Hearing is not Listening…

When the Badger was a teenager, his parents said he suffered from ‘selective hearing’ because of a tendency to ignore things he didn’t want to acknowledge. The Badger’s ‘selective hearing’ was not a physical or mental condition! All the words spoken were actually heard, but the Badger’s mind simply chose not to acknowledge what was being said. As he matured, the Badger soon learned the difference between hearing and listening, and that listening was a crucial ‘soft’ skill in life and a career.

Hearing and listening are different, as highlighted neatly here. Hearing is a sense. It happens when sound hits our eardrums and is processed in our brain. Listening, on the other hand, is a conscious action to give attention to what is being said. It goes beyond just hearing the sound of words. The world needs good listeners, but, sadly, not everyone is a good listener.

Many years ago, the Badger was tasked with sorting out a major systems and software project providing the crucial control system for a specialist manufacturing process. The end client was building a new facility for the manufacturing process and a large US engineering organisation was the prime contractor for the whole endeavour. The IT systems were seriously late and delaying the entire programme of works. The Badger, his boss, and his boss’s boss were summoned to a meeting with the prime contractor’s general manager to explain the actions we were taking. It was a memorable meeting!

The general manager, a civil engineer with no real appreciation of IT or software, had marshalled a team of 20 people to hear what we were doing to stem our project delays. The Badger explained comprehensively, but the subsequent Q&A culminating in the general manager saying ‘If I want to paint this facility faster, I get 50 extra painters to start on Monday. Why aren’t you getting 50 extra programmers to start on Monday?’ The Badger answered and a tirade about the importance of avoiding delay ensued from the general manager who ended by shouting ‘You are not hearing me. Get more programmers for Monday!

The Badger’s boss’s boss calmly said ‘We are hearing you. But you are not listening to us, which I find surprising given your seniority’. The general manager was flummoxed. We left the meeting. That moment cemented the importance of listening in the Badger’s psyche forever.

So, if you are starting out on your career in today’s tech dominated world, don’t neglect developing and honing good listening skills. They help you to make better decisions at home and work, and help you to remain objective and rational in a world full of ‘hearsay’ and ‘selective hearing’. Better listening is what we should all do. If your listening skills are below par, then it’s time to do something about it.

What’s the purpose of this meeting and is it necessary?

When President Trump suggested over the weekend that his daily coronavirus briefings are no longer ‘worth the effort’ the Badger laughed. Why? Not because Mr Trump’s a professional comedian, or because the Badger is particularly a supporter or opponent of the President, but because he asked what many leaders and managers in business – regardless of how well they are trained – say too infrequently, namely ‘What’s the purpose of this meeting and is it necessary?’

Meetings are, of course, an important part of the drumbeat and fabric of most organisations. But, notwithstanding the passage of time since the article here was written in 1996 and the massive advances in technology since then, has anything really changed when it comes to the people and meetings? Most leaders and managers would like to think so, but the Badger’s not so sure. Lots of training courses on how to focus, organise, run and behave at meetings have existed for years, but it still seems that the question ‘What’s the purpose of this meeting and is it necessary?’ doesn’t get asked as frequently as it should.

The Badger learned many things about meetings over the years, and President Trump’s comment brought three of those learning points immediately to the fore.

The first was that the more senior you are, then the more time you spend in meetings and the less time you spend doing something that is personally productive. Second was that the regular monthly and/or quarterly reviews that project, programme, line and executive leaders will recognise as part of the operational drumbeat in most organisations are about gamesmanship! Those being reviewed try to focus attention on what they know and issues that are being addressed with clear action plans and remain tight-lipped on growing worries or issues which are currently unquantified. The reviewers know this and try to expose the answer to the question ‘What do they know that I don’t, and what should they be doing that they aren’t?’ The Badger’s been both sides of the table many times! Of course, policies in organisations encourage openness but that’s rarely the case in practice because meetings involve people, and people have egos, personal motives and individual agendas to feed.

