A ‘man in a van’ and his drone…

If you believed the hype of five or so years ago, then commercial drones delivering the packages we buy online should be commonplace in the sky today. That clearly isn’t the case, and the downsizing of Amazon’s  Prime Air outfit in the UK makes you wonder if delivery to the doorstep by drones will ever happen.   There’s still technical, regulatory, and legal issues to be overcome. Regulatory matters are complex and never progress speedily, as this interesting article about drones in the US illustrates.    

Drones have been used commercially for surveys and aerial photography for many years, but in recent times there’s been a significant increase in the number of companies offering drone services and many assessments of the economic potential, see here, for example. However, few regular members of the public – including the Badger – have had dealings with someone using a drone for commercial purposes. That changed for the Badger last week.   

After heavy rain, lumps of mortar appeared on the patio at the back of the Badger’s home. They had fallen from the crown of the chimney. The chimney cowl was askew, and it looked likely to come tumbling down too. A local ‘man with a van’ who undertakes chimney repairs was contacted to provide an estimate for repairs. The man arrived in his Ford Transit with ladders strapped to its roof.  The Badger anticipated that he would use the ladders to get onto the roof, inspect the chimney, and then provide the worrying shake of the head and sucking of teeth that usually precedes being told the price for repair.  It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, when it wasn’t like that at all!

On arrival, the man slid the van’s side door open, took out a small drone, and expertly flew it up and around the chimney. In just a couple of minutes, we were both watching the captured video on the man’s laptop. The footage immediately raised the level of trust in the tradesman regarding the repair work needed because it removed any scope for ambiguity and embellishment. A competitive price was quickly agreed for a new cowl and re-cemented chimney crown.

The ‘man in a van’ said the drone was one of his key tools. It was quick to use, built trust with his potential customers because they could see the repairs necessary for themselves, and it meant that he climbed fewer ladders and roofs which lowered his risk of accidents and injury. He finds the drone so useful as a tool that he carries a spare one as a backup!  When a ‘man with a van’ says it’s a key tool of his trade then you know that we will definitely be seeing more and more drones used as tools in routine daily life.  Industrialised, coordinated, fleets of delivery drones, on the other hand, still seem a very long way off.

Hinkley Point C and the Marble Arch Mound…

The recent BBC television series ‘Building Britain’s Biggest Nuclear Power Station’ about the building of Hinkley Point C on the UK’s North Somerset coast was enthralling. Television cameras not only followed people building the station, but also gave an insight to the engineering, processes, professionalism, and diligent attention to detail that they follow at every step of the build. The Badger found the sections covering the ‘Go/No Go’ decisions for a) pouring nearly 1000 lorry-loads of the correct specification of concrete for the nuclear island foundations, and b) installing the first ring of the reactor containment building, impressive and reassuring!

Normally we see little of such readiness and decision-making processes on major programmes and during his career the Badger was involved in numerous post-mortems of programmes that suffered from poor Go/No-Go readiness and decision-making disciplines, especially with regard to opening up to ‘live’ operations with end users. A failed major programme activity or a failed introduction to use with end users can often be traced back to poor Go/No-Go professionalism with decisions based on poor status information, poor risk assessment, and commercial or political priorities. It is, therefore, reassuring to see that things are being done right with regard to every aspect of readiness with Hinkley Point C.

The recent opening of the Marble Arch Mound in London, however, is a different endeavour. It’s recent opening before it was ready not only led to some ribald laughter in the Badger household, but also lots of derision on social media and in the press – see here, here, and here, for example.   Westminster City Council’s ’s CEO must have felt highly embarrassed at having to apologise via a statement on the Mound’s website that it hadn’t been ready for opening to paying customers. The Badger knew little of the ‘The Mound’, a phrase that seems apt for a horror story, before the tsunami of recent coverage, and so he explored further in a more objective frame of mind.   

The motive for building the ‘The Mound’ was to get people back into the shops, theatres, and restaurants of London over the Summer, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a temporary structure costing ~£2m of council taxpayers money that’s only in place until January 2022. It apparently fails to deliver what was promised.  On absorbing its history, the Badger felt that while the motive was laudable, the concept of ‘The Mound’, the way it was marketed, and its delivery were likely flawed from the outset. The Badger’s conclusion? ‘The Mound’ is a reminder that not every idea is a good one, not every delivery meets expectations, and not every decision is the right one.  It’s also a reminder of human fallibility which is, of course, something which cannot be countenanced at Hinkley Point C where everything must be perfect.   

