Promises of certainty…

One funny moment  in the Badger’s career – and, believe me, there were many – occurred in a highly confrontational business meeting. The prime contractor, a multi-national engineering project management organisation, had summoned senior executives from their supplier to explain the continual delay in delivering key systems and software on the critical path of the prime’s entire programme.  The meeting, led by the prime’s UK General Manager, was attended by ~20 people made up of ~15 from the prime and  5  from the supplier.  The supplier – the Badger’s employer – was represented by their UK Managing Director (MD) and senior leaders, one of whom was the Badger.

From the outset of the session, the prime’s UK General Manager was in transmit mode. The ferocity of their tirade about the supplier’s failings was relentless and uncomfortable. It felt like facing into a hurricane!  After ~20 minutes, the General Manager ended their rant by slapping the table, demanding a guarantee that the supplier would get back on track to meet the overall programme’s dates, and picking up their mug of coffee for a drink.  

The Badger’s MD instantly responded with ‘If you want a guarantee then go see your doctor who will tell you that the only guarantee in life is that one day you will die’. The General Manager shuddered causing the mug of coffee to slip from their hand. Their clumsy attempts to recover only led to the mug spinning through the air spraying its contents over themselves, their papers, and their adjacent colleagues. On the supplier side of the table, we could barely contain our laughter!

 A short timeout was called to sort out the mess, refresh spoiled papers, and recover composure.  When the meeting resumed, the Badger’s MD took the initiative with ‘In programme delivery there are never really any guarantees, and you should know that. There are now two choices; either you persist in demanding guarantees from us – in which case we are leaving and we will see you in court – or we can have a sensible and mutually respectful discussion about solving problems. Which is it?’ Common sense prevailed. 

It was listening to a well-known journalist asking for guarantees while interviewing a politician about the COVID-19 pandemic that triggered this memory. There is, of course, a ritual gamesmanship played out between journalists and politicians in interviews, but it seems rather stupid for journalists to flog a dead horse by asking for guarantees when most of the general public can see that no one can provide any promise of certainty in this pandemic. One day a politician might just tell a journalist that if they want a guarantee then they should go see their doctor! Unlikely, but funny if it happened. The lesson from this is, of course, to tread very, very carefully if you are asked if you can guarantee something. Never answer with a clear cut, definitive ‘Yes’!

A dot on a magic quadrant…

A friend and ex-colleague Skyped for a chat over a virtual coffee. We touch base regularly to chew the fat, reminisce, and chat about whatever comes to mind in the world of IT.  As soon as we connected, the friend apologised for the background noise from their two children, both under five years old. The Badger chuckled. Working from home may be the new normal, but the presence of young kids does not make it easy! 

Until a year ago, the friend worked for a big corporate. However, they left to join the leadership team in a small, specialist, fast-growing, software company.  One of the topics that came up in our conversation was Gartner’s Magic Quadrant . The topic arose because their company has been debating whether they would benefit from appearing on one of Gartner’s widely used grids.  Gartner,  a research and advisory company founded in 1979, has  annual revenues of over ~$US 4 billion from its consultancy, publication, and conference activities. It is influential across the IT industry, but not without controversy –  see, for example, here. There have been lawsuits from smaller companies – see here, for example – but these have failed because the courts view Gartner’s quadrants as ‘opinion’.

The Badger was asked his opinion about whether the friend’s small but dynamic  company  would benefit from appearing on one of Gartner’s grids. The Badger’s reply centred on three things. Firstly, that had always been suspicious of companies that crowed about their Gartner Magic Quadrant positioning in their marketing!  Secondly, that Gartner is itself a very big business and not immune to pressures from its clients if it wanted to preserve the scale of its revenues. Many of its clients will also appear in its  Magic Quadrants.  Thirdly, the published grids are – as the courts seem to accept – opinions derived from Gartner’s own methodology. Alternative  opinions from much smaller analysts using different, but equally valid methodologies, exist.

The Badger told his friend that, in his opinion, they should not worry about Gartner grids. Instead, they should continue to concentrate on innovating their software offerings, delivering them on-time and profitably, and achieving high levels of client satisfaction.  After all, the real benefit to the company and the real value to the client lies  in having a reliable delivery engine room, not in being a dot on someone’s ‘opinion’ grid.

The Badger’s friend nodded, thanked him for his opinion, and said their internal discussions were moving in a similar direction, with only the marketing man an outlier. The friend’s three year old then arrived, climbed onto their parent’s knee call, waved at the Badger, and asked if they could have a laptop. Not yet, was the response. The Skype session then ended abruptly because the youngster had hit the power button.  Kids – just one of the perils of working at home!