And the third learning point? Simply the importance of systematically and repeatedly asking the question ‘What is the purpose of this meeting and is it necessary?’ If the answer is confused or unpersuasive, then your time is normally better spent doing something else. So regardless of the fact that President Trump might align with the same point, the Badger’s ‘simple knowledge, simply conveyed’ advice is always ask the question ‘What is the purpose of this meeting and is it necessary?’ and take action appropriate for the answer you get…

From OneWeb to Hydrogen Fuel Cells…

When OneWeb, a company aiming to bring connectivity to everyone everywhere using an enormous constellation of Low-Earth Orbiting satellites, announced it was filing for bankruptcy the Badger was unsurprised. Why? Because it always felt that the business case was somewhat dubious. Investors now seem to have decided likewise and have ‘drawn stumps’ – to use a cricket metaphor. Others closer to the space industry than the Badger also seem unsurprised by what’s happened – see here for example. It’s sad, of course for everyone working for OneWeb, but in the end this a simple reminder that viable technology isn’t a guarantee of business success. Business is about the juxtaposition of risk and commercial gain, and stakeholders rarely flinch from hard business decisions when the two are out of kilter.

OneWeb cited market and financial turbulence related to the COVID-19 as a factor in failing to attract further funding. With this in his mind, the Badger found himself musing on the combination of technology and business in the post-pandemic world while he walked down the middle of an empty road getting exercise in line with the UK pandemic guidance. The complete absence of traffic on the normally hectic road plus a news item about an advance in materials significant for hydrogen fuel cells, triggered thoughts about whether we will see changes in investment priorities when it comes to vehicular technology after the pandemic is over.

Why would there be, you may ask? Because if you holistically look at, for example, the Royal Society’s briefing on options for producing low-carbon hydrogen at scale, real world experience of using electric and hydrogen fuelled vehicles (e.g. see here), and the relatively slow take up of electric vehicles powered by batteries, then you realise this kind of ‘material’ breakthrough should create an even more enticing investment and business opportunity for vehicle manufacturers and fossil fuel companies (who produce hydrogen) alike. The Badger, whose early roots were in materials technology, senses that the real scientific and engineering advances that could flow from the news item will significantly boost the business case for adopting hydrogen fuel cells for transportation and, accordingly, we will see business investment in this arena rise significantly in the coming years.

By the time the Badger had finished walking down the middle of the road, he had decided that everyone is more likely to be driving cars powered by a hydrogen fuel cell by the end of the decade than to have embraced driverless cars on public roads. (Tomorrow’s exercise might, of course, modify this conclusion!) As OneWeb shows, technology doesn’t mean business success, but any company that has bet the farm on the dominance of battery-powered vehicles should watch out, because hydrogen fuel cells are definitely coming along to eat your lunch…

The 6 Cs – Control, Care, Commerce, Community, Consumption & Communications

Long days of pandemic-related lockdown do strange things to your thoughts. We obviously think about our personal circumstances and fears, but simple things can trigger thoughts that can take you to unexpected conclusions. The Badger, for example, has noticed that simple observations trigger thoughts that meander to a conclusion that barely relates to the observation itself, as illustrated below.

The Badger recently noticed his wife’s growing irritation with mainstream TV News. She increasingly asserts ‘TV News has more dinner party chat dressed as analysis, complainers and people with an axe to grind, spin, and scaremongering speculation than straightforward factual news.’ Hmm. ‘A Story’ is what drives journalists, which in today’s instant communication era suggests that no TV broadcasters, print or social media/internet platforms can really provide reliable, factual, spin-free news.

Anyway, that’s a digression, because observing the wife’s rising irritation triggered the Badger to think about what he would do if he were leader of a country when the current crisis has abated! The Badger cogitated under a fruit tree in full blossom over a couple of cups of coffee. The answer – to initiate an independent ‘lessons learned’ review to identify improvements and inform the country’s future policies and direction – soon emerged.