Priorities: Space commercialisation or mankind living in equilibrium with our planet?

The Badger’s always been open-minded, but on the back of the rah-rah about billionaire’s travelling to the edge of space, G.K Chesterton’s comment ‘Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out’ sprang to mind. It may be a step forwards for commercial space activities but with so many problems to solve here on earth, what’s the real benefit to mankind of billionaires puffing out their chests on becoming a space tourist? In fact, what’s the benefit to mankind of space tourism and the commercialisation of space, period?  If you have the luxury of unconstrained independent philosophical thought, then you get to the answer ‘not a lot’ quite quickly. After decades open-mindedly supporting space technology that helps us understand the universe and our home planet, the Badger finds himself questioning the wisdom of the modern ‘space race’ and space commercialisation.     

The modern space race is driven, in one form or another, by entities desiring ‘control and dominance’. There are dreams of harvesting valuable resources from other planets and of humans as a multi-planetary species, but it’s beginning to feel like mankind will have seriously declined on our home planet long before such dreams are realised in a way that brings benefit to the masses. It’s okay to have a vision and dreams, but when it was 1972 that the last person stood on the moon, and presence on the International Space Station since confirms that humans are biologically unsuited to being away from the home planet for lengthy periods, then there’s an obvious case to be made for focusing more on getting better equilibrium between mankind and our own planet than on space endeavours. Future astronauts might, apparently, be ‘gene-edited’ to overcome these biological issues, but that’s no benefit to mankind or our planet today when it really matters. (It could also mean that humans ultimately morph into being the intergalactic ‘plague of locust’ baddies that are often depicted in sci-fi series and movies. That’s not an attractive legacy for future generations).

Hats off to Messrs. Branson and Bezos for achieving their few minutes of weightlessness at the edge of space before returning safely to earth, but their money would be better spent helping mankind live in better equilibrium with the planet they briefly left.  After all, if your home starts to fall apart around you, most rational people will spend their money fixing it rather than buying an expensive luxury that does nothing to address the immediate problem.

With space debris already a growing problem, commercial satellite mega-constellations like Starlink already being considered as ‘pollutants’ of the night sky and disrupters of  astronomy, then perhaps it’s time to reprioritise away from space back to achieving  sustainable, equilibrium between mankind and it’s home planet. Perhaps the time has come not to be so open-minded about the vested interests of space commercialisation that our brains fall out.

Presentations; Long live making an impact presenting to physical audiences…

The Badger yawned while furtively browsing emails and newsfeeds on his smartphone. As he sat in the large audience at the annual company senior management conference, little attention was being paid to the speaker’s presentation. A playful dig in the ribs from an adjacent colleague prompted the Badger to pay more attention, even though many others were disengaged and using their digital devices too.  Anyone who’ve attended many gatherings of this type then you’ll recognise this dynamic. If there’s nothing in the speaker’s delivery or their sides that’s interesting or memorable then large tracts of the audience will disengage and take away little that leaves a lasting impression.   

A chance discussion with a young graduate recently made the Badger appreciate more not only his own diverse experience of giving presentations, but also just how much this diversity had instilled a natural awareness that engaging the audience is essential when presenting. It doesn’t matter if the subject matter is dry corporate messaging, scientific or technological, or business or project related, if the presenter doesn’t make an impression with the audience, then the presentation’s impact will be minimal.  This doesn’t mean that everyone has to be a showman! It just means understanding your audience, playing to the strengths of your personality when you speak, telling a story, using methods and techniques that keep your audience interested and engaged, and ‘reading the room’ and adapting in real-time when you speak.

The Badger’s first presentations, many years ago, were of scientific research papers to audiences that contained academics, experimentalists, and specialist business professionals, at national and international symposia. Over the years since then the Badger’s given many presentations in both intimate and massive venues to university students, IT sector project and programme teams, business unit gatherings, clients, industry conferences, and, yes, company senior leadership conferences.  There were some training courses along the way but learning the ways of holding an audience’s attention came mostly from being on his feet in front of the physical crowd. That’s why the Badger often uses humour, props, pauses, gestures, and demonstrations whenever he can because they not only grab the audience’s attention, but also create memorable talking points long after the presentation has ended.

When the Badger said this during the discussion with the youngster mentioned above, anxiety quickly spread across their face. Why? Because later in the summer they are presenting in a large auditorium to a sizeable physical audience. This fills them with dread, because they’ve only given presentations to virtual audiences using tools like Zoom since graduating. They’ll be fine with a physical audience if they focus on keeping them engaged. The adrenaline and buzz from ‘live performance’ in front of a physical crowd will get them through, whet their appetite for more, and provide personal development beyond that gained from their virtual world experience to date.    

