Setting the bar too high…

In his school days, the Badger was in the school field athletics team because he was good at javelin, long jump, and – rather surprisingly for someone of average height – the high jump. It was, according to the team coach, the Badger’s natural technique rather than any specific physicality that underpinned why he was good at these events. The coach, a resolute athlete who demanded the same dedication from others, had two favourite phrases to encourage team members to train hard and do better. The first was ‘technique is the difference between reliable success and reliable failure’. The second, used especially for the high jumpers, was ‘you don’t jump high unless you set the bar high’. Little did the schoolboy Badger know that he would regularly hear leaders and managers utter this one throughout his working life!

The Badger’s often heard executives say ‘you don’t jump high unless you set the bar high’ when setting an expected, imperative outcome that is challenging, and when trying to persuade their audience that the challenge is tough, but the outcome is within reach. These last few words, however, are crucial because if an audience don’t sense that the outcome is within reach then they will nod sagely, consider argument futile, and only work half-heartedly towards the objective. If that happens then the road ahead will almost certainly be full of disappointment, blame, low morale, problems, and financial under-performance.

For many leaders and senior staff in sizeable organisations, attending an annual gathering at which executives set out the key priorities and targets for the coming year is routine. The Badger’s attended many such events over the years, and whilst fundamentally there’s nothing wrong in using ‘you don’t jump high unless you set the bar high’ to set ambitious targets, two observations crystallise from the experience. The first is that if the audience sense the challenging target is reachable then they will embrace it, fully align their support and activities, and executives will hold onto their jobs. The second is that if the audience feels the bar has been set so high that you need binoculars to see it, then they will pay lip-service to the challenge, gossip about the credibility of executives, worry about the enterprise’s viability, and speculate about whose heads will roll when outcomes are not met.

The point is simply this. If you are the leader in a company, project, programme, or service, then don’t lose touch with reality or your people. If  you set the bar way too high, then you will have an unhappy workforce, people will leave, output and quality will decline, financial forecasts will not be met, and your credibility as a leader will be damaged. The best leaders stay grounded in reality, make good judgements that balance competing soft and hard priorities, set the bar within reach, and communicate honestly and inspiringly. Those that don’t ultimately suffer the consequences.

A retrenchment to globalisation…

IT offshoring to India gained momentum in the late 1990s helped by improved and lower cost telecommunications, the policies and actions of the Indian government, and a few major corporations who opened operations that tapped into the country’s huge young, lower-cost, graduate-level workforce. At the end of the 1990s the Badger was part of the due diligence team for the purchase of a small software product company in Bangalore. The purchase was a strategic investment to establish a presence in India that could ultimately grow into an offshore outsource and software development centre. Visiting India for the due diligence hammered home to the Badger that the true globalisation of  IT work was inevitable, and that India would a force to be reckoned with for outsourcing and software development.

Globalisation – the spread of products, services, and manufacturing etc, across borders producing ever stronger economic interdependence between nations – has been underway for the last two centuries driven by transportation and communication advances. The internet and digital technology, however, has accelerated it exponentially over the last 20 years, but the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on global supply chains, for example, has highlighted that globalisation may have gone too far. It now looks inevitable that the pandemic, continued advances in digital technology and virtual connectivity, and changes to the world order due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict,  will trigger some retrenchment to globalisation as businesses and nations rebalance their risk and dependence on others.

The current level of globalisation has made us all extremely and rapidly vulnerable to events anywhere in the world. Globalisation will, of course, not disappear, but the Badger’s in no doubt that in the current decade we will see some retrenchment to address the vulnerabilities that have been exposed. A trot through the programme of events at this week’s 2022 World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos shows that deglobalisation and the impact of ever more advancing technology permeates most of the sessions, either directly or covertly. The WEF at Davos claims to have achieved much over the past 5 decades, but most people – including the Badger – are hard pushed to name any of its achievements and consider it to be a talking shop for global elites in the world’s most expensive country. However, when those attending Davos are discussing globalisation, then you know there’s something to worry about and change is ahead!

