The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: June 20th, 2011 by bobmorris

The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century
Stephen Denning
Jossey-Bass (2010)

How and why radical management can clarify and magnify human capacity

Stephen Denning asserts, “the problems of today’s workplace are not the personal fault of the individual managers. They are largely the fault of the system they are implementing, which relentlessly constrains the capacity of people to contribute, limits the firm`s productivity, and practically guarantees that clients will be dissatisfied. The mental model of management that these companies are pursuing, with interlocking attitudes and practices, methodically prevents any individual management fix from permanently taking hold.” Ironically and sadly, this is precisely the situation to which then chairman and CEO of 3M, William L. McKnight responded…86 years ago: “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.”

As Denning already knows and understands full well, the institutional constraints that must be eliminated comprise a system (i.e. the status quo) that current senior managers worked hard to establish and are certain to defend. Most change initiatives fail or fall far short of their goals because of resistance that is essentially cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes (in Leading Change) as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” How to overcome such resistance?

Denning advocates what he characterizes as “radical management,” based on seven principles. My own opinion is that none of these principles is “radical.” On the contrary, as studies conducted by several dozen highly reputable firms and research teams have revealed beyond any doubt, all organizations that achieve and then sustain superior performance have strategies (“hammers”) and tactics (“nails”) based on these principles.
In ancient Greece, the literal meaning of the word “barbarian” was “non-Greek.” Perhaps at least some senior managers now responsible for the system to which Denning refers (i.e. one that “relentlessly constrains the capacity of people to contribute, limits the firm`s productivity, and practically guarantees that clients will be dissatisfied”) view the seven principles as “radical.” Those among them who describe the proposed changes as being “dangerous” c learky feel threatened. Hopefully, at least a few of them will read this book and, more to the point, recognize what they must do to institutionalize the system Denning has devised.

Readers are provided with a wealth of information, insights, caveats, and recommendations. For example:

•  The differences between traditional and radical management
•  A review of the seven principles (introduced on Page 4)
•  A set of integrated measures
•  A mini-briefing on three stages of capitalism
•  An explanation of why self-organizing teams succeed
•  Using iterative work patterns
•  Where iterative approaches don’t apply
•  Understanding phantom work jams
•  Identifying and removing those jams
•  The management mindset problem

All this (and much more) is provided in the first seven of twelve chapters. The succeeding five chapters are equally valuable in terms of what Denning explains and affirms. Readers will especially appreciate the fact that he devotes a separate chapter to each of the seven principles, concluding each with a set of Practices. For #1, 9 of them; then for the others, #2 (7), #3 (15), #4 (14), #5 (13), #6 (10), and for #7 (10). In Chapter 4, he also includes four Tactics for introducing radical management into “even the most intractable high-end knowledge culture.” Readers will also appreciate Denning’s skillful use of real-world examples (e.g. World Bank, Easel Corporation, Curb Records, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Ernst & Young, NUMMI, and Toyota) that illustrate one or more key points.


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