Never take media content at face value…

The media industry is a powerful force in today’s world, ‘news’ is never quite what it seems, and youngsters should have better awareness of how it works by dipping into the BBC’s Bitesize on Media Studies, a free online resource that helps children in secondary education study for a GCSE in the subject. A key point this resource makes is that ‘organisations in the media industry produce content with the aim of making money from our consumption’.  It also makes the point that media producers are always seeking to grab our attention and to influence the way we think, our opinions, and the way we live our lives. Content, which we now tend to consume individually using computers, tablets, and smartphones, includes news which often triggers instantaneous, ill-considered, social media outcries.   

There’s always been a love-hate relationship between the media and businesses, governments, and politicians.  This latter group use the media when it suits them, and the media often challenges this group when it’s commercially attractive to do so. During his career, the Badger had some training and subsequent experience interfacing with the media, and he learned that there’s always a hunt for an angle and a story in every interaction.  The Badger often giggles when consuming today’s news because it’s easy to see what he was taught in media training played out by others. 

ITV’s  recent report about Amazon destroying unsold stock in one of its UK warehouses and sending things to landfill generated a giggle.  Their report was quickly repeated in, for example, the USA and Australia.  The Badger’s giggle was because Amazon’s response to ITV’s report, which rather predictably involved undercover filming and an ex-Amazon employee, was robust and played with a straight bat. It’s doing nothing illegal.  Its policy and priority is to resell, donate, recycle, or send items to energy recovery, and it says it’s untrue that unused stock is sent to landfill. Who do you believe? ITV, after all, is a commercial organisation with commercial motives, and the instant global spread of their story is likely to have generated income.

The Badger found himself wondering whether ITV – just another commercial organisation seeking profits for shareholders – is a valid scrutineer. He then giggled at the thought of the situation being reversed with Amazon doing undercover filming and investigations within ITV.  It would be fun to see not only social media predictably explode with ill-considered outrage, but also Amazon use the result to produce content distributable to consumers through its own services.  More seriously, however, given the pervasiveness of the media in every facet of life in our digital world, perhaps it’s time to make how the media industry really works a mandatory part of the educational curriculum. Our youngsters might then learn never to take the media content they consume at face value.  

Assume nothing, Believe no one, Challenge everything…

More years back than is sensible to think about, and while still in short trousers in the IT industry, metaphorically that is, the Badger was sent on the company’s in-house project management course.  In those days, project management courses for software and systems development were delivered by those from within the organisation whose day job was actually delivering systems.  The first hour of the course provided a nugget of wisdom that the Badger’s carried with him ever since. It came from the company’s Managing Director (MD) who gave a memorable opening address.   

As the course attendees settled down on the first day, the MD stood up, settled on the edge of a table, welcomed everyone, and then spoke eloquently without notes for forty minutes. Those present felt important when the MD told everyone they were humbled to be addressing people who not only delivered complex things for clients, but also made the real profits of the company and were the bedrock of the company’s ‘can deliver, will deliver, come what may’ reputation.  The MD went on to talk about their own experience as a project and then a business leader, emphasising that the best people in these roles had A, B, C, D, E built into their psyche. They explained this asAssume nothing, Believe no one, Challenge everything, Decide based on fact and data, Execute decisions to completion’. The MD urged his audience to remember this and to apply it in everything they did if they aspired to be the best project manager they could be.  

Assume nothing, believe no one, challenge everything…is at the heart of police, forensic, and any type of objective work requiring the analysis of information to make important decisions. The MD’s point was not that everyone should be a policeman and distrustful of everyone they meet, but that the best delivery and business leaders have these attributes built into their psyche even if they’re not conscious of it.

These attributes in the Badger’s own psyche were activated this week when an SMS message arrived purporting to be from IPSOS MORI, a well-known polling organisation.  It said it was following up a letter inviting the Badger to register his child for a COVID-19 test kit, and that this would help monitor infection rates for new variants. It also provided website details to register. The Badger quickly cycled through A to E and did the right thing – which did not entail complying with the instructions in the message! There had been no letter, there are no children in the Badger household, and IPSOS MORI has no reason to have the Badger’s contact details.  