The review would cover six pillars:

  •  Control – What improvements in command, control and logistics mechanisms are needed to be better prepared for this type of future crisis?
  • Care – What are the lessons for the country health and social care system and how can weaknesses be addressed in an economically viable way?
  • Commerce – What are the economic and operational lessons for Public Services and Business? What do these mean for future workforce planning, productivity, business activities, financial prudence, and supply chain policy?
  • Community – How has the crisis changed social attitudes, behaviours and the priorities and demands of the general public? How has the public mood changed regarding nationalism versus internationalism and globalisation? How does this compare between demographics and with other countries?
  • Consumption – What have consumers and businesses learned about what their demand for goods, commodities, and services has on life, the climate, the environment, and sustainability? What impact will greater consumer enlightenment have on country priorities and wealth?
  • Communications – What lessons emerge from crisis communication direct from government to the general public? What can change to reduce misinformation in printed, broadcast, and internet-based media, and on social media platforms? How have public attitudes to regulation and privacy changed due to the pandemic?

Tech crosses all 6 pillars. It has mostly been a saviour in this crisis, especially when you realise that if this pandemic had happened 10 to 15 years ago when tech was less mature, the impact on our lives would have been orders of magnitude worse.

So, there you have it. A simple observation can trigger an unexpected train of thought. Fortunately, the Badger’s not a country leader. One thing’s certain, however. The world has changed and things really can’t be same as they were. Our leaders must know that?

Crisis! A time that always exposes ‘True Colours’…

A week ago, on a sunny UK Spring day, the Badger sat in his conservatory reflecting on how COVID-19 has emptied the streets and impacted lives and livelihoods. The birds and creamy yellow clumps of self-seeded polyanthus in the garden provided a reminder of nature’s glory as the Badger thought about the pressures on those leading the response to the pandemic. The Badger knows from coordinating his employer’s business continuity responses to events like the 7th July 2005 London terror attacks and the 2010 volcanic ash clouds from Iceland, that decisions must be taken and a course of action set even if the information available is conflicting or fuzzy. Some will always challenge the decisions and course of action, but the Badger learned that it’s important not to become distracted or defensive. Proper lessons to be learned come from a proper post-crisis review in calmer times.

As the Badger cogitated, Cyndi Lauper’s song ‘True Colours’ came on the radio. The ‘true colours’ idiom comes from the 18th century when ships showed their country flag (‘colours’) when going into battle. Many showed a flag of a different country to make opponents think they were friendly, only to show their real flag (‘true colours’) as they attacked. The song reminded the Badger that, in his experience, the ‘true colours’ of leaders, business executives, suppliers, clients, and staff quickly move into plain sight during a business continuity crisis, sometimes producing unexpected surprises. As leaders tackle COVID-19, the Badger thinks ‘true colours’ are being exposed everywhere and the picture they paint of the modern world isn’t pretty.

The Badger decided that a few points captured his opinion on what the pandemic has exposed about the world so far, namely:

  • Modern tech is both a help and a hinderance, but without it and the resilient IT supporting institutions, businesses, individuals and economic activity, things would be apocalyptic.
  • When government, businesses, and people come together to ‘do the right thing’ awesome things of complexity and scale can be achieved in a short time.
    • In the digital age people are more profligate, selfish, impatient and prone to panic than they were 20 years ago.
  • Doctors, nurses, health care and emergency service workers do what we have always known they do – selflessly put patients first.
  • Governmental chief scientific and medical advisers are excellent, clear, and credible (at least in the UK). It is scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians who are at the heart of finding solutions to our problems.
  • Which news sources do you trust? Social media and broadcast news appears to dwell on negatives, spin, and those who want to complain about something. Journalists need stories not necessarily facts, but at times like this balance and trustworthiness rather than bias is crucial.
  • Life will be different when the pandemic is over. Public tolerance of globalisation, over-reliance on global supply chains, inaction on climate change, executive excess, businesses that operate with little prudence, and any resistance to ‘working from home’ for sections of society is at a low ebb and will force the hand of politicians over the coming years.