It’s impossible to live without failing at something…

As the young graduate entered the room, the Badger sensed there was something on wrong. The Badger’s project was the youngster’s second assignment since joining the company after University and they were doing well, showing plenty of potential, and doing their work on time and to a high standard. As they pulled a chair away from the table to sit down, however, their demeanour and body language were broadcasting that there was a problem.  

‘What’s the problem?’, the Badger asked. The youngster was a little emotional and announced that completion of a key task given to them by their team leader would be delayed.  The task was on the critical path and so the whole project would be delayed.  The youngster’s team leader had insisted that they tell the Badger this personally. The Badger gently chuckled, mainly to ease the youngster’s upset, but also to mask his annoyance with the youngster’s team leader! The youngster, who had expected an angry outburst, relaxed, and a sensible discussion ensued during which it emerged that their failure to complete a work task on time coincided with the failure of a relationship in their private life. They were emotional because they felt that their failure would blight their career with the company forever. 

The Badger provided reassurance, told them that everyone fails, and mentioned something that Marilyn Monroe once said – ‘Just because you fail once doesn’t mean you’re gonna fail at everything’.  Quite why this quote came to mind remains a mystery to this day! Nevertheless, the youngster left in a better frame of mind, discussions took place with their team leader, and a way was found to keep the project on track. The Badger has seen the youngster a number of times as their career unfolded. Every time they have thanked him for the Marilyn Monroe quote because it made them realise they should never be afraid of failure. The Badger is very pleased to have been some help, especially as the youngster now successfully runs their own company! Their team leader at the time is still a team leader. 

Failure of one kind or another pervades much of what you can read online in today’s shrill, immediate, globally connected world. It would be easy to get depressed about the state of everything, but we should not despair! Instead, we should remember the wise words of the  Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling – ‘It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.’    These words are as true for governments, institutions, and corporations as they are for individuals.  Never let failure get you down or become your norm. Failure is something every organisation and every person encounters, and dealing with it makes you stronger and more likely to succeed in the future.   

Tech regulation; learn the lessons of the past…

The Badger has just arranged for a headstone to be erected at the grave of a relative who passed-away some years ago. The process started with using Google to research the different types of  headstone, suppliers, pricing, and graveyard regulations. Having done the research, the Badger engaged a provider and arrangements were made using to the providers preferred business methods, namely good old fashioned telephone calls, letters and forms by post, and cheques for payments. Everything went smoothly and the headstone is now in place.

There was only one thing that was an irritant in the whole process – the flood of content, adverts, and unsolicited marketing that appeared in the Badger’s news, email, and social media feeds following the Google search queries!  Receiving unsolicited and unwanted suggestions about funeral plans, care homes, equity release, life insurance, will writing, and donating to charity via a will was just tiresome and a reminder that the big  tech giants track and use our behavioural data. If there was a single, simple, ‘Big Red Button’ that turned all that stuff off, then the Badger would have pushed it!  

Recent news that a Digital Markets Unit is being formed under the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) (see here, here and here) to start limiting the power of big tech firms in the UK seemed like welcome news and a sign that politicians are starting to wake up.  In the USA, of course, Google is already in the cross-hairs of the US government for alleged anticompetitive abuses. At long last, governments around the world seem to be very slowly addressing regulation of the big tech giants which, let’s face it, are enormously powerful as well as being at the heart of the functioning of today’s modern society.

Sceptical about the need for regulation? Read the Financial Times article here. It points out that the 2008 banking crisis showed that careful oversight is needed when the public interest depends on businesses that exist to meet the needs of private capital providers. Before 2008, the approach of regulators to the way banks behaved was ‘principles based’, i.e. deliberately light touch. This relied too much on the banks’ abilities to govern themselves, and it failed. Similarities with the current approach with big tech are striking.  We should learn the lessons from the past! After all, isn’t that what the leaders of all corporations and governmental institutions are forever telling their employees and everyone else to do?

When speaking to the headstone provider, the Badger asked why – apart from a basic website – they hadn’t fully embraced the digital world. Simple, they answered. ‘We’ve stayed in business for over a century because we learn our lessons, one of which has been to always steer a cautious path through periods of innovation and change’. How very refreshing!     

If you can’t stand the heat…

The young Badger’s first assignments in the IT industry involved technical work and software development. Much was learned, and this fuelled an appetite for advancement and greater challenges, one of which was becoming a ‘divisional coordinator’ helping a Divisional Manager run every aspect of their line of business. This role significantly enhanced the Badger’s understanding of human nature, and the motivations and behaviours of those who get things done in an organisation.