The point of this tale is that in today’s online and instant communication world having A.B.C.D.E in your psyche isn’t just important in the professional world, project management, and business, it’s important to be in everyone’s psyche in order to stay safe and secure in daily life.   

To impress at an interview takes more than qualifications…

Well-established companies often cooperate with the careers or employment services functions of universities. Such liaisons can raise the company profile with students considering their career options at the end of their course, and also help with achieving annual graduate recruitment objectives. A comment by a friend’s daughter on a practice interview at the end of her degree course, reminded the Badger that he and his company’s Human Resources (HR) Director once participated in an ‘interview practice day’ for final year Information Technology students arranged through an established company/university liaison.  

The format was simple. The Badger and the HR Director jointly interviewed each student as if it were for a real job.  Each student had been told the week previously to approach the session as if they were really trying to get an offer of employment. A university staff member observed each interview and then met with the interviewers at the end of the day for an overall debrief.  Feedback to the students happened the following day.

It was an interesting day, and the diverse personalities, attitudes, and approaches of the students brought home that everyone is different! With a couple of exceptions, most did themselves proud. To the Badger’s surprise, most wore smart attire for their interviews. For a few, however, a smart appearance proved no protection against weaknesses exposed by the experienced and skilled interviewers.  

The most memorable interview was with a young man wearing combat trousers and a tee-shirt with ‘I’m the Boss’ emblazoned across the front. This young man was highly intelligent, academically gifted, articulate, domineering, and permanently in transmit-mode!   He evaded every question and spent the entire session telling the interviewers how successful he was academically and how incredibly successful he was going to be in the future. At the end of the session, he stared at his interviewers and pompously asked, ‘I’m going to be hugely successful, aren’t I?’   The HR Director winked at the Badger and simply replied with ‘Perhaps, but not with our company’. The university observer laughed out loud!  At the post-event debrief, it transpired that tutors were already worried that the young man’s personality would hold him back from achieving his full potential.  

The Badger looks back on that day fondly.  It was an example of mutually beneficial company/university cooperation. It was a reminder that students, just like people everywhere, are all different. Some were idealistic, some realistic, and some were just plain deluded, but that’s the way it’s always been through the generations. Finally, it was a reminder for students that to impress at an interview requires soft-skills, preparation, and not just academic qualifications. If you don’t prepare holistically for a real interview, then you’re wasting your time…and time is precious in today’s world.

Petulance in a mad world

In a world driven by immediacy, social media, instant news, and instant opinions, it’s still possible to relax serenely with an interesting book. That is, of course, if you have the personal discipline to concentrate without using a keyboard for a sensible period of time. The other day the Badger was lounging at home immersed in ‘A Good Ancestor’ by Roman Krznaric. The radio was on and the Badger’s baby grandson was on the floor at his feet playing with a set of keys. The calmness of the scene was, however, broken when the Badger’s wife tried to swap the keys for a toy. The toddler’s noisy eruption of petulance coincided with the song  It’s a Mad World’ playing on the radio. The Badger sighed; his concentration broken. In that moment, the book, the petulance, and the song seemed like an apt reminder of the petulant, self-centred, mad, mad world we live in!  

Petulance can be seen everywhere – on the street, on social media, in current affairs and politics, in journalism, in business and during our life at work. It is something we are all guilty of on occasion.  One memorable display the Badger has witnessed happened at the conference dinner of a company leadership event held in Washington D.C, USA. The dinner started with a tour of the Capitol building. This was followed by a group photograph on its steps, and then the meal itself in a nearby location. The entertainment at the end of the meal involved giving every person a musical instrument so that a compere could teach the assembled multitude to play a part in performing a tune that was the finale of the event.  The Chief Finance Officer (CFO) was given a tambourine and erupted with a spectacular display of petulance. There was foot-stamping, table-thumping, and yelling until they got what they wanted – a drum!  This public display of bad temper became the talking point in the bar at the end of the evening. The CFO’s reputation was damaged for a very long time.

Petulance is part of the human condition, but if you don’t recognise that, and you don’t control it at work, then you risk being labelled by your bosses and colleagues as ill-disciplined, unreliable, and temperamentally unfit for your role. Everyone gets asked to do things they don’t want to do at work, but if your reaction when this happens is mostly petulant then you should anticipate having a short career, at least with your current employer. If you want a long and successful career, then recognise that you have petulance and learn to manage it!  Petulance is rife and more visible than ever in today’s mad world, but that’s no excuse for adopting it as a norm in your life. The best people manage their petulance…and what the world needs more than ever today is for more of us to strive to be one of the best.

