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Is Radical Management Really so Radical?

By: Dennis Rebelo | 14 Apr | 10 comments


At first glance Steven Denning’s new book struck me as offering revolutionary suggestions to organizational life-as-we-know-it: after all, it's called The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace

The workplace certainly needs to be reinvented—and Denning is a well-known author who has worked with many large organizations. Recently he and I teamed up to launch a study group of organizational leaders in New England to introduce radical management. It has a strong and important message. Yet, with all due respect to Mr. Denning, all seven core concepts are quite humanistic and perhaps not so foreign to many people.  

Given how long these humanistic concepts have been around, why is it that in 2011 we consider radical management, a new and innovative concept to breathe life into workplaces wrangling with survival issues?

Denning notes that organizations are in crisis mode today.  I once thought that these crises were driven by marketing pressures that may be at play due to hyper-competition—an external factor. But I suspect we must also respect the potent influence of organizational culture—an internal factor—that shapes and encourages particular leadership and management styles. According to Denning, "Organizations today face a crisis. The crisis is of long standing and its signs are widespread. Productivity is one-quarter of 1965 levels. Innovation continues to decline. Workers are disgruntled. Customers are frustrated. Brands are unraveling. Executive turnover is accelerating. In the last 25 years, startups created 40 million jobs in the US, while established firms created almost none. Traditional management is broken."

With such instability in organizational life today, one must wonder how radical must we be to change the organizational trending?  In other words, what must be done to cure the seemingly shortened 'shelf-life' of Fortune 500 organizations?

Well, as we introduced his concepts, the reinvention of work became closely linked to the concepts we cover at Saybrook University in course work. Accordingly I have crafted a list of some rules of thumb to offer leaders to expand on (but not replace) Denning’s interlocking principles—bridging his concepts to humanistic studies, topics and approaches. I posit that organizational sustainability stems in part from moving these philosophies into the daily practices of organizational leaders and followers. 

  1. "Focus the organization on delighting clients" (Steven Denning) which means "become more aware of the role of a collaboration culture in supporting the mission you joined to serve fellow human beings" (Dennis Rebelo).
  2. "Work in self-organizing teams" (Steven Denning) meaning "focus on natural formation versuscontrol and command styles of the carrot and stick era of management so that you can experience joy at work" (Dennis Rebelo).
  3. "Operate in client driven iterations" (Steven Denning) or "engage in a dialogue in the Bohmian-spirit to suspend judgment en route to understanding others" (Dennis Rebelo).
  4. "Deliver value to clients" (Steven Denning) in other words "work with honor as you promised you would to serve" (Dennis Rebelo).
  5. "Foster radical transparency" (Steven Denning) which is to say "graciously accept the sharing and critical thinking that stems from diversity" (Dennis Rebelo).
  6. "Nurture continuous self-improvement" (Steven Denning) because "people are naturally inquisitive and so let the human endeavor at work encourage learning" (Dennis Rebelo).
  7. "Communicate interactively" (Steven Denning) which is to say "dialogue versus monologue because no collective wisdom comes from watering down the thoughts of another human" (Dennis Rebelo).

To be human means to accept, honor and be able to work with ease and grace despite having differences in thoughts and feelings with other people.  To think these concepts are radical is to suggest that we have become subscribers of the carrot and stick management style which doled out rewards or punishments reducing humans to simple creatures. The cost for this subscription leads to stress and discomfort for people and seems to create an organizational culture ripened for failure. 

We are not simple, but perhaps the answer to "how can organizations thrive?" is less radical than is being reported.  Organizations thrive by inspiriting identity freeing cultures. These freedom cultures are not willy-nilly, but encourage their members to swim as they wish in the organizational pool, within lanes perhaps, but supportive of each person’s "self."

To sustain an organization these seven principles need to move from whiteboard to boardroom and beyond.  Embodying these principles may offer fading organizations a new way to "be" at work for existing personnel while signaling respect for the human side of work to vendors, affiliates and recruits.  When persons are not honored, involved or inspired, a new culture of mediocrity is birthed which eventually takes hold of many good persons.  Of course, I suppose we could avoid the notion of personal identity’s importance at work, which unfortunately may reinforce the blind leading the blind routine we witness in constrained organizations.   

Perhaps being human to get a human back is not a radical concept after all.  Let’s not let it be.

Read other posts by Dennis Rebelo

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Comments and Discussions

re: Is radical management really so radical?

Love it.

re: Is radical management really so radical?