Over the last 20 or so years, the small software company purchased in Bangalore has grown into the broader capability envisaged in its original strategic goals. Since change is perpetual, however, it is not immune to retrenching globalisation or technological advances that enable IT work to be done economically without offshoring at scale. No sector is immune to retrenching globalisation, and this decade is already unfolding to be one of huge change on all fronts. Hold onto your hats, it’s going to be a bumpy ride…  

The power of techies talking to clients…

Those who work in the technical, development, and delivery aspects of the IT industry are highly skilled, productive people often with a STEM-subject background. While some have natural ‘sales’ personalities and attributes, most prefer to focus on their project tasks rather than spend a lot of time interacting with clients. When they do, however, interact with clients, being on the alert for potential new business leads is often not high in their consciousness during their interaction. The Badger fitted this bill  early in his IT career, until a senior client visited the large software and systems integration project he was working.

The Badger’s company bosses arranged for the client and their entourage to spend a whole day with the project. The Badger grumbled because his teams were under schedule pressure but the grumbling, of course, fell on deaf ears and the visit went ahead with the client’s entourage meeting the software, systems, and test teams throughout the day. The visit ended with a client feedback session involving the Badger’s bosses and others from within the project. The senior client was rewardingly positive and asked the Badger’s bosses the following:    

‘Your techies and delivery people are impressive and  ooze knowledge, skill, and commitment. Talking to them has emphasised that your company not only has strength in depth but was also the right choice for this project. However, why do we only see people with account, business development, or sales titles when we want to discuss some of our wider business pains? If we saw and more routinely interacted with those from your engine room, then you would probably win more work from us’.

This opened the Badger’s eyes to the latent power of techies talking to clients and the under-use of the company’s engine-room community in identifying potential leads for new business. The number of staff in this community was much greater than those in formal sales, business development, and account management roles, and so it seemed obvious that more engagement between client and company technical and delivery staff  would benefit relationships and growth for the company. It also struck the Badger that talking to clients was good for the personal and career development of even the most introvert techie. The client’s words also highlighted that engine-room staff are not only the cornerstone of a company’s reputation, but also a powerful force that can influence a company’s ability to generate new business opportunities.

Ever since this feedback session the Badger has encouraged techies to recognise the power of talking with clients and to be attuned to identifying potential leads for additional business. Today wise companies encourage this dynamic routinely, because if they don’t then their competitors will be reaping the benefit of stronger relationships and better business growth.

Listening, selective hearing…and hidden motives

Decent leaders and managers know that listening is important to keeping their team engaged, spotting problems, picking up on trends, and gaining the insights and information needed for success. Listening skills featured in many of the training courses the Badger attended throughout his IT career, and the maxim ‘you have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in that ratio because you learn more when you listen than when you talk’ has served him well over the years. The best bosses have listening as a core capability, but it cannot be assumed that every boss or person in a position of influence or power hears the key points in what they are told. Why? Because they’re human and often have ‘selective hearing’ and hidden motives.

Early in his career, the Badger’s boss asked him to covertly assess a dysfunctional, over-running project. Whatever the Badger reported back would, apparently, help the boss make difficult decisions on what next steps were in the company’s best overall interest. In the subsequent one-to-one meeting to convey the findings, the Badger summarised  the project’s status and articulated three key recommendations. The boss listened closely, seemed appreciative, and said the input would be considered overnight and factored into their decision making. They asked to meet with the Badger again the following afternoon.

This follow-up meeting proved memorable. The boss seemed to have a completely different recollection of the previous day’s meeting! They gave the Badger a hard time, and the atmosphere became very tense when the boss claimed the Badger hadn’t made any recommendations the previous day! Horrified, the Badger briefly wondered if his boss was right,  but quickly decided otherwise. The boss took a telephone call which ended the meeting prematurely. On returning to his desk, the Badger concluded that his boss either hadn’t really been listening in the first meeting or was prone to ‘selective hearing’.

Travelling home that evening, the Badger thought – uncharitably  – that his boss had lost his marbles, was not quite the full shilling, or had become one sandwich short of a picnic. The next day, however, provided an answer – the Badger’s boss announced they were leaving the company! The boss knew they were departing all along, which made the problematic project someone else’s problem. Their hidden motive in dealings with the Badger was to simply to go through the motions of  quasi-business as usual dynamics in order to heighten the surprise and impact of their imminent departure announcement.

The Badger learned an important lesson. In one-on-one meetings, the person you are talking to may have good listening skills, but always assume they will have some ‘selective hearing’ and a hidden motive. Appreciating this helps you to prepare and manage a discussion to get the outcome you want.