Beware of the downsides of the ‘Bandwagon Effect’…

‘If you act too fast and don’t think things through then your mistakes will be difficulties long into the future’.  This is what the Badger’s father would often say if he thought someone was acting with haste or being overly influenced by a popular bandwagon. Three things caught the eye this week that somewhat obtusely reminded the Badger of these words.

The first was the lecture, reported here and here, by Jeremy Fleming, Director of the UK’s GCHQ. He warned of a tech ‘moment of reckoning’ and the real risk that the West might no longer be able to supply the key technologies on which we rely. He used Smart Cities and their threat to security, privacy, and anonymity, to illustrate his point. He also pointed out that it was decisions taken a decade ago that has meant the West has few companies able to supply the latest key technology components underlying 5G.

The second was English football’s announcement that it will boycott social media over the coming weekend in a protest over online abuse. Social media is pervasive and has been a concern to many about the voice it gives to the many undesirable aspects of human behaviour for a long time.

The third was the ad tracking spat between Apple and Facebook caused by the imminent arrival of Apple’s IOS 14.5 operating system which bakes privacy into its systems and could significantly damage Facebook’s ad network earnings.  This vitriolic locking of horns by two of the digital world’s money-making behemoths shines another light behind the scenes on how they make money from us all.    

So, why did these things remind the Badger of his father’s words? Because in a small way they are all a manifestation of the downside of the ‘bandwagon effect’ which has spurred the digital world on over recent decades.  Social psychology tells us that people tend to align their beliefs and behaviour with those of a group, and this has certainly been evident with the growth of big tech and social media companies over the last 20 years.  When people see others adopt a product, service, or technology, then they think it must be good – or at least acceptable – and so they jump on the bandwagon!  Even IT outsourcing and offshoring have not been immune to the effect. When jumping on a bandwagon, the downsides of doing so emerge much, much later. One way or another, the three items that caught the Badger’s eye illustrate this point and also the dangers of having acted too fast years ago without thinking things through properly.  

Today’s younger generations are not immune to the ‘bandwagon effect’, which is why the Badger takes every opportunity to echo his father’s words. They should learn lessons from the past and especially that it is often perilous to act fast because mistakes will emerge long into the future and not be correctable.     

Changing of the guard…

A chance meeting with a frustrated young manager recently led to an interesting discussion about the ‘changing of the guard’ at the company where they work. Their company has been acquired by a much larger one. Apparently, it was a strategic purchase that provides the new owners with lots of opportunity to ‘maximise synergies and improve efficiency’’. Hmm, the Badger immediately thought having lived through this kind of thing several times. The youngster was frustrated because the acquiring company had injected new, inexperienced management whose dominant priority seemed to be procedural and administrative rather than ‘business’.  

The youngster was irritated that the ‘changing of the guard’ had led to reporting to others of similar age who were opinionated, procedural, and intransigent, but fundamentally lacking in knowledge, relevant expertise, and experience. The youngster felt ignored and belittled. The Badger advised calm, objectivity, and not to rock the boat in the short term, but to have game plan to look after their personal interests if things were not really going to work out. The youngster had one and was already executing it!

‘Changing of the guard’, of course, happens all the time in business and wider life. It is a perpetual reality. It does not, however, always put the right people in the right positions, nor does it mean that better decisions will be made. As recent items from City A.M and the IET highlight, we are in the throes of ‘changing of the guard’  today, with millennials – broadly those under 40 – beginning to take  the leadership helm in business and across society. Millennials are wholly digital-native, and have attitudes, expectations, beliefs, and an impatience to redefine the status quo that has been shaped by ‘information age’ technology, the impact of the 2008/9 financial crash, and the COVID-19 pandemic. As they progressively take the helm, it is safe to assume that they will focus on addressing their complaints about the situations left by preceding generations.     

But will things be better in their hands? With millennials often labelled as volatile, fickle, easily offended, over-emotional, work-shy and dominated by social media, it is far from a certainty. Every generation thinks they know best, and every generation makes mistakes which the next one complains about. It will be no different for millennials! Reading the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Risk Report highlights soberingly that we need the world to improve in the hands of the millennials, but evidence that it will is sparse so far. We need our millennial generation of leaders to be focused, resolute, have a strong work ethic, and to take real responsibility and accountability because ‘changing of the guard’ to a cadre of over-emotional, unrealistic, handwringers will just make matters worse. It is time for millennials to step up and really show that the labels used to describe their generation in the past are wrong.