Every fortnight the Divisional Manager and the Badger attended fortnightly operational reviews with the former’s boss, the Group Manager responsible for multiple Divisions.  These were uncompromisingly direct meeting! As a youngster, the Badger found sitting next to his boss as they were verbally chastised and interrogated about every minor issue an uncomfortable experience, even though the Badger’s boss took it in their stride.  

After one particularly vociferous and harsh session that involved raised voices,  the Divisional Manager took the young Badger to a local tea-room for a debrief.  Over tea and cake, the Badger asked why his boss stayed so calm in the face of these verbal whippings. He smiled, said it was because he understood his boss, and went on to make the following points:

  1. Leaders and managers are paid to make things happen. They had to be demanding or nothing would happen. Running any enterprise requires tough and demanding people to achieve real outcomes. Remember, a business is not a democracy.  
  2. Humans are not exempt from ‘the survival of the fittest’ inDarwin’s theory of evolution. People have different personalities and temperaments, but everyone has a hurtful streak. Successful leaders learn about  human behaviour and how to handle those they interface with using techniques appropriate to their strengths, weaknesses, and temperament. Sometimes it’s necessary to be ruthlessly brutal because some people require that to get the message!
  3. Remember the ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me’ mantra from school days because if you let being called names hurt you then whoever is calling you the names wins! Leaders never dwell on this. Instead, they stay focused on their job.  

The Badger was reminded of the above while watching a popular UK television series that has the public voting for a member of a group of minor celebrities to undergo an ordeal. The public had consistently voted for the same frightened individual and in doing so neatly illustrated the innate human capacity to pick on the perceived weakest in any group. Interestingly, it also illustrated that if the picked-on individual faced up to their demons then they won out and public attention focused elsewhere!   

Human nature hasn’t really changed over the decades. It’s as true today as it’s ever been that you need to toughen up to succeed in any environment.  President Harry S. Truman’s words from 75 years ago are still apt…’If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’.

Dubious data or dubious analysis leads to dubious decisions and distrust…

Data makes the modern world function. It’s at the heart of decision making by companies, governments, politicians, advisers, and experts of all kinds – and if it isn’t, then it should be!  Data, a valuable global resource, attracts a swarm of interest from those wishing to use it for purposes ranging from commercial gain to disinformation and propaganda. Whenever it’s presented to us, therefore, we should always wonder if the data itself is dubious, if the analysis of it is dubious, and if decisions based on these items are themselves dubious. Why? Because if we feel decisions are dubious, then disillusionment and distrust sets in and this is a really difficult trend to turn around.

A friend with a knack for uncovering ‘dodgy data’,  ‘dodgy analysis’, and hence ‘dodgy decisions’  on IT projects emailed recently lamenting how politicians and the scientists at their side could present some erroneous data in explaining the decision for England to enter a 2nd COVID lockdown.  They questioned whether the data, and the analysis of its consequences, ever got independently challenged or verified before being presented to the public? One would hope so, but it doesn’t feel like it, so we can hardly blame the media for making hay on the topic, or the public for becoming increasingly sceptical and distrustful.    

Dubious data, dubious analysis and dubious decisions are manifest everywhere in our modern, globally connected world.  The item here about a COVID-relevant study regarding Hydroxychloroquine just emphasises that ‘verification and assurance’ isn’t as strong as it should be with a last sentence saying ‘Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of it all is that the WHO and two entire countries halted trials of a potentially life-saving drug following the results of a single study that they failed to independently verify’.

Of course, honest mistakes happen, but the Badger senses that ‘verification and assurance’ is getting ever weaker, which is worrisome when every institution or corporation is becoming more creative in using data to push their own agenda, ideology, or bias.  Whenever information is presented to the general public making the case for an important decision, therefore, it has to be right that we can trust its efficacy and that it has been subjected to challenge using robust independent processes before being presented. 

In a world where misunderstanding, despondency, disillusionment, and distrust develops in seconds, we deserve to know that decisions conveyed by leaders are underpinned by sound data and analysis.  If excellent ‘verification and assurance’ functions are not embedded or truly effective in our institutions and corporations then distrust, disillusionment, and cynicism will become the baseline for our day to day lives. Surely we don’t want that? Perhaps it’s time that ‘verification and assurance functions’ got more attention from the media before, rather than after, key announcements?  Oh dear, perhaps bias has crept in here, after all the Badger turned from being an expert poacher into an expert ‘verification and assurance’ gamekeeper a number of times in his career…

In remembrance…and extended service contracts…

The Badger recently met his cousin, her husband, and their 8-year old daughter at the D-Day Museum on the seafront in Portsmouth – and yes, virus protocols were observed! We met outside by  LCT 7074, the newly installed landing craft that put 10 tanks on the Normandy beaches in 1944. It’s an awe-inspiring sight. We then visited the museum and ended with a cream tea in the museum’s café.