That was a week ago. Would the Badger change anything after another week of lockdown? No. Why? Because the ‘true colours’ of the pre-COVID-19 world are even more evident on a daily basis. Things must change…

Quick to blame or complain, slow to praise…

If you’ve ever been asked to take on the responsibility for fixing a failing project, programme, or service delivery that’s causing serious relationship, financial, reputation or business difficulties, then you’ll know that when you take the reins lots of people will tell you about the bad things, who’s to blame, and what should have happened but didn’t. You’ll also know that far fewer people will tell you about the good things, the good people, and their good ideas to improve matters. There are always good things! They are, however, swamped by a fog of grumbles, complaints, politics and blame narratives! An experienced leader knows about this imbalance and ensures that ‘balance is restored’ by putting the right people with the right attitude in the right place to turn failure into success. After all, it’s a fully committed, positive and aligned team that really turns things around, not the person at the top!

Have you ever wondered why people tend to complain, blame, and exude negativity more than praise and positivity? The answer lies in the physiological wiring of the brain. Put simply, the emotional part of the brain processes ‘bad events’ whereas the rational part processes ‘good events. The former works much faster than the latter, which means we assign fault and blame quickly and frequently but think long and hard before giving praise. Fascinating stuff!

What triggered the Badger to think about this? Two recent events that made the Badger feel that today’s tech-dependent society has lost all sense of balance, objectivity, and community. Both events related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first was a conversation with friends that concluded that ‘Quick to blame or complain, slow to praise’ and negativity has pervaded every facet of journalism, the broadcast media, and social media, and that ‘blame and complain’ has more noticeably become the norm in society as digital tech has boomed over the last twenty years.

The second was in the local supermarket whose shelves and frozen food cabinets were largely empty due to panic buying. Behind the Badger at the checkout, two people proudly crowed about how they had each bought two extra freezers online ‘just in case’, They then bitterly complained to a store worker about the empty shelves and blamed the supermarket chain for incompetence. They then blamed a different local supermarket chain for not having what they wanted either, and the UK and Chinese governments for letting all this happen!

The checkout operator winked. ’I think it’s just the way their brains work. One has a cough so you might not want to serve them’, the Badger said in response. The checkout queue fell silent! The Badger left the store certain that it’s time for our tech-centric society to concentrate more on praise and positivity than blame and complain. That would, however, require a rewiring of our brains.

There’s no ‘Smart Living’ without ‘Smart Working’…

‘Smart working’ has existed in the tech and IT industries for years. With pandemic coronavirus, many companies in many sectors will be severely disadvantage if they don’t have the capability! ‘Smart Working’ has pros and cons, but the pros dominate by far in today’s world of work. A software engineer neighbour, for example, sees nothing but benefit from ‘Smart Working’. He works permanently from home and travels just one day each week to his employer’s office or that of a client. His deadlines are the same as being in the office, but he feels much more productive, less stressed, and has a better work-life balance compared with the grind of a daily commute. He feels strongly that ‘Smart Working’ helps his carbon footprint, his employer’s carbon footprint, reduce costs for everyone, and makes handling crises like coronavirus easier. His employer trusts him not to abuse working this way – a trust he repays with unwavering loyalty. He says he’ll never go back to working permanently in an employer’s office!

The Badger embraced ‘Smart Working’ anytime, anyplace, anywhere years ago. Since leaving the corporate hamster wheel, however, the Badger’s feeling that ‘Smart Working’ will soon be the permanent way of working has strengthened. Coronavirus will surely reinforce that the days white-collar-workers must travel to and work in offices of their employer or a client are coming to an end. We’ll always work in offices, you might say! After all, Aristotle pointed out that we are social animals that need workplace interactions. The Badger’s seen some truth in this over the years, but for today’s younger tech natives the social interactions aspects of the workplace are gravitating faster and faster to the virtual world as technology advances.

