flowing motion

‘Pull’ organizations

Posted on: April 21, 2009

The military do pull management so why don’t commerce & industry?

As I left Xoozya at the end of my first day, I encountered an old college mate in the car park talking spiritedly with other Xoozyians about a concept I hadn’t heard before: “recon pull.”

I just have to hear the word “pull” for my ears to prick up.  Pull marketing vs push marketing.  Pull HR vs push HR.  “recon pull” sounds military, and so it was.  And old military too – of at least WW II vintage.  The phrase ‘command-and-control’ may come from the military but they aren’t wedded to the push models of commerce & industry.

Recon pull

“Recon pull”, as much as I have gathered so far, means local action that is taken by forces on the ground who vary their orders to suit the situation they find – within the broad framework of the “commander’s intent”.

Googling this term once I got home, I found one theorist distinguished “Soviet” and “German” models of military structure.  Interesting – I’ve always contrasted Soviet and Chinese models of insurgency and German and Anglo-Saxon models of organization.

Anyway, the Soviet-style model assumes that we plan in advance and execute the plans as agreed because it is not possible to adjust to circumstances as we go.  The German model assumes that a high degree of adjustment will take place.

Another author also attributed this school of thought to Sandhurst.

“We have learned,” responded the authorities at Sandhurst, “that a wild young man can learn wisdom as he grows older—if he survives—but a spiritless young man cannot learn the dash that wins battles.”

The German corollary is:

“The King made you a major because he believed you knew when not to obey.”

A “recon pull” model is consistent with both these philosophies.  Troops on the ground seek a weakness in enemy lines, break through, and pull the rest of the troops in behind them.  Within this model, if they are given an order and they realize it would be unwise to follow through, they stop without further instruction.  It they see an opportunity consistent with the commander’s intent, they grab it without further instruction.  Hmm, this is supposed to be consistent with English common law.  Everything that is not forbidden is allowed.  Roman law is the opposite.  Anything that is not allowed is forbidden.

The investment in ‘organization’ and ‘communication’ in the ‘Soviet’ and ‘German’ models is quite different.  In a model that assumes local decision making, everyone must be well trained.  They are also trained to act rather than not to act.  As a general rule, sins of omission are believed to be worse than sins of commission.

Well, would this idea of “recon pull” apply to other organizations?

Mmm, in the military world, there is a sense of  ‘ground’ to capture and an enemy to defeat.  Neither is particularly relevant to a young organization.  The market is not necessarily stable and consistent. (Military minds might say that about the ground too.)  There also isn’t an enemy.  In a young organization, we are rather, creating ground, or weaving a new set of relationships.

Commander’s intent

And what would be the commander’s intent?  A company like Google has a vision – to organize the world’s information.  It sounds concrete enough but it isn’t really. And it is probably also constrained by habit.  One day, someone will have a new vision that undermines the foundations of what is a fresh and innovative vision today.

The truth is that every employee has a ‘Sandhurst spirit’ to some extent or another, and every employee has a landscape in their mind.  They may not be vigorous or articulate about evangelizing their landscape but they are likely to have one.  Their landscape might also be well protected – to continue to use the military metaphor.  Or in broader terms, change may not be readily possible

Equally, lack of change may be stuckness.  Though the definition of stuckness is somewhat circular, sometimes situations can be unstuck.  This is the subject of Otto Scharmer’s presencing and of the idea behind golfing-movie “The Legend of Bagger Vance“.  Don’t force the shot. Let the shot find you.  Sitting and waiting is sometimes the correct response.  That is, the situation requires it.  Where we feel stuck (here comes the circularity), we argue for a return to listening to the environment.

So what is commander’s intent in a situation like Xoozya?

I think we each have a sense of intent and what is required is the ability or ongoing attempt to describe the world around us in a way that makes sense to others, and that highlights what needs to be done.

Shared understanding of the company

Following this thought process, part of my work as a psychologist is to highlight work in the firm so that people are able to see what is unfolding.