For us adults, the visit was a sobering reminder of why honouring the fallen on Remembrance Day is important. The 8-year old was mesmerised by what she saw and particularly liked the panto-like show the museum put on to give kids a taste of life during the Blitz.  When Mr Churchill asked them ‘will we ever surrender?’ all the kids jumped up and screamed ‘No’ at the top of their voices!  Every adult present glowed with pride.   

Afterwards, over a cream tea, the Badger’s cousin helped her daughter fill in a competition form, and her husband, who works in Service Delivery for a major outsource service provider, chatted about some of his work frustrations. He bemoaned how difficult it was to deliver a service without direct control over resources, perpetually having to apologise for something, and incessant pressure from his management to mitigate financial challenges. He was frustrated with the client for always taking credit when things went well but quickly pillorying the service provider when they didn’t. Apparently, his line management want to extend the duration of the contract to help mitigate financial stress, but the client isn’t keen. He said he felt permanently stressed!

The Badger commiserated and playfully said how pleased he was to have stepped off the corporate hamster wheel. The husband enquired about the Badger’s first reaction whenever he saw media announcements that an outsource or service contract had been extended.  The Badger replied that his reaction is always the same. First, to treat any press release with caution because none of the people making the announcement will be there for the duration! Second, if the extension is before having reached 50% of the original contract duration then the extension is probably some kind of ‘dispute resolution’. Third, the client and service provider are ‘kicking the can down the road’ to create additional time to fix some kind of underlying problem definitively.  The husband grinned and said cynical suspicion was always a good starting point!  

The Badger’s cousin intervened to change the subject and her daughter innocently asked if her Grandad had an iPad while growing up the 1940s. We all laughed. Her mother replied ‘No, he didn’t need one because, as you saw in the show, life is about more than just the internet and gadgets’.  Quite.  The little girl then asked what outsourcing was and if it explained why her Grandad was always grumpy like her father! None of us had an answer…

The truth is always elusive…

Any company that provides IT services has some contracts that have difficulties of one kind or another.  No organisation is perfect. The Badger’s lost track of how many times over the years he’s been asked by an irate CEO to independently ‘get to the truth’ of why a contract difficulty had exploded out of nowhere. Having lifted the lid on many such situations, the Badger has learned that the truth is always elusive.  Why is that? Because the way people behave, what they assert as fact, who they blame, poor record keeping, and internal politics normally make it impossible to get to a definitive and irrefutable truth, especially when time and money is a constraint.   

Last week the Badger received an unexpected call from a CEO. They wanted the Badger to independently establish the ‘absolute truth’ behind the conflicting messages they were getting from line management about difficulties on a sizeable project. The Badger politely declined the invitation. The CEO, not unexpectedly, was interested in why. The Badger merely told the CEO that ‘the truth is always elusive’ and if they didn’t have someone trusted to be independent and objective in their own organisation then they had bigger problems than just this project!  The CEO chuckled, took the point on board, and emailed later to say that someone from their inner team was investigating ‘to establish in what direction the pendulum of truth was pointing’.   

Shortly afterwards, the Badger – who has been keeping abreast of the US Presidential campaign via the media and the web – watched the Biden/Trump debate.  The Badger was both amused and horrified! The whole debacle seemed to personify the shrill, modern, antagonistic virtual world played out on the web in real-time, every hour or every day!  It was a depressing spectacle with getting to the truth definitely elusive, at least that’s how the Badger felt as just a normal citizen in a different nation with no axe to grind on how the USA appoints its leaders.

Afterwards, perhaps influence by despair, the Badger decided two things. First, that the internet/social media revolution of the last twenty years has made getting to the truth even more elusive than it always was. There is no truth on the internet. We must teach our children to think more deeply for themselves about everything they see or hear in their daily lives.  Second, the vitriolic debate provided enough evidence for the masses around the globe to wonder if the USA’s ‘leadership of the free world’ is still credible.

