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.

Improve team spirit and teamwork – deploy a brick!

An old friend is a civil engineer in Hong Kong. They left the UK years ago, jumping at an opportunity to live and work where their martial arts movie idol – Bruce Lee – grew up. Bruce Lee died young but, as the Badger’s friend often tells him, he left many nuggets of wisdom, including ’Instead of buying your children all the things you never had, you should teach them all the things you were never taught. Material wears out but knowledge stays’.  

Whenever Hong Kong hits the headlines, the Badger is reminded of the last boozy meeting with his friend in the UK. It included a discussion about bricks!  Bricks came to fore again this week when a young team leader running defect fixing, build, and regression testing for a large, complex, software system called. They were seeking inspiration because their large team was struggling with a sizeable defect backlog, and frequent fix, build, and regression test failures. Team members were working more as a collection of individuals rather than as a team with a strong team spirit and common purpose.  Paid overtime and a bonus had been introduced, but to little effect. Did the Badger have any suggestions? ‘Yes. Introduce a brick!’

The team leader, taken aback, wanted an explanation and the Badger recounted that he had overcome the same problem by awarding a house brick to someone on the team at the end of each week! The brick was given to the person responsible for something within the team’s overall control that had failed. Commonly, for example, this was for defect fixes that had either not in fact fixed the defect or had introduced other problems. Majority voting by all team members determined who received the brick which had to be displayed prominently on the recipient’s desk.  The ignominy of being awarded the brick proved hugely beneficial to improving individual performance, team spirit, quality, overall teamwork, and progress. Recipients were always reluctant to explain why there was brick on their desk, especially to passing management and visitors!  Over time, the brick encouraged individuals to ask for help from colleagues and it brought some levity to the grind of relentless routine and pressure. At the end of the project, the brick was mounted on a wooden plinth and presented to the person who was top of the recipient league table!  

The team leader chuckled and realised that financial incentives are not a panacea. They work best if coupled with creative ways of encouraging the human behaviours that maximise team spirit and teamwork.   Techniques like the brick work even when financial incentives are unaffordable which is why good delivery leaders have things like this in their arsenal of tools.

The Badger, as per Bruce Lee’s point above, feels not only that he has passed some knowledge on, but also that his civil engineer friend would be very happy to know that bricks can help in the production of software!

Meetings and muppets…

One of the Badger’s bosses from years ago sadly died recently, taken way too soon by COVID-19. On hearing the news, a memory of his boss chairing a large meeting of business and functional leaders quickly came to the fore. The Badger’s boss, someone whose external visage – shall we say – masked an intellect and capability that was second to none, tired of the vacuous hand waving and grand-standing of one of the meeting attendees and interjected with ‘I’m beginning to wonder what muppet appointed you when I hear rubbish like this’. The hand waver immediately responded with ‘Actually, it was you that appointed me!’  The Badger’s boss gave a wry smile and said, ‘Well I must have had a Fozzie Bear moment, which is something I will rectify if you continue being the Swedish Chef’. Everyone giggled and the meeting got back on track.

Later that day, over small talk at a coffee point, the Badger’s boss playfully told him that everyone in meetings considers themselves to be better and more deserving than others present, and that one or more of the attendees are muppets! The boss went on to say that people also sit there wondering how someone less capable than themselves could have been appointed to an important position. The boss advised the Badger to remember these points when attending meetings, to consciously learn about human behaviour, and to use this understanding for advantage whenever you can.

The Badger has indeed sat through meetings over the years wondering how he could be surrounded by muppets and how they could have got to where they were in their careers with such obvious flaws!  Many of you have probably done the same. In the real world of organisations, of course, it is not always about how good you are at your job, your knowledge, or your experience that gets you into a key position, it is often how you play internal politics, who you know, and  how much energy you put into looking good rather than doing a good job. This can be very frustrating, but it is a fact of life and also of human behaviour.  

The Badger’s boss imparted one final point of wisdom before leaving the coffee point, namely, that if you are sitting in a meeting thinking that others are muppets and undeserving of their position, then you must remember that they are thinking exactly the same about you!  The boss looked the Badger in the eye, grinned broadly, and said, ‘In meetings, your career, and life, you need to manage the muppets before they manage you’.  The boss, in an action not dissimilar to the Swedish Chef, then poured coffee down the front of their suit jacket!  The Badger will remember them not only for their wisdom and sound advice, but also because they were never a muppet.  

Think before you write, never write before you think…

Last weekend, Sonja McLaughlan – a reporter for BBC Sport – was hit with a barrage of abuse on Twitter for her interviews following the England-Wales Rugby international – see here and here.  The BBC, and others, rightly defended her and have also pointed out  that ‘abuse for doing your job is not OK’.  This struck a chord with the Badger because last week he was horrified to see many abusive and defamatory comments appear on a social media platform in response to a post applauding Chris Whitty – the UK’s Chief Medical Officer – for his work during the pandemic.  That social media platform was not Facebook.  Nor was it Twitter. It was LinkedIn.

The Badger, who is always careful about what he contributes on social media platforms, decided to conduct an experiment. He posted a comment to the LinkedIn Chris Whitty thread simply pointing out that it was a sad day for society and LinkedIn itself when abusive and defamatory comments are made about a man who is just doing his job!  The comment triggered a response suggesting that the vast majority agreed, but it also triggered a higher ‘rant return’ than the Badger expected!  ‘Welcome to your professional community’ is the strapline on the landing page to login to LinkedIn on the web. The word ‘professional’ implies a community that upholds standards and respect. We should remember this when contributing on this platform if we want to preserve its value.    

Everyone, of course, is entitled to air their opinions, but the Badger this should be done respectfully and never in an abusive or defamatory manner. Social media platforms in general have become part of the personal critical infrastructure of many people, but they cause enormous problems in the realms of proliferating hate, manipulation, misinformation, and so on.   Trolling is everywhere, and, as the Center for Countering Digital Hate has neatly summarised, society faces many challenges in the online world.  Simon Jenkins  recent Guardian article entitled ‘Chris Whitty’s abuse is a symptom of social media out of control’  also makes many points about social media that are hard to disagree with. When it is not okay to abuse footballers on the football field, to abuse a colleague in the workplace, to be discriminatory, to write salacious things that are unlawful in newspapers, why do we tolerate the opposite on social media platforms?  The answer is simple; we shouldn’t.  Free speech – which existed in Western democracies way before the advent of social media platforms – is not an argument for the rampant abuse and the defamation of anyone.

The key word in LinkedIn’s ‘Welcome to your professional community’  is professional. If you cannot express your contributions and opinions respectfully then it rather suggests that you, and possibly the company you represent, are part of the problem. Think before you write, never write before you think!   

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!