UK: The professional radical's.

UK: The professional radical's. - Change is good, it means progress, especially in today's fast-paced world. But radical change needs a subtle approach.

by Jon Leach.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Change is good, it means progress, especially in today's fast-paced world. But radical change needs a subtle approach.

All managers want to make improvements, to change things for the better. True leaders are passionate about change but, unfortunately, most have only two strategies in which to achieve it: revolution or evolution.

But there exists a third way, one that breaks out of these simple polarities. And if politicians claim to be exploring the radical centre, perhaps the management community should explore what it means to be a 'professional radical'.

The first problem you encounter when considering being a professional radical is language inflation. In the world of fast food, for instance, there is no such thing as small. Pizzas start at regular and go up from there. You can have a gulp or a big gulp, but you never just sip.

The same is true in the world of management. All advertising is now 'creative work', and all marketing plans are 'innovative'. There is no management proposal so small that it will not differentiate the company in the market place. Inflation is rife in the language of management.

The importance of language is such that we need to define what is meant by radical in a management context. Perhaps when we are talking about a radical approach we are talking about non-linear change: something that is not an extension or modification of what has gone before. In that sense, radical is close to revolution - it is about changing the status quo and thereby creating value.

Let's look at the dictionary definition. Radical (adj.) - synonyms: complete, constitutional, entire, essential, extreme, fundamental, innate, native, organic, original, perfect, positive, primitive, thorough, total. These widely divergent uses of the word radical are derived from the latin root, meaning (radix).

A radical difference is one that springs from the root and is thus constitutional, essential, fundamental, organic, original; a radical change is one that does not stop at the surface but reaches down to the core beliefs of many managers. It is entire, thorough, total.

Since most managers find the superficial treatment of any matter the easiest and most comfortable, radical measures that strike at the root of a problem may be looked upon as extreme. Hence, the emergence of antonyms such as conservative, inadequate, incomplete, moderate, palliative, partial and superficial.

The definition of the noun also gives a better understanding of a radical agenda:

Radical (noun) - A person who carries theories or convictions...nearly or quite to their furthest and most unqualified application; hence, one who holds extreme views or advocates extreme measures.

Commercially speaking, being 'extreme' sounds risky whereas 'progressing by seeking the root cause' sounds difficult yet highly rewarding.

If progressive managers want to create change and are prepared to think and act differently to achieve it, how can they avoid the 'dead hero' trap that often befalls the revolutionary? Can one have a passion for change and dramatic progress while at the same time deliver the change in a controlled, professional manner?

To explore this, one must contrast the techniques of the professional radical with two fall guys: the revolutionary who is about to become a dead hero and the conservative who is about to become dead wood.

1 Know when you are not wanted

For a revolutionary, there is always the desire to change things, to tear down and re-build. But sometimes things are okay, save a bit of superficial tweaking. Professional radicals can sense when they are not wanted by fellow managers and are confident enough in their skills to go elsewhere and find people who will value their approach. Revolutionaries, on the other hand, think they are always needed and that others just haven't realised it yet.

Practical advice: if no one around you is talking the same language as you, you are either a brave pioneer who is about to discover gold or you are lost and about to be scalped. Unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary, assume you are lost.

2 Be patient

It is possible to push a revolutionary agenda through quickly. A lot of blood may be spilt, but with determination a revolutionary can make things change rapidly. For a while.

Professional radicals know that lasting change takes time. New ideas are resisted at first. Support for them builds slowly. But unlike a revolutionary who is affronted if people don't see things their way, the professional radical has patience.

Practical advice: how long will you need to implement change? Perhaps halfway between a) the time that a revolutionary thinks they need to change things and b) the time when a conservative starts thinking that things have got a bit stale.

In a typical situation, the answer to a) would be three months and b) six years. So in this instance, plan for the project to take about three years.

3 Respect age

Young people make good revolutionaries but bad professional radicals.

While the desire to be radical (in the broadest sense of the word) is almost genetic, professionalism takes time to acquire. That is not to say that as you get older you merely get more conservative. Rather, some young radicals just get more ambitious and in time learn how to be professional as well.

Practical advice: if you haven't got any people with at least 10 years of radical projects on your team, then find one (and preferably more) quick.

4 Acquire humility

Revolutionaries think they are never wrong: in their minds they are just betrayed by weak people. Similarly, conservatives think that much of everything they do is right. To them, poor results mean only that they are going through a sticky patch.

Professional radicals make mistakes. They do not see things in black and white. They aim for the target and if (when) they don't hit the bull's-eye first time they just adjust their aim. Professional radicals are so confident in succeeding in the long term that they acknowledge (and learn from) their mistakes in the short term.

Practical advice: assume you will make mistakes. Make it part of your job to spot them before other people do. Use language such as 'we haven't got it right yet' rather than 'we got it wrong'.

5 Be selective in what you change

For the revolutionary, everything must change - the purity of the vision demands it. The professional radical understands that the success of the project does not demand that everything be changed at once. Professional radicals understand that to change some things considerably, other things must remain untouched.

Practical advice: if you are breaking more than one or two important rules at the same time, stop and think very carefully.

6 Live in the real world

Revolutionaries live in an ideal future. Conservatives live in an idealised past. The professional radical needs to live in the messy, difficult, imperfect but real world. They make it their business to inhabit the actual community they are trying to change.

Revolutionaries may read their philosophical texts in the privacy of their libraries; conservatives may remove themselves from this troubling, turbulent world and retreat to their clubs. The radical professional is out there trying to make sense of the real world.