Old techniques for developing shared meaning

Yes, we have traditionally done that for the senior management team.  We carefully organize away-weekends with a series of presentations so that senior managers can understand each others view of the company.  We hold round-robin meetings to facilitate strategic planning to find consensus before final strategy meetings.  We might arrange town-hall meetings for staff.  We might arrange talks and training for staff.  But it is all rather piece-meal – rather Soviet?

Common dashboards

What we need is a set of dashboards so that as people look up from their own work, they can see where everyone else is, and take other people’s activity into account as they re-imagine what the world could look like.  The underlying value proposition or question is whether our own work, individually or collectively is enhanced by knowing what others are doing around us.

If I were to use a mechanical form of evaluation, it might look like this.

1   Is Xoozya committed to profiling the activities of its staff and how often are these profiles updated?

  • Because of the amount of work that this entails, it is likely that the profiles will be compiled on a Web2.0 basis.
  • As 2.0 websites as compiled by users they tend to be uneven and untidy and I would follow with this question. How is the availability of information reviewed and what is both our a prior and growing understanding of what the information will look like?

2   Do staff look at the profiles and do they feel that looking at other people’s work and having other people look at their work helps them?

  • Using an ‘extreme policy option’ technique that I learned from Professor Michael Riley at University of Surrey, are we making reasonable assumptions about human behavior?  What happens when we can see each other’s work-in-progress?  Are we competitive?  Are we cooperative?
  • Is emergent behavior more valuable or less valuable?  How can we understand this process?  Can we monitor feedback loops?  And are feedback loops the critical concept?

3  Have we seen generativity or amplification as a result?

  • What examples of value-added have we seen?

4   Are we competitive?

  • How can we monitor greater value-added?  How can focus attention on economic matters such as use of overheads, salaries, etc.  What is the big picture that we convey to members of Xoozya and does this help them focus on their work and be more creative and productive?

Applied Research of Shared Understandings

Yes, I can see potential research projects here.   For example, do University Departments have shared understandings of their work across their discipline?  Do Universities have shared understandings across their Departments?  Do students share these understandings?  Do local people share this understanding of their university?  Do professions have a shared understanding of the frontiers of their field?  Do the Departments, for example, who have common understanding of their frontiers amplify each others work more than other Departments?

And in companies, do the employees share an understanding of the common frontiers and how can we communicate those frontiers?

And is this the right way to think about monitoring shared meaning?  Or could we use proxy measures like collective efficacy – that would be easy to measure at least. Monitoring collective efficacy would entail asking which groups in the organization believe which other groups are competent?

Or should we use a model like Losada’s model of happiness?  Could we look at

  • interconnectivity of people
  • the balance of inquiry and advocacy and
  • the balance of interest in one’s own work and the work of others.

If these three variables predict the success of management teams, it is quite likely they predict the success of teams and organizations as well.

My tuppenny’s worth

Yup, this is what I would look for in an organization trying to exploit “recon pull”.

  • For substance, a vibrant 2.0 facility where we it is easy to see what other people are working on.
  • A review of process based on Losada’s work.  Do we have positivity/negativity ratios of 5:1, does our inquiry exceed our advocacy and are we slightly more interested in other people’s work than our own?

Indeed, this was a good evening’s work from a conversation in a car park.

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1 Response to "‘Pull’ organizations"

With a background in marketing and e-business I have found some of the theories you have presented here very interesting. As part of my work I have had to address organisational issues and the impact of technology on the organisational form.

Wenger, Mc Dermott, Snyder, 2002 described the Fractal Organisation which would support the ‘recon pull’ strategy described, similarly Nonaka and Tacuchi describe similar elements in their Holographic organisation.

Increasingly organisations need to be far more responsive to the environment and to exploit technological or knowledge advantage before it is eroded – so an organisation must allow elements to operate in such away – yet still retain the organisations integrity and governance – remember Nick Leason?

Good stuff.

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