An independent review and temporary traffic lights…

Driving home after a meeting with the leader of a modest-sized business, the Badger joined a slow-moving traffic queue on a semi-rural road. In the distance, he could see that temporary traffic lights letting through just two or three cars at a time were the reason for the queue. As vehicles inched forward, the Badger’s thoughts wandered back to the meeting that he’d just left. The business leader, an unusual character, was struggling with delays and spiralling costs on a long running project, and with getting his project staff to change their long-standing, comfortable, ‘it’s too difficult’ ways of working. The leader wanted to find a way of overcoming this challenge without completely destroying their good personal relationship with their staff.

At the start of the meeting the leader’s demeanour was initially one of quiet desperation, but this changed to one of relief and enthusiasm as the discussion progressed. The Badger suggested getting an experienced, independent outsider to review the project and produce a report that recommended actions to be taken. This provoked some fruity language signalling that there was no desire to pay someone who’d swallowed an MBA handbook to author a report that told them what they already knew! Undeterred, the Badger persevered and pointed out that a review and report by the right independent person would provide the objective, dispassionate, and tangible ammunition in black and white to force the changes needed to reduce cost. After all, this is a common method in major businesses, public sector organisations, and government departments. The leader had a ‘light-bulb moment’. They realised that a written report would be a useful vehicle for deflecting the ‘blame’ for changes more towards the independent reviewer than themselves!

As the car reached the front of queue at the traffic lights, the Badger wondered why this supposed leader hadn’t thought about the merits of an independent review and report themselves. The Badger’s attention, however, quickly moved to the highway work being performed, namely the clearance of compacted leaves and vegetation from a 20-metre stretch of the paved footpath running alongside the carriageway. There were three panel vans, a trailer, one worker chatting on his phone in a van’s cab, one worker using a mini-bulldozer to scrape leaves from the footpath and put them further back on the verge,  and one worker using a portable petrol-powered leaf-blower to blow looser debris from the footpath onto the verge. It must be cheaper, the Badger mused, and healthier for the workers, more fossil-fuel efficient, and less impactful on the climate if this work was done by two men with one van, a wheelbarrow, a shovel, a rake, and a broom. The Badger smiled; an independent review of working practices is surely needed!

Describe the dynamics of today’s digital world in one word…

Would you find it easy or hard to describe the dynamics of our modern digital world in one word? Would one word immediately come to mind, or would you need time to think before deciding? Rather than decide yourself, would you prefer to converge on a word via a group discussion? What would your word be? An ex senior civil servant, in their eighties with a razor-sharp mind, asked these questions in a recent conversation. The Badger took the easy option, answered ‘don’t know’, and we moved on to other things. The questions, however, have bugged the Badger ever since, and so as Storm Eunice buffeted the windows, he settled in his study listening to a playlist of favourite music to decide his answers.

The answer for the first question was ‘it’s hard’. In fact, it took much longer than expected to decide on one word to answer the last question. The answers to the second and third questions came quick and were straightforward. They were, respectively, time to think rather than spontaneity, and deciding for himself rather than potentially succumbing to  groupthink’. The word the Badger ultimately converged on as the answer to the last question was ‘Creep’.

The word has enormous breadth. In materials technology, ‘creep’ is the movement and permanent deformation of a solid under persistent load ultimately leading to failure. Glaciers and lead on church roofs are simple illustrations of the phenomenon. ‘Scope creep’, when requirements drift away from agreed baselines due to client pressure and poor controls, is well-known to those running businesses, projects, programmes, or service delivery. This kind of ‘creep’ often leads to financial problems, commercial disputes, and serious delays. And then, of course, ‘creep’ is sometimes used to describe people who are unpleasant, untrustworthy, insincere, or are just plain odd in their habits, interests, and behaviours.

Creep’ seems a more realistic descriptor for the dynamics of our modern digital world than the word ‘change’. For example, our insatiable demand for resources and fossil fuels is producing creep deformation of aspects of our planet to the point of crisis and questions about our sustainability on it. Additionally, digital innovation and fast technological advancement represents a persistent stress on businesses, governments, and the public producing the erosive creep of personal privacy to the point where societal rupture is a risk. Similarly, the need for social media platforms to keep people engaged and active is causing the creep of fact, news, and sensible debate into just disinformation, misinformation, abuse, and entertainment fuelling growing distrust and antipathy. ‘Creep’, of course, can still be used to describe some people, and it seems particularly apt today for politicians and so-called elites!

Oh, and ‘Creep’, by the way, is a great song by Radiohead! What would your one word to describe the dynamics of today’s world be?

