The ‘push-pull’ approach to leadership and organization development

Leadership and management development can lead to unmet expectations, where an individual or group in an organization has undergone development, but the organization is unable to put them into a position to use their new-found skills.

This led us to what we call a ‘push-pull’ development approach, where personal learning and development leads to beneficial organizational change, and the creation of opportunities to use the skills developed. Although the link between personal and organizational development is well-established, we believe our approach, based on action learning, is unique.

Action Learning

Action learning (sometimes, action-centred learning, or action-reflection learning) was first codified by British educator Reg Revans in the 1940s. It is, in essence, learning by engagement in real and important organization-based change and development projects, and taking responsibility for implementation, rather than providing a consultative exposition of what might be done. The reflections on what has been achieved, why blockages occurred, who helped and why, and the ownership of those outcomes, leads to very focused personal learning. Action learning initiatives are mostly undertaken in small facilitated groups. Much of the learning focuses on what Revans called the ‘Q’ – asking the right questions, then seeking answers from the ‘P’ – programmed (extant) knowledge. Revans called this the ‘learning equation – P+Q = L (learning), and this and variants have been well-explored in both in-company and university business school settings over the years.

In our ‘push-pull’ model, the ‘pull’ element is relatively pure action learning. Items on an organization’s strategic agenda are identified, and learners asked to tackle them. The ‘push’ element says – don’t wait passively to be fast-tracked. Fast-track yourself. Create a business opportunity which is congruent with the understood strategic goals. While no organization will make open-ended promises that any ‘push’ initiative will be backed, the learner should be willing to make a coherent and persuasive entrepreneurial business case, and the organization be open-minded enough to consider investment of capital and resources.

‘Pull’ projects prepare staff for enlarged challenges, and are top-down in nature. ‘Push’ projects may cause disruptive change. Both are needed in order for a company, and its staff, to develop and thrive. Often, an individual or group (at Emerald, we worked with ‘quartets’ of four staff drawn from different parts of the business) will have something of both push and pull elements.

Examples in our Emerald case were the need to address centralised sales co-ordination (a strategic ‘pull’ caused by an earlier entrepreneurial ‘push’) and the development of an e-learning community support into a monetised external application (an entrepreneurial ‘push’ which stated as a strategic support ‘pull’).

If you lose, don’t lose the lesson

Successful people need to be smart, and resilient. If you lose, as they say, don’t lose the lesson. If an idea is turned down, or fails to launch, a learner who says ‘how could I have sold it better’ or ‘how do I have another go’ is likely to have more leadership potential than one who says ‘they never listen to my good ideas’ or ‘that’s the last time I suggest anything’.

  • ‘how could I have sold it better’: self-critical, improving, open to learning
  • ‘how do I have another go’: persistent, resilient, optimistic
  • ‘they never listen to my good ideas’: blaming others, closed to learning
  • ‘that’s the last time I suggest anything’: defeatist, not engaged

The action learning approach forces a learner – individual or group – into reflection. With skilled  facilitation, this is more likely to engender the positive outcomes than the negative. The push-pull model encourages both strategic understanding and engagement, and an entrepreneurial, change-making mindset. Alignment with strategic direction is sought, but most successful organizations stir in an element of bottom-up invention into the top-down strategic recipe.

Organizations need leaders at all levels; leaders of operational continuity; leaders of disruptive change. Credible leaders care about their workplace, their colleagues, and their customers and stakeholders. They speak with confidence and authority.

Action learning provides a process in which teams and individuals can develop business-related approaches. These may be approaches to conserve, or to improve, or to change, or a mixture. Most organizations do not want to invest in ‘just-in-case’ learning, but to spend wisely on achieving organizational goals. The push-pull approach to learning and organizational development is a tool to achieve that.

John Peters & Eric Sandelands, Wainstalls Partnership, 2019

Adapted from ‘The Push-Pull approach to fast-track management development’, Fojt, Parkinson, Peters and Sandelands, Journal of Workplace Learning Vol 20 No 2, 2008, pp146-152, Emerald Group Publishing Limited. This, and the original article, was based on a learning and organization development programme conducted by the authors at Emerald Group and elsewhere.