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…

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.