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New Views of Management

A review of Practically Radical, by William C. Taylor.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself

By William C. Taylor
William Morrow, 2011

The U.S. executive focus has moved from managing large-scale operations (and motivating people to run them efficiently) to creating agile organizations that engage their people so that they will innovate and create new industries in the knowledge economy. William C. Taylor, a former editor of Harvard Business Review and cofounder, with Alan Webber, of Fast Company, has been a leading chronicler of the management revolution that has accompanied this shift. In his latest book (and his first written without a coauthor), Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself, Taylor sets out to tell compelling stories, present provocative ideas, and pose penetrating questions to the widest range of “game-changing” leaders possible.

The book’s three parts focus in turn on improving your company, creating successful new ventures, and rethinking your leadership style — and the author suggests that recessions are ideal times to be innovating in all three areas. Instead of worrying about sinking the boat, says Taylor, you should be concerned with not missing it. He advocates rocking the boat, in fact — that is, exploring “radical shifts that represent a direct challenge to convention and a break with the status quo,” while remaining realistic about your ability to make change happen.

Each part of the book is divided into themed chapters, featuring radically practical truths (for improving companies), rules (for shaping new ventures), and habits (for becoming a more effective leader). Thus the themes for the first two chapters in the corporate improvement section are “What you see shapes how you change,” which advocates looking at the world with new eyes, and “Where you look shapes what you see,” which advocates searching for new ideas in unfamiliar places. These ideas are illustrated with numerous interesting case studies, some of which will be new to the casual reader, and some of which will be familiar, such as Zappos — a great story, but just how broadly can one apply lessons extracted from a cultlike online shoe and clothing retailer?

The least satisfactory aspect of the book is the summarized truths, rules, and habits that end each part. Unfortunately, the truths are more like truisms: “Most organizations in most fields suffer from a kind of tunnel vision, which makes it hard to envision a more positive future.” Yes, but why? The rules seem vague and aspirational: “Long-term success is about more than thinking harder than the competition. It’s also about caring more than the competition.” Well, sometimes. Taylor himself cites evidence that large, successful companies that rip off their customers with hidden fees and predatory contracts can coexist quite happily with competitors that don’t. And the habits don’t sound like habits at all: “Real business geniuses don’t pretend to know everything.” The “ten questions that every game changer must answer” in the appendix are better, if a bit uneven. The most provocative one is probably “If your company went out of business tomorrow, who would miss you and why?”

In Practically Radical, Taylor has created a lens through which leaders can look at an emerging reality and thus ask better questions and get better answers. The ideas and stories are compelling overall. But although the book is a worthy effort, it would have benefited from a better conceptual framework integrating its recommendations for individual leaders, their companies, and their new ventures, explaining how they work together and to what ends.

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