- The Washington Times - Monday, February 28, 2011

By William C. Taylor
William Morrow, $27.99, 293 pages

What an eye-opening joy is William C. Taylor’s “Practically Radical.” Anchored by case studies of businesses that pushed back against the odds, the book offers a pragmatic overview of how farsighted, risk-taking original thinkers thrive even in - and maybe because of - adverse circumstances.

In the introduction, Mr. Taylor writes that his book “is meant as a guide for leaders in all walks of life who aspire to fix what’s wrong with their organizations, to launch new initiatives with the best chance to succeed and to rethink the logic of leadership itself as they work to rally their colleagues around an agenda for renewal.”

Mr. Taylor is the co-founder of Fast Company and co-author, with Polly LaBarre, of the national best-seller “Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win.” A graduate of Princeton University and the MIT Sloan School of Management, Mr. Taylor builds his book on stories of how 25 for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations made remarkable strides.

Mr. Taylor points readers to the questions these company leaders answered and then turns the questions on the reader: “Do you see opportunities the competition doesn’t see?” “Do you have new ideas about where to look for new ideas?” “Are you the most of anything?” “Are you getting the best contributions from the most people?”

It is a dynamic tutorial that anyone who works for a living and who wants his company to succeed can benefit from. As a bonus, Mr. Taylor is a natural storyteller.

Citing the famous quote from economist Paul Romer - “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste” - he goes on to relate the story of how Post and Kellogg, “two giants in the packaged cereal industry, responded to the Great Depression.”

His source is James Surowiecki, who wrote about the divergent responses in the New Yorker magazine. “Post, [Mr. Surowiecki] wrote - ‘did the predictable thing’ when it reined in expenses and cut back on advertising. Kellogg, on the other hand, ‘doubled its ad budget, moved aggressively into radio advertising, and heavily pushed its new cereal, Rice Krispies.’ As a result, Kellogg leaped ahead of its rival and became (and remains) the industry’s dominant player.”

However, the story of the cereal giants is just a warm-up, because the book “is built around three distinct (but related) modules: transforming your company, shaking up your industry and challenging yourself.” And with that in mind, Mr. Taylor gives readers whirlwind glimpses of how the Providence, R. I., Police Department, IBM, Zappos, Swatch, the Girl Scouts, Interpol, big-city hospitals, fast-growing banks and high-flying airlines make the most of their resources.

All face tough circumstances, all work out ways to advance their brands. Some are more unconventional than others, to put it mildly. CEO Michael O’Leary of Ireland’s Ryanair explained to “a slightly appalled American reporter” that “Ryannair promises cheap fares, on-time schedules, minimal cancellations, and few lost bags: ‘But if you want anything more - go away! Will we put you in a hotel room if your flight was cancelled? No! Go away. Will we give you a refund on a nonrefundable ticket because your granny died unexpectedly? No! Go away. We’re not interested in your sob stories! What part of ‘no refund’ do you not understand?’ “

This story is the more the exception than the rule in a book about companies that generally strive to entice and keep customers through responsive customer service. In a segment titled “Radically Practical II - Five New Rules for Starting Something New,” Mr. Taylor tells the story of how Zappos kindly responded to a customer when learning her mother had died. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s maxim is: “We’re trying to build a lifelong relationship with each of our customers, one call at a time.”

For company managers, this book is a treasure trove of motivational tools. The concept of “vuja de,” the notion of looking at something familiar as if you’d never seen it before gets a hearty workout here.

The book also wraps up with an appendix titled “Practically Radical Primer -Ten Questions Every Game Changer Must Answer.”

And buried there is this little nugget: “IDEO’s Tom Kelley likes to quote French novelist Marcel Proust, who famously said, ‘The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.’ What goes for novelists goes for leaders searching to discover a novel game plan.” Wonderful.

Carol Herman is books editor at The Washington Times.

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