It seems likely that pandemic coronavirus, environment/climate change, and heightened public awareness of the delicacy of global supply chains will drive faster change in the way we live our lives. Society could be at a turning point with ‘Smart Living’ becoming a much more dominant part of our psyche and behaviour. This will happen faster if employers henceforth adopt ‘Smart Working’ from home as the norm. When the current economic turmoil triggered by oil and coronavirus abates, political and business leaders will realise attitudes on how people should work in order to mitigate risk in the modern global world must change. ‘Smart Working’ and ‘Smart Living’ should go hand in hand. Without the former there can be no latter.

So, now’s the time to press the case for ‘Smart Working’ if your employer doesn’t currently have it. Remember that ‘Smart Living’ is more about the way you think, behave and take action than it is about the Internet of Things and the interconnectivity of gadgets. As Mr Spock would say, ‘It’s only logical that ‘Smart Working’ has to be a core component of ‘Smart Living’ and we need both to address our problems’.

Time for ‘manned’ Space missions to be curtailed?

It’s 30 years since the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ picture of Earth taken by Voyager 1 as it left our solar system. When reading about it, see here and here, the Badger was struck by the obvious fragility of our existence on a planet that’s barely a speck of dust in the Universe!

The picture caused the Badger to if our Space ambitions align with the interests of human life and our planet. The oversight of projects involving very talented ‘Space techies’ developing software for interplanetary missions, earth observation, and satellite control featured many times during the Badger’s career, and it’s pictures like the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ that are good reminders to stay realistic about ‘Space – the final frontier’. It’s right that we should have ambitions, dreams, and scientific knowledge pertinent to Space, but it’s also right to regularly wonder if we have our priorities right. This decade sees US astronauts return to the Moon and a raft of other missions led by different countries and commercial organisations. There’s a view that Space is the new ‘Wild West’ and that ‘Space has shifted from a place purely to ‘go’ to a place to do business’. Hard to disagree! The global Space market will double to ~£400 billion by 2030, so this decade could see Space really become the ‘Wild West’ given it’s no longer the preserve of just governmental agencies but of private companies jockeying for position and commercial advantage as well.

Staring at the ‘Pale Blue Dot’, the Badger cogitated on our Space priorities given the importance of preserving life and our speck of dust in the Universe. After doing some reading, perusing recent items like those here, here, and here, and some research on how Space impacts our bodies, the Badger quickly formed an opinion. Unmanned Space exploration makes sense and helps the scientific and engineering advancement needed to benefit human life and our planet, but manned Space exploration is an expensive holy grail because biologically and psychologically we are designed for Earth and do not adapt well to extended periods in Space. What’s the point in putting humans in Space at vast expense when robots are better suited to the hostile environment? As the video here concludes, using robots will tell us more about our planet and the solar system, whereas using astronauts tells will tell us mostly about ourselves.

Has the time come for man to curtail manned Space exploration and use the money for urgent human life and on-Earth planet sustainability initiatives instead? The Badger thinks ‘probably’. Just an opinion…you should have one too! Surely The sustainability of humans on our ‘Pale Blue Dot’ is much more important to us, our children, and our grandchildren than man in Space will ever be. After all, a Wild West in Space in the coming years is no use to anyone if we, or our speck of dust, disappear.

A New Decade Beckons(2)…Bumble Bees and Satellite Constellations!

On Christmas Day the Badger and his wife, supping mid-morning coffee while chatting about the mild weather, saw a Bumble Bee fly past the kitchen window and land on a daisy flower in the garden. We had never seen a big fat Bumble Bee in the garden on Christmas Day before! Previous Christmases have had bleaker weather, often colder with heavy frosts and occasionally snow. Indeed, a decade ago the weather was truly bleak at Christmas and since then we have noticed that the festive season’s weather getting noticeably milder. We decided that this year’s Bumble Bee sighting must be (unscientific) evidence of climate change.

