Book Review The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management

December 17, 2010

The Leader's Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st CenturyAs an Agile practitioner, I was interested in Stephen Denning’s new book, The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management. Denning discussed his objective as being one to discover workplaces “… where work is highly productive, new ideas are embraced, and jobs are deeply satisfying.” Denning admitted surprise when he noticed that an unusually high proportion of these experiences came from software organizations.

As Denning looked deeper, he “…discovered a way of managing that was much more productive than traditional management and where the people doing the work were having serious fun.” He found that Agile/Scrum were at the heart of this management change, which he calls Radical Management.

As Stephen Denning examined organizations, he observed what he defines as seven principles of radical management:

Principle #1: Delighting Clients.
Principle #2: Self-Organizing Teams.
Principle #3: Client-Driven Iterations
Principle #4: Delivering Value to Clients in Each Iteration
Principle #5: Radical Transparency.
Principle #6: Continuous Self-Improvement
Principle #7: Interactive Communication.

Denning supports these principles by delving into a large set of practices, many of which will be familiar to anyone who has worked in a Scrum environment.

The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management makes a strong case for abandoning traditional (command-and-control) management. Denning begins by citing management theorist Gary Hamel, who noted, “Management was originally invented, to solve two problems: the first—getting semiskilled employees to perform repetitive activities competently, diligently, and efficiently; the second—coordinating those efforts in ways that enabled complex goods and services to be produced in large quantities. In a nutshell, the problems were efficiency and scale, and the solution was bureaucracy, with its hierarchical structure, cascading goals, precise role definitions, and elaborate rules and procedures.”

Denning continues to drive the point home, contrasting what he feels is wrong with traditional management versus what I’ve come to know and love with agile (radical) management, “… thinking about work primarily as an internally driven set of processes, using people who could be manipulated, rather than viewing the workplace as an interaction of thinking, feeling, laughing, caring human beings whose talents, energies, and ingenuities are fully engaged in finding ways to delight clients.”

Note the reference to delighting clients in the preceding sentence. Radical Management asserts that if management organized itself around the goal of delighting the customer, it would arrive at a different management paradigm, one that “will naturally gravitate toward some variation of self-organizing teams as the default model for organizing work. That's because it is only through mobilizing the full energy and ingenuity of the workforce that the firm is likely to have any chance of success at generating the continuous innovation needed to delight clients.”

In fact, Denning states that, “When the delight of the client is kept continuously and rigorously in mind, many of the problems of the workplace disappear, and the possibilities of a different kind of work—more productive and more satisfying—become possible.”

I couldn’t agree more! Scrum – with its autonomous teams – gives employees control over their work and focuses on delivering value to the customer. Hands down, it is a great way to go.

However, I do feel that Denning may have misunderstood one aspect of Agile development. He expressed concern over the focus on working software, his primary concern being that this places an emphasis on things, not the people for whom the software is being produced. He followed up by stating that “producing things increases the risk of sliding back into the world of hierarchical bureaucracy.”

I don’t disagree that an emphasis on producing things could produce a backward slide. However, Agile development’s attention on working software is in the context of delivering working software to the customer – and within the Scrum framework working software is delivered continuously and contains features that provide the greatest value to the customer. The delivery of working software is meant to support one of the values of the Agile Manifesto: delivery of working software over delivery of comprehensive documentation.

Overall, this is a small nit in a great book. And the point is valid. We need to keep the values of Agile development in mind, and as Radical Management is spread to other non-software part of the organization they will have to keep their customers in mind with their outputs as well.

To wrap things up, Stephen Denning’s insight on management and how Agile/Scrum leads the way is summarized nicely:

“Today managers have to recognize that they cannot delight clients or draw on the full talents of the workforce merely by sending messages and telling people what to do. Instead, they need to be having interactive conversations, using authentic narratives and open-ended questions, and engaging in deep listening. They need to be communicating with people as responsible, thinking, feeling adults, so that communications leave them energized and clients positively excited rather than dispirited and used. Managers have to stop doing things to people and start doing things with people.”

While this book might not contain a great deal of new information for those who have experience with Agile/Scrum development, Mike Cohn makes a great point: “This is the book you give your managers and company executives. It could be the book you’ve been looking for to help you get agile or Scrum spread outside the development group so that it can transform your organization.”

If you want gains in productivity, continuous innovation, job satisfaction for those doing the work and delighted customers, it’s definitely worth considering implementing its principles and practices of Radical Management.