The Badger thought that China, in particular, would be having a giggle. Perhaps the song ‘Go West’ should be reissued as ‘Go East’? Hmm. That’s perhaps taking the rise of China too far, but even though the truth is always elusive there seems little doubt that things are rising in the East and setting in the West…

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should…

A client and their supplier were at loggerheads. The former was withholding payment of a large milestone payment and the latter was threatening to turn off IT systems they ran for the client unless payment was made. The impasse had rumbled on for some time with both parties using expensive lawyers to pore over a poor contract. The client asked the Badger for a completely independent view on what to do. A poisoned chalice, especially when and it was quickly apparent that uncompromising and intransigent personalities on both sides were at the heart of the problem.

A solution was found by facilitating awareness on both sides that ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’. The client was withholding payment and supplier threatening to turn off IT because they could, regardless of any contract, but neither was a sensible or ethical thing to do. Both parties eventually realised this. Ultimately the client paid the money, the supplier withdrew threats to turn off IT, personalities on both sides were changed, and lawyers were redirected from a litigation path into improving the poor contract. Things slowly normalised and the Badger was ultimately thanked for reminding everyone that ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ should never be forgotten when times are difficult.

The other day this phrase came to mind again when reading about a Russian company proposing to use microsatellites for celestial advertising in the night sky,  Estee Lauder making a product advert on the Internal Space Station (ISS), the winner of a proposed reality TV show getting a seat on the 2023 mission to the ISS, and  the impact on the night sky of Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellite constellation.  

Surely the commercialisation of Space illustrates not only human ingenuity and creativity, but also human stupidity! One of the joys of life is to step into a cloudless night and peer at the stars, just like our ancestors have done for thousands of years.  It’s doubtful that many of us really want that to be interfered with, but it seems inevitable that it will be.  We have a habit of slowly polluting or destroying whatever environment we touch – the ground, the sea, the air, and even the internet and social media – and the Badger finds it rather sad that the night sky is the next in line. 

Have our leaders considered ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ with regard to Space commercialisation and our night sky? No chance. Why? Well there may be a clue in the final lines of Monty Python’s ‘The Galaxy Song’ from the 1983 film ‘The Meaning of Life’:

So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth!

Quite!  A sentiment from 37 years ago that still resonates strongly today…

‘Discuss, decide, do’…life’s full of decisions…

Bah, humbug!  That was the Badger’s reaction after flicking through the television news channels the other morning.  The facts in the news were one thing, but the doom and complaint-laden analysis of interviewers and interviewees just emphasised that much should be taken with a pinch of salt!  It wasn’t a good start to the day.

But then the Badger’s phone rang. It was a ‘first-time’ Project Manager seeking advice from someone with ‘independent wisdom’ on the type of project they were running.  The Badger was flattered and pleased to help.  The first-timer was under significant pressure to hit key delivery milestones in the coming few weeks.  They admitted to being overwhelmed by the plethora of decisions they had to make and frustrated that delivery was at risk because of interminable, inconclusive discussions with their internal line masters.

It became clear that the first-timer felt that prior to every decision there needed to be discussions to achieve consensus. They were also fearful of making wrong decisions.  Fortunately, they had the maturity to chat about their situation and take input from someone completely independent.  The Badger simply conveyed the following four points:

  • Decision making happens in all facets of life. No one makes the right decision 100% of the time, and so – to borrow from Franklin D Roosevelt’s 1933 US Presidential Inauguration address – the only thing you have to fear in making a decision is fear itself. Never prevaricate, make a decision.
  • If you want to succeed as a Project Manager then recognise there’s a ‘Discuss, Decide, and Do’ cycle to everything you do, but exercise your authority and don’t allow the ‘Discuss’ element to overwhelm the timeline of this cycle.
  • Be brave. Cut through barriers and dithering and make your mark. Show your team, your line management and the client that you have a ‘buck stops here’ mindset. If you can’t then delivery-focused Project Management may not be for you.
  • There are always nay-sayers and grumblers, but most will never sit in your hot seat with your responsibilities. Spend more time preparing for the decisions of the future than listening to the opinions of others on the decisions of the past.

The first-timer went quiet for a moment and then asked ‘So what you’re really saying is that as Project manager I need to be single-minded, have a backbone, cut through the fog to make decisions, and realise that if I want my Project to deliver then it can’t be run as a democracy?’ Answer? Err, Yes, something like that!  

When the call ended the Badger had an optimistic sense that something latent in the first-timer’s psyche had been liberated.  Time will tell. The call also triggered the Badger to make a decision of his own – not to listen to the analysers and grumblers on television news. Because that’s the only way to start the day with optimism and an open mind…