go where they have the greatest chance of running into what they need in order to take the next step, even if they don’t quite know or understand what form it will take or who might inspire it.

Online communities are perfect for bringing together far-flung people who have common interests. If you want to find out what it is you don’t know that you don’t know, you need to hang out with other people who might already know it. Online social network sites like Facebook play an interesting role in all this. They help people stay in touch with their existing friends, but, increasingly, they also provide environments for serendipitous encounters with friends of friends or even people that one has never met before. Social scientists call these “weak ties”—people we barely know who can connect us to rich networks of relationships in domains completely different from ours.

Competitive Advantage Comes From Being In The Flow Of Knowledge, Not Stockpiling It

In markets and industries that were relatively stable, such as those in the industrial economy, a given stock of knowledge – whether it was a proprietary technology or a unique insight into how to organize production or marketing activities – could be relied upon to generate economic value for an indefinite period. The only challenges were to guard against others appropriating this knowledge and to design and execute the most efficient and scalable ways to extract value from this knowledge.

What we knew yesterday—either as employees or what our institution as a whole knows about its business—is proving to be less and less helpful with the challenges and opportunities we confront today. Growing topple rates (the rate at which companies lose their leadership positions) gives powerful testimony that stocks of knowledge, no matter how valuable at the outset, are diminishing in value more rapidly. Across many industries, product life cycles have begun to compress – early success with a blockbuster product has become harder and harder to sustain.

We must accelerate a shift to a very different mindset and practices that treat knowledge flows as the central opportunity and knowledge stocks as a useful by-product and key enabler. Increasingly, strategic advantage for corporate institutions will hinge on privileged positions in relevant concentrations of high value knowledge flows and the practices required to participate in and profit from these knowledge flows.