This review of Practically Radical by William C. Taylor originally appeared in the Fall/Winter issue of the Journal of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals. APMP is the worldwide authority for professionals dedicated to the process of winning business through proposals, bids, tenders, and presentations. You can find more information about APMP membership here.
Review by: Amy McGeady, Ph.D., APMP, PPF.APMP - Vice President Professional Services, Privia
Bill Taylor's Practically Radical is intended as a change guide for leaders. Taylor is best known as one of the co-founders of Fast Company magazine, author of Mavericks at Work, and regular contributor to The New York Times and Harvard Business Review. He challenges conventional thinking about business. In Practically Radical, Taylor urges leaders to stop focusing on out-competing their rivals and concentrate on uncovering innovative ideas and strategies that redefine the terms of competition. This book encourages creativity and offers strategies for invigorating organizations, launching new initiatives, and rethinking leadership.
Taylor divides Practically Radical into three distinct sections geared towards three different audiences. Part 1 focuses on strategies for transforming existing companies and organizations. Part 2 is geared towards readers who want to launch something new, either a new organization or a new focus within an established organization. Part 3 hopes to redefine leadership, explaining that the most successful leaders have a unique combination of ambition, humility, and the ability to recognize powerful ideas.
The book explores 25 companies whose leaders used some combination of innovation, passion, customer-focus, and vision to successfully affect change. Initially, I was turned off by this zealous use of case studies. As I read further, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed learning about how leaders within familiar organizations pursued innovation and took actions, many risky, to energize their employees, provide value to their customers, and create brand cohesion through steadfastness to organizational mission. By following these principles, the leaders profiled distinguished themselves and carved out unique space within their markets.
One of my favorite parts of the book is the idea of looking within to find seeds of innovation and growth potential. In Chapter 1, What You See Shapes How You Change—The Virtues of Vuja Dé, Taylor profiles four distinct entities—the Providence Rhode Island Police Department, Pedigree Dog Food, Swiss Corporation for Microelectronics and Watchmaking (SMH), and Girl Scouts USA—to present a compelling case for revisiting a company's history when trying to shape its future. He chronicles organizations that reclaimed market leadership not by analyzing their competitors and outsmarting them, but by reexamining their own history and what had made them great in the first place. In describing SMH's leader Nicolas G. Hayek, Taylor states, "he realized that the way to devise a game plan for the future was to draw on the compelling ideas around which the organization first took shape—ideas that had gotten lost through decades of uninspired leadership, me-too growth strategies, and deadening bureaucratic practices."
After reading the book in its entirety, I kept coming back to this idea and questioning its relevance to the proposal profession. Over the years, I have worked with teams that struggled diligently to describe "discriminators" for ideas, products, services that truly were indistinguishable from the competition. For these efforts, theme statements, attempting to be value propositions, came across as me-too statements that may have been as good as, but no better than, the competition. Without ever mentioning the idea of "win themes," Taylor's work touches on the key distinction between good ones and bad ones. Bad win themes focus on the products or services we sell. Good win themes focus on the benefits we deliver. A case study on Pedigree dog food, of all things, illustrates this point. In a hyper-competitive marketplace, company leaders opted to stop focusing on their product—crunchier dog food at lower prices—to concentrate on why they were in business—a love of dogs. By getting back to the "soul" of the company, leaders reinvigorated the brand and attracted customer interest and loyalty. As proposal professionals, perhaps our most inspired work comes when we focus on the "soul" of our offerings rather than pushing the products and services we are trying to sell.
In Chapter 3, Practically Radical (I)—Five Truths of Corporate Transformation, Taylor states, "Sometimes, the most rewarding path to the future is built on a return to first principles." In a profession plagued by burn out, long hours, and unreasonable expectations, there are still plenty of us who love the crazy, hectic, exhilarating world of proposals. Many, if not most, of us were not drawn to the proposal profession out of a yearning to sell a specific company's services or products. It's not what we sell that interests us; though we do develop a fondness for specific offerings. It is the creativity, collaboration, and intensity that hook us. It is easy to lose sight of this when our workload grows too large or we are stuck trying to package "me-too" ideas as one-of-a-kind. What would happen, though, if we set these things aside, and worked purposely to reclaim the aspects of proposal work that originally drew us to this profession? My guess is that we would bring renewed energy and enthusiasm that would spill onto others, and instigate some of the "radical" shifts Taylor anticipates.
The book describes good leaders, individuals and organizations, not by their ability to stand out among the competition but to hold onto that unique spark that attracts customers and employees to them. He urges readers to, "Forget the question, What keeps you up at night? The bigger question is, What gets you up in the morning?" Taylor argues that with a strong sense of identity and purpose, individuals and organizations bring out the best in others and ascend as leaders in their industries.
Taylor is an engaging writer offering interesting ideas on organizational change and leadership transformation. This book is written much in the style of Fast Company, geared towards the same executives and entrepreneurs who have become his passionate followers for more than 15 years. Like many works in this genre, the writing reads much like "new business" evangelism. Readers wanting a conventional change management guide will be disappointed.
Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself by William C. Taylor. New York: HarperCollins, 2011, $15.99 (Paperback).