Meta matters and madness…

The spectacular drop in Meta’s (Facebook) share price last week has attracted much comment in the media. The drop, which shows up impressively on share price charts like the 1-year one available here, was triggered by a fall in active daily users for the first time in 18 years. It came as little surprise to the Badger who’s long thought a) that Richard Holway at TechMarketView is right in saying that Facebook’s been a toxic brand for some time, and b) that this behemoth is past its prime and way too big and arrogant for its boots!

In the world of business, of course, there’s always ups and downs, crises, and negotiations of all kinds, but when Meta threatens to shutdown Facebook and Instagram in Europe over transatlantic data transfer regulations, then it’s arrogance is plain to see especially when it’s our data that’s at the heart of the matter.  This sabre rattling  received a  ‘Life would be very good without Facebookriposte from the EU. Together with the impact of Apple’s ad-tracking change, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the failure of its Libra crypto currency ambitions, and its risky bet on the ‘Metaverse’, it’s hardly surprising that a wobble in active daily users in core geographies triggered worry about the future and impacted the share price, especially when the company’s already a bête noire amongst the tech giants. The Badger senses that Meta’s future doesn’t look rosy unless there’s huge change.

Having had a presence on Facebook for more than a decade, changes in the way the Badger and his Facebook friends have used the platform perhaps illustrates why a drop in usage should be no surprise. A decade ago, we regularly uploaded and shared photos, registered our location when travelling, shared life events, plans, thoughts, highs and lows, interests, and funny experiences. Today, however, none of us do this. We just post something minimal very occasionally, monitor a few items of ‘followed’ content, and ignore sponsored items or adverts that the platform pushes at us. As one friend put it, ‘Facebook’s a disease we’ve learned that we have to manage to protect ourselves’. If this sentiment is widespread, then more bad news will emerge because it isn’t just younger people deserting the platform, it’s older ones reducing their usage too!

Finally, there’s a madness in society whereby Meta has the power to resist all attempts at having content and media laws that apply in the real world applied to it in the virtual world. There’s little sign of this madness soon dissipating, but at least the fall in share price is a timely warning for Meta and everyone else that no company is too big to fail. The future’s never certain, but with Meta there is a certainty. It’s unlikely to be out of the news anytime soon.

Everyone is a salesperson…

One day, early in his IT project delivery career and during a meeting considering a meaty problem threatening his project’s progress, the Badger’s phone rang. The call went unanswered. The caller, the Badger’s line manager, left a voicemail asking for a call back. On returning the call, they explained that business with a new client was being developed, and that they wanted the Badger to visit the client with one of the sales team to help the client understand the company’s delivery credentials. The Badger grumbled, but the only acceptable response was to agree.

A couple of days later, the Badger and the salesperson met for the first time in a coffee shop an hour before the client meeting. The salesperson confirmed that the objective of the meeting was to build client confidence in the company’s technical and delivery capabilities, and, if asked, to provide an insight into delivering complex projects and programmes from personal experience. The client meeting proved positive and friendly, and afterwards the Badger returned to his project satisfied with how things had gone.

Two days later, the salesperson called to tell the Badger that he was sold to the client to run one of their major programmes commencing the following week! A fuming Badger immediately rang his line manager and angrily questioned their and the salesperson’s integrity. Clearly taken aback and embarrassed, the line manager was adamant that there had been no intent to sell the Badger to the client. Their annoyance with the salesperson was extreme and they divulged that there’d been previous issue with the individual over-stepping their authority. Things were resolved quickly. The line manager demanded an explanation from the salesperson who simply said they’d capitalised on ‘an immediate and irresistible opportunity’ that had arisen after the meeting. They left the company a month later, but the incident bolstered the Badger’s negative view of salespeople at the time.

The Badger’s project completed a few months later, and the line manager assigned him to a role in his business management team. During this assignment, the Badger learned that most salespeople are professional, focused, hardworking, and have high integrity – just like delivery people – and that siloed functional mindsets were counterproductive because everyone works for the same company. The Badger also learned that delivery people at all levels of experience should never think they aren’t also salespeople, and that recognising potential business opportunities must be an essential part of their psyche. Business opportunities present themselves to people in all positions, not just to a dedicated sales team, and a company will succeed more when people recognise these opportunities and feel empowered to take some action, even if it’s just telling the sales team! The old cliché ‘everyone’s a salesperson’ isn’t just a mantra, these days it’s a truism in both our personal and work lives.

