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Leader's Guild to Radical ManagementSteve Denning has a new book out. The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management. See also Steve Denning’s blog, and this interview with him on InfoQ. Denning’s seven principles of management resonate with the principles of the Agile Manifesto.  Is Radical Management yet another management fad?  I don’t think so.  But I also think that it’s not that new of an idea.  It may rather be an emergence into practice of ideas being developed more than 100 years ago in response to problems of knowledge and authority created by modernism.

I am currently reading a fine book by John Patrick Diggins, The Promise of Pragmatism: Modernity and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority.  Diggins was a historian who delved deeply into the history of ideas.  His explication of the philosophies of such founders of American pragmatism as Henry Adams, William James, C.S. Peirce, and John Dewey is clear and uncluttered by jargon.

As I was reading Diggins on Dewey, I was struck by similarities between some of Dewey’s ideas and the principles propounded by software agilists trying to be ‘pragmatic.’  I’m going to quote from Diggins about Dewey.  “Thought is prompted by the specific conditions of a given environment, whose discordance and instability confront men with ‘problematic situations’ that activate the mind and initiate processes of ‘inquiry.’…  Dewey (saw) the ‘problematic situation’ as requiring cooperative effort (my italics) to resolve.” … “Dewey makes clear that genuine knowledge involves not what is worth believing from the individual’s standpoint but what society judges useful, a judgment that must be continually reexamined.”  OK.  Now substitute ‘software project’ for ‘problematic situation’ and consider what cooperative effort is becoming these days in that problem space.

Diggins book addresses the problem of authority that arose with modernity.  Again quoting, “In classical philosophy knowing and doing represented two discrete activities, and the political implications of this epistemological dualism could only be undemocratic: authority resided in knowing and obedience in doing.”  Twentieth century bureaucracy developed hierarchical systems of authority based on the classical model.  (One of Diggins’s extreme examples is the Soviet Union.)  The ‘managers’ are bureaucrats who have knowledge and give orders to workers who must obey.  But Dewey ‘turned upside down the assumptions of classical thought: authority… is neither given by nor revealed to the theoretical intellect, but instead is produced by human activity.”

I think what’s happening with ‘radical management’ and ‘agile software development’ is related first to the gradual collapse of the myth of the knowledge-possessing manager, what Steve Denning calls the ‘old paradigm of command and control,’ and second on the ascension of practice based on principles rooted in American pragmatism, as exemplified by Dewey.  A key  principle is the ‘self-organizing team’ which has no central authority.  This will seem crazy to people stuck in the old paradigm.  Why?  Because the old paradigm presumes that knowledge is needed prior to action (e.g. a full specification, perhaps, before coding), whereas Dewey argued that knowledge and action (doing) are not separate.  And that success is not predefined, but emerges in collective activity.   For software, now, success is increasingly not measured by conformance to a specification, but by ‘delighting the customer’.

Quoting from the Denning interview, “Radical management is thus part of a larger story, an emerging process of societal change, in which the structures that we build are adjusted to enhance rather than strangle the living part of our lives.”

The current global economy, increasing the pace, has stressed traditional management structures which are too rigid to respond to rapid change.  This has opened up a field for innovation and even ‘paradigm change’ in corporate organization.  So now ideas developed eighty to a hundred years ago can find fertile soil to sprout in.  Radical management may be a new buzz word, but I think it’s not that new of an idea.  It just may be an idea that’s found the right conditions to flourish.