Practical advice: think about issues in the way that a non-radical would, at least for the duration of the project. You don't have to do it full time, but 'go native' at least once a week.

7 Honour the revolutionary (within)

Evolutionaries refuse to work with revolutionaries - they find them scary, unrealistic, uncommercial. But the professional radical honours the revolutionary (including the revolutionary within) knowing that innovative, even scary ideas are needed to explore the full possibilities of a solution.

Unless you are a life-time member of the 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' school of thought, make sure you work with some 'if it ain't broke that probably means we're just not looking hard enough' people.

Practical advice: make certain that as part of the solutions you have explored, you have looked at revolutionary ideas that have gone just a few steps too far. Otherwise, you will not know if you have taken your solution up to its professional radical limits.

8 Know your weaknesses

Revolutionaries and conservatives can have no weaknesses within their self image. They (need to) know they are right. The professional radical knows that true objectivity is unattainable and, hence, becomes professionally interested in their own subjectivity. By knowing and being honest about their weaknesses, the professional radical is actually less likely to make mistakes than their headstrong cousins.

Practical advice: in a safe environment (in other words, not in front of customers) try to work out your collective weaknesses by analysing your failures. Individual weaknesses can be compensated for by good teamwork, but organisational weaknesses are the most dangerous as they are the hardest to correct.

9 Sometimes do nothing

The revolutionary is always active, always searching for the next battle to win. But sometimes the most radical thing to do is nothing. Of course the professional skill here is to know when you're not just being conservative.

So in today's fast-moving world, this is a high-risk strategy, but sometimes it will be right.

Practical advice: have 'do nothing' on your list of proven radical approaches with concrete examples in your field. Take advertising, for example. Sometimes a new set of television commercials will achieve very little in their first year. But when they appear the following year (unaltered), results will suddenly surge as the radical idea seeps down to the root of the problem.

10 Be collaborative

Revolutionaries subscribe to the 'great man of history' school of thought.

All it takes is one man to have an idea and for him to make a few speeches and the world changes.

Professional radicals believe that real change comes from teams of people combining their ideas and gradually creating change through dialogue and negotiation. It's not as dramatic, but it is more effective.

Practical advice: invest time in thinking about the process and how you are working as a team. Set up separate sessions to discuss these. Don't spend all your time working on the problem.

11 Be thorough

The revolutionary is so compelled by the dazzling brilliance of their vision that they can be caught out by unseen obstacles. Action is all. The professional radical knows that progress is difficult enough without making silly mistakes. They also know that the real world doesn't offer many simple solutions and are prepared to grind through the detail to get to their goal. Revolutions may be glamorous, but creating real change involves hard work.

Practical advice: use your team to have devil's advocate meetings. Or employ a separate body of colleagues to act as an external quality control force that exists to ask the difficult questions.

12 Be prepared for loneliness

One of the things that revolutionaries have in common with professional radicals is that they both belong to small minorities within communities that don't appreciate what they are trying to accomplish. The revolutionary's way of dealing with this is to form a group and demonise all the other people who don't see things their way. Solidarity against the enemy.

Professional radicals know they have to work with all those 'others' and so can't take this approach. Thus they cope by avoiding alienating people and trying to make friends gradually within their communities.

But this may be a slow process.

Practical advice: don't bitch about the others, but do buddy up with like-minded people. Charm the rest of the world together.

13 Don't make assumptions

The revolutionary knows that the little people are their natural allies and the big battalions are their natural enemies. The conservative believes the opposite.

The professional radical knows it is more complicated than that. Some big entities need a radical approach. Maybe these days most big companies have done all the easy, obvious, evolutionary things. To be winners in these hyper-competitive times, they are going to need bolder, more professional, radical approaches. On the other hand, some small companies are doing just fine as they are, or are doing great as shooting star revolutionaries.

And remember, professional radicals do not see age as a diminisher of radicalness. Grand old companies, grand old branches and grand old cultures all might be crying out for their services.

Practical advice: don't make your mind up about people until you have really got to know them. Look for other professional radicals in large companies. So don't let sheer corporate scale and historic success deceive you - in a hyper-competitive world, the professional radical can create the most value in the bigger, more established companies.

So for real gain, seek your allies in these companies first.

14 Be accountable

Conservatives don't need to measure things - success is ensuring things stay the same, and that should be obvious to all. Revolutionaries don't like to be pinned down - non-believers may start to question how close the glorious day really is.

The professional radical is selling a new way of doing things and trying to create real change. Therefore, the professional radical needs targets: it must be agreed what needs to be achieved by when.

Practical advice: set targets and measure yourself against them. If you need to reset targets due to a change in strategy (remember that a professional radical isn't afraid to admit mistakes), keep the original targets as well as new ones. Don't let setbacks put you off the concept of accountability.

15 Enjoy the rewards

Conservatives are always by and large content with the status quo. Either nothing changes, or a few revolutionaries shake things up a bit but with luck it soon goes back to how it was.

Or some radicals actually (despite our earlier reservations) make things better. The professional radical, if they are any good, has the satisfaction of creating real and lasting change and becoming a hero. That beats being content every time.

But pity the poor revolutionary. Some are always on the margins, waving their pamphlets at an ungrateful proletariat. Others are shot on the palace steps. Some are in charge of the mess they've created, even though it's not their fault.

And finally, some are sent into exile, bitterly pondering what went wrong, never wanting to ask the question at the root - was I professional enough?

Be a professional radical - it is the best thing to be.

Jon Leach works for HHCL + Partners.

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