As we finished our coffees, we were joined by another family member who seemed thoughtful as they watched the lone Bumble Bee fly off into the next garden. We all speculated what we would see if the scene was replayed in Christmas 2029, and the family member made an unexpected prediction, namely that in 2029 there would be lots more native flowers in bloom at Christmas but no sign of any Bumble Bees! They also predicted that there would be more OneWeb and Starlink satellites orbiting the Earth at Christmas 2029 than Bumble Bee sightings in our garden for the whole year! Hmm. The Badger asked for some rationale.

A discussion ensued, and – put simply – the underpinning rationale seemed to be the following. Firstly, a view that technology, the internet, and instant information is the utility of modern life, that it has destroyed privacy, and that the OneWeb and Starlink satellite constellations merely provide a ‘Phase 2’ reinforcement of these same points! Secondly, a belief that over the last decade our global leaders have pandered to vested interests and failed to act on any of the big issues that affect life on our planet. Thirdly, that this will not change in the next decade. And finally, a belief that political, commercial and vested interests always win out over what really matters to the lives of the vast majority of people…and Bumble Bees! Essentially, the family member predicts that we’ll be able to watch endless YouTube videos and movies anywhere on Earth in 2029, but we’ll be no further forward in addressing the big sustainability issues affecting life for all species on the planet.

Time will tell if this is a fair point of view, but the Badger’s more optimistic. We are where we are. None of us can change history, but we all have a voice and can influence the future. So please think about what’s right for species like Bumble Bees in your New Year resolutions. They need your support to survive, and we all need them more than we realise for our own sustainability on this planet. ‘We need Bumble Bees more than we need huge constellations of satellites’. Hopefully our leaders will listen, or Christmas 2029 will be grim…

‘Swagger’ – A qualitative indicator of an organisation’s future.

Last week the Badger was caught on the hop by a final year undergraduate who asked the following. What made you join the company you worked for? Was it what they did, their values,  their website or their glossy brochures? Was it a promise of fast career progression? Was it to get a respected name on your CV? Was it the money? Was it desperation and anywhere would do? Or was it because you were impressed by the ‘swagger’ of the people you encountered in the recruitment process?

The Badger, very sensibly, paused to think before answering. The Badger considered a simplistic answer, something like ‘there were many reasons why the Badger accepted the formal job offer when it arrived’. But, in truth, what made the Badger to join the company he worked for was very straightforward. Every person encountered in the recruitment process was extraordinarily passionate about the work they did. Their energy, ‘can do’ and ‘always up for a challenge’ attitude was palpable and infectious. They had ‘swagger’. Not the arrogant ’Jack-the-lad, I’m important’ type, but the type that quietly radiates confidence, optimism, professionalism, trust and an ‘action speaks louder than words’ attitude to challenges. So, the Badger responded accordingly.

The follow-up question was ‘In the same circumstances, would you make the same decision today as you did then’? The answer was ‘Yes’. The small IT company the Badger joined had a growing, second-to-none, reputation for building and delivering challenging and complex software and systems. It persevered when faced with problems and delivered when most competitors would throw in the towel and engage the lawyers. The company didn’t have high profile in the media. It’s unique selling point (USP) was essentially the ‘swagger’ of its loyal, highly capable people who did what they said they would do. Clients liked that commitment, and the ‘swagger’ of the company’s people underpinned the company’s ‘does difficult things and always delivers’ reputation.

The company eventually grew into a multi-national corporate, and the ‘swagger’ of its people inevitably changed. Bureaucracy started to constrain behaviour and attitude, and ‘swagger’ became diluted as a trickle of people leaving for pastures new became a perpetual operational dynamic. People became less delivery focused,  more political, and their willingness to make excuses rather than deliver results became more noticeable. The company’s mojo and USP suffered as a result! So, if you’re interested in early warning signs that the organisation you work for is slowly losing its mojo, then don’t look at your executive leaders, look at how the ‘swagger’ of the people around you is changing. The ‘swagger’ of people is the qualitative barometer of your organisation’s future prospects. Oh, and if feel your own ‘swagger’ is on the wane, then just remember there’s a big wide world out there full of opportunity to drive it back up to new peaks…