The origin of the word penguin…

The Badger rang the call centre for help after experiencing problems using a company’s online mechanisms. After listening to a recorded message about covid and navigating the various options, the Badger joined a queue wondering if Blondie’s ‘Hanging on a telephone’ would be better music than Vivaldi. Eventually Bronwen came on the line. Her unmistakably Welsh accent and name struck a chord as she resolved the Badger’s problem. The Badger thanked her for her help and asked if she was actually in a call centre in Wales. Bronwen chuckled, said that many callers ask the same question, and then confirmed she was in South Wales and that the weather outside was typically Welsh!

Speaking to Bronwen triggered fond memories of visits to Wales,  a part of the UK with beautiful landscapes, a rich industrial heritage, and a strong cultural identity. It’s a country that’s seen a huge decline in its coal mining, steel, and slate mining industries over the last half-century. The Badger’s first visits to Wales were in his student days. The first was a weekend stay with his London flatmate’s family in Pontlottyn in the Rhymney Valley. The warm welcome was unforgettable. The second visit was part of the Badger’s degree course. It involved a week touring  metal production, casting, and fabrication facilities across South Wales. The highlight was watching the operation of a blast furnace, a Bessemer converter, and a rolling mill flattening giant red-hot steel ingots into 3mm strip at Port Talbot. It was an awesome experience!

Since that time, tourism, public services, customer support services, and light manufacturing in areas like electronics and technology have taken over from coal, steel, and slate as the mainstays of the Welsh economy. Today Wales has the largest data centre campus in Europe and it’s an attractive place for technology-centred companies to have operations. In the Badger’s student days, there was net migration of people seeking employment and a better quality of life outside Wales. This isn’t the case today. With modern service, technology, and digital businesses continuing to grow, Wales is seeing inward migration and growth in its population.

Twenty years after first visiting as a student, the Badger became a more frequent visitor  when his employer acquired a datacentre and IT service desk in South Wales. Welsh pride and values was encountered in abundance during these visits, and the Badger learned that if you build on rather than denigrate the character, culture, and heritage of a workforce then they will always rise to a challenge. As an English friend with Welsh family roots put it a few days ago, the word ‘penguin’ derives from the Welsh language which illustrates that the Welsh people have always made a mark on the world. A growing worldwide reputation in the arena of semiconductor technologies might have been a better illustration…

Embarrassment facilitates learning…

The Badger, engrossed in his laptop, heard a knock at the front door. It was a couple of his wife’s friends arriving for a gossip over coffee and cake. The Badger let them in and returned to his laptop. A little later, when the coffee was ready and their conversation centred on one of the friend’s teenage daughters who’s in her final year at college, the Badger was pestered to join them. The teenager had been highly embarrassed in a recent class after acquiescing to a boy becoming leader of her group because he demanded that ‘he knew best.’  The teacher had dismantled the boy’s credibility in front of the whole class causing embarrassment in the group by association. As the Badger sipped his coffee, he was asked if he’d experienced anything similar during his career and, if so, what he’d learned from it.

The Badger, a little taken aback, described an occasion from early in his IT career, namely the first time he worked on a competitive bid during a gap between project assignments. The bid was of modest value to a new client in a new market area for the company. The compact team was led by a slippery, self-obsessed salesman who claimed to be well-connected with the client. Once the bid was submitted, there were formal presentations to the client from the different companies competing for the work. The Badger and others were tasked to attend the presentation with the salesman.

On the day, the salesman, brimming with confidence, did all the presenting, made unapproved promises, and came across as a slippery deal junkie focused solely on the client’s procurement lead who was one of the four key client people in the front row of the audience. The salesman answered all the questions himself, directing them to procurement lead and not the person who asked the question. He was oblivious to his colleagues discomfort and the clever dismantling of his credibility by the questioners. We didn’t win the work.

It was a debacle. The Badger was highly embarrassed but learned three things from the experience. Firstly, that focusing on the decision maker and their key influencers is crucial. Other than the procurement lead, the salesman had never engaged with any of the key client people in the front row. Secondly, women in business are equals and just as astute, capable, and ruthlessly direct as men. The decision maker and key influencers in the front row were women who rightly felt ignored by the salesman’s focus on the male procurement lead. Thirdly, it’s okay to feel embarrassed. It forces you to learn, change, become resilient, and develop a confidence to speak up when something’s not right.

The Badger had obviously said something that struck a chord with his wife and her friends, because their faces lit up and he was offered more coffee and cake…