I finally finished Steve Denning's The Leader's Guide to Radical Management. In the process, I realized that the reason most business books are difficult reads is because the authors are, unintentionally, unreliable narrators.
I've identified two forms of unreliable narration, both of which tend to appear in most business books:
- The author has a hidden agenda. In most cases, the author wants to set themselves up for consulting and/or speaking engagements.
- The author has something that they either assume is true, or want to be true, and are not rigorous about verifying correctness or following through on the reasoning.
Once you notice either or both of these in what you're reading, it slows you down tremendously. Suddenly, each assertion by the author must be filtered and evaluated; weighing it to see whether it passes the credibility test. And that's the problem with the majority of business books; as I chronicled here, they are typically subject to sloppy thinking (for which there is virtually no penalty in the business-book economy).
Denning is doing good work, challenging the system from within the system. Perhaps it's just confirmation bias but I've found many of his blog posts to be quite inspirational -- they often act as affirmations that I'm not alone in this and I'm going in the right direction.
The book is on the same topic as his blog. Indeed, it's clear while you read both of them that Steve really wants to make "Radical Management" his "thing" (see point #1 above). In fact, he takes the bold move of treating it like it's already a thing, writing about it as if it has already been established. And he's done a lot of outside work to publicize his concepts and work with organizations to adopt the ideas.
The book is filled with good research (well, research that correlates with what I've read elsewhere, which could just be the echo-chamber effect that is often prevalent in the business-book scene. As if everyone was just reading the most popular business books and accepting any research presented in those books. But let's assume that he's being careful). The book contains lots of valuable information and is trying to look at management differently. It's worth reading.
But Radical Management as a practice isn't a thing. It's clear whenever he writes about it because his writing becomes tentative. A perfect example is his reference to SalesForce.com:
"It astonished the world of software development by successfully completing a transformation from traditional management to the practices of radical management in three months."Notice the careful wording: not "radical management," but "the practices of radical management." I have some insights on this one. SalesForce.com was very successful in moving the whole company to Agile Development all at once. However, there was not any endorsement of radical management, and to try to piggyback onto an example of Agile success is disingenuous.
Radical Management asks the question, "what would Agile Development practices look like if you applied them to management in general?" and then tries to imagine the results. It's obvious these are ideas that Denning thinks might work, but that haven't been tested. Indeed, there's almost nothing to test -- the maxims of Radical Management are cast in vague terms about the way a manager should behave or act or feel. But there's nothing concrete about how you either find or create such managers, just that somehow, somewhere these practitioners of enlightened self-interest not only exist, but want to come work for your unenlightened company and change it.
He also seems to fall into the belief that existing hierarchical bureaucracies can be reformed into bastions of Radical Management. I believe I've seen mountains of evidence to the contrary which makes me conclude that no established power-based organization can be reformed if it means loss of power for the entrenched. That's why the only kinds of management restructuring we see in such organizations are those that don't really change anything, but just rearrange the deck chairs. Anything of true substance requires a redistribution of power, and people who fought to get into power don't want to give it up. Radical Management is still targeted to managers (aka consulting clients), despite Denning's own (very compelling) criticisms of bureaucratic hierarchies.
I really do understand the desire to come up with a system or process or idea and have it be your thing. In an early C++ book (pre-Thinking in C++) I "invented" (made up) a software design methodology and described it in the book. It seemed like a good idea while I was writing it. And I presented it as if it was already a "thing" that people used. I have no excuses for what I did. It was hubris. But I was punished: someone took the book and made a video training course from it (part of the publishing agreement, as I recall). I'm pretty sure it was on VHS tape, which is why you've thankfully never heard of it. And I had to watch as this guy got to that chapter and presented my totally-made-up methodology as if it were a real, tried-and-tested thing. I still carry mental scars of embarrassment from seeing that, and it makes me want to present things that are genuinely useful and testable. I still fail, but I do try harder.
The root problem with Radical Management is that it tells you how to be, rather than what to do. You read the descriptions and think "yes, it would be great if you could do that, but how?" Which ultimately means there's nothing to test, and if you can't test it you can't disprove it: not science. And I do know that Denning refers to The Lean Startup, which tells you what to do to test your hypotheses, but not how to be. An effective system probably needs to tell you both what to do and also what to expect (and how to adjust if you aren't getting those expectations).
The writing is inconsistent. Just when I'm about to give up from too many pages of business-speak, his true voice comes forward -- he hits his stride and I'm grabbed and re-engaged. I know it's hard, but the whole book needs to be written in that true voice. If you do that, Steve, people won't be able to put it down.
If Steve Denning reads this, I really want to emphasize that I mean no discouragement. I think he's doing good work, and should continue. It's just presented in a way that is unusable as a system. In this business-writing world where the vast majority are actively trying to fool you in order to make a quick buck, I'd hate to see his work lost because of this mistake -- and I think that, with some hard work, Radical Management might be reformed into an applicable system.