A great paradigm to make corporations a place that inspires the best in employees--one of the keys to turning this economy around.

re: Is radical management really so radical?

I really enjoyed this focus on the internal environment. While the global economic crisis has surely affected business, I find that some entrepreneurs use it as a crutch rather than taking the opportunity to be introspective and ask "What can we do differently within the construct of our firm?"

re: Is radical management really so radical?

This is not excessively humanistic--it it good business practice. Good practices revolve not only around service of the customer, but service toward the employees we manage, recognizing they are indeed one category of customer. Too often companies proclaim the gospel of numbers and do not promote the welfare of people--both inside and outside the organization. When we see an organization doing both, we are compelled to notice and to give them business.

Our nation's numbers-based society has been very quick to produce a generation of transient employees. It is not uncommon for employees to have several careers and jump ship to the next best organization very quickly. Building corporate stability, a quality workplace, and lifetime careers for workers is not radical--it's the reinvigoration of the American dream. It will, in turn, produce stable organizations and bring in jobs.

There is no reason in the world going to work has to be drudgery--organizations that think outside the box produce intensely loyal employees that do nothing but increase the company's bottom line while providing a service society needs. Psychological income goes a long way.

Kudos to Stephen and Dennis!

re: Is radical management really so radical?

Great ideas Dennis. We have to ask the question "Why do leaders and managers want to stay stuck in practices that focus on control and discourage participation?

There are so many people eager to out of the box and generate creative ideas in partnership with others. I hope leaders will see that the complexity we face today requires the creative energy and full participation of everyone.

re: Is radical management really so radical?

I've always subscribed to the philosphy that human capital is an organization's greatest asset. I worked in a Fortune 50 company for many years and watched its culture change as it morphed through various business combinations and mergers - and not for the better. The internal organizational culture is tantamount to fostering innovation and customer service and ultimately reputation. And it needs to come from the top. Right on Dennis!

re: Is radical management really so radical?

Our eagerness to accept a text, email, skype, BBM, wall post or tweet as effective communication in the work place waters down our ability hit philosophies #2 and #7. Steven sites that "productivity is one-quarter of 1965 levels." Ongoing eye to eye, face to face communication is in a similar rut, making a culture of live human contact with clients, colleagues and managers more difficult to promote.

re: Is radical management really so radical?

Very well written Dennis. From my experience I have found those above me in management are self-serving. It is always about them and then they approach clients with the same self-serving attitude which turns the clients off. In addition, vendors approach me with the same self-serving attitude. If more can learn the approach to work with each other with honor and value, we will become more productive.

re: Is radical management really so radical?

Thanks for this generous piece. Indeed radical management is very much inspired by humanist principles. But it also represents an evolution of those principles towards pragmatic methodologies and practices by which you can actually run a big organization--something you can't do with general humanist principles alone.

I have spelled this out in more detail in a post here: http://blogs.forbes.com/stevedenning/2011/04/19/surprise-radical-management-makes-much-more-money/

You are right that this is fundamentally about a change of heart. However a change of heart by itself won't get us where we want to go. We do need the change of heart. And we need to take advantage of the discovery of the methodologies and practices that can help get us there. It's not either-or. We need both.

Thanks again,

re: Is radical management really so radical?


Thank you for your recent integration of my perspectives on The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management on FORBES.com. Traditional business audiences and these humanistic principles are indeed connected! As you rightly point out and add, these philosophical underpinnings to “good” organizational life, good business, are stretched out and held up by the discipline of storying.

Stories certainly buoy up core humanistic principles creating evidence of this sought-after culture. Since stories prove portable for retelling it is a critical newer area of study and practice. As storytellers are encouraged, taught and become more effective positive outcomes of this radical (to you and me and some others) not so radical approach will become known.

An organization ripe with effective storytelling techniques certainly helps inspirit a refreshed organizational identity along with a ‘loosening’ up of the constraining of ‘self.” When persons strike a storytelling chord and are validated by audiences it invigorates, inspires, and instills a cleaner style of organizational existence where strengths become clear and organizational purpose realized.

I’ll be in Oxford in July speaking at the 30th International Human Science Research Conference on, you guessed it, “Story.” Specifically my talk is entitled “Threshold Storytelling: A Phenomenological Perspective on Storytelling in Threshold Moments to Navigate Work and Life Changes.” (http://www.open.ac.uk/socialsciences/ihsrc2011/)

As always Steve, I appreciate your colleagueship and contributions.

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