Showbusiness for ugly people, Mr Blobby, and the credibility of elderly people with power…

Someone said recently that politics is ‘showbusiness for ugly people.’  It made the Badger laugh because the phrase resonates with recent news items like those, for example, covering China’s 20th Communist Party Congress, Putin declaring martial law, and turmoil in the UK government.  The latter, in particular, has provided comedic value on a par with old television programmes like Fawlty Towers and Yes, Prime Minister. Unlike the first broadcast of these programmes, however, the internet, social media, and 24-hour news mean we don’t have to wait for the next episode because the comedy unfolds continuously in real-time.

Having no allegiance to any political ideology is probably why ‘showbusiness for ugly people’ seemed to resonate so strongly with these news items. Being playful for a moment, the Badger thinks the phrase supports the thesis that in today’s world dominated by attention-grabbing content, Mr Blobby, Paddington Bear, and Winnie the Pooh would do a better job delivering what matters than anyone groomed by the machinery of political parties.

A television news bulletin showing Mr Putin in the Kremlin prompted a visiting relative to ask a great question, namely, ‘Mr Putin is 70 years old, Xi Jinping is almost 70, Joe Biden is almost 80 (and Nancy Pelosi is 82!), so why haven’t they retired?’. They added that they weren’t ageist but merely pointing out that, in their experience, the leaders of large public sector and commercial organisations never appoint anyone of this age to run major projects, programmes, and business units. Why, therefore, are these elderly individuals credible as superpower leaders when they are in the twilight years of mental and physical prowess?

Initially flummoxed, the Badger paused to think for a moment, and then simply said that while many believe the world is a rational place, the reality is that humans are inherently both rational and irrational, as internet and social media content frequently illustrates. The propensity for irrationality can be seen in all walks of life, and especially in those who are trying to hold onto power regardless of whether it’s good for themselves and those around them. Whether elderly superpower leaders are credible is thus questionable.

The visitor expected more, so the Badger pointed out that Biden, Xi Jinping, and Putin are not from a digital-native generation and that they are all past their country’s standard pension age.  Younger, impatient individuals from digital-native generations will be biting at their heels hungry for power and change. In this decade we might thus see events that trigger the replacement of old men as superpower leaders by dynamic individuals from the digital-native generation. Eventually, of course, leaders from the digital-native generation will be corrupted by power too, and the cycle will repeat itself. The visitor looked perplexed and suggested that the Badger needed mind-altering medication…

There’s no such thing as a grouchy old person…

The Badger has noted a rise recently in the ‘suggested for you’ items pushed to him on Facebook. Normally these items are simply ignored, but the other day when ‘Dumfries and Galloway! What’s going on?’ appeared as ‘suggested for you’ the Badger was intrigued. What had he been doing online recently that could make the algorithms behind the scenes conclude this might be of interest? After wracking his brain for a minute, the answer didn’t materialise. May be Facebook is desperately pushing anything to increase the time users stay on the platform? Perhaps, because user stickiness is, after all, core to social media business models, and Facebook will, no doubt, use whatever techniques it can to make money and counter waning user popularity.

The attention-grabber with the ‘Dumfries & Galloway’ item was simply the following headline text:   

‘There’s no such thing as a grouchy old person. The truth is, once you get old you stop being polite and start being honest.’

It made the Badger – who strives to be polite, honest, and never grouchy (although some may disagree) – chuckle, reflect, and realise that the sentiment conveyed by this text applies throughout our working lives and not just in our dotage.

Think back to when you left school, college, or university and entered the workforce. No matter how full of enthusiasm you were, you probably deferred to the views and decisions of colleagues ten or more years older than yourself because they were ‘old’ and more experienced. Now roll forward ten years to when you had married, acquired a large house mortgage, and perhaps a couple of young children. You were now part of the ranks at work that you once considered ‘old’, but you were still probably careful of openly disagreeing with ten-year older colleagues in senior positions to avoid putting your employment and salary income at risk.

Roll forward yet another ten years to when your mortgage is no longer a millstone, you have some financial security, and the children are finding their own way in life. You realise your career has plateaued, those ten-years older are retiring, that leaving the workforce is the next big personal milestone, and that you have nothing to fear from saying what you really think. Directness, impatience, and frustration come to the surface, and younger colleagues think you are just a grouchy ‘old’ person, which isn’t the case. You’ve just reached the part of the lifecycle where you realise that you can be completely true to yourself, and that politeness and saluting the corporate mast have their limits.

Always remember that throughout your career and whatever the role you have in your organisation, you are always ‘old’ to some. The ‘Dumfries and Galloway; What’s going?’ attention-grabber is a progressive truth, because there is no predefined age when you become ‘old’. It’s worth remembering that.

Nothing is forever…

The Badger’s first boss in the IT industry had their employment terminated  after the financial performance of their business unit disappointed for the third quarter in a row. They shrugged their shoulders sanguinely and told the Badger  ‘Nothing is forever. That applies to technology, organisations, and people. Always scan the horizon and prepare for possible changes as best you can’. These words came flooding back with the announcement that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s reign had come to an end. The Badger has found himself reflecting on these words given the huge technological changes that happened in the Queen’s 70-year reign.

At the time of her Coronation in 1952, television was black and white, in less than 20% of UK homes, and there was only one channel. Radio and paper newspapers dominated the flow of news to the general public, coal and wood were the primary fuels for heating homes, only 1 in 20 people had access to a motor car and the UK motorway network didn’t exist. The world’s first commercial airline service using jets had just started, steam engines pulled carriages on the railway network, and a landline telephone in the home was a luxury. Life was spartan, food was still rationed, satellites didn’t exist, microchips had not started to revolutionise the field of electronics, and the Information Technology sector had yet to be born.

Things are very, very different today. The technological change during the Queen’s reign has been phenomenal. It has been diverse, fascinating, and awe-inspiring, and it has evidenced the truth of the ‘nothing is forever’ words of the Badger’s boss. The Queen’s reign saw both the emergence of multiple new technologies that changed our lives, and their subsequent obsolescence. The emergence and then decline of video tapes, CDs, and DVDs with the advent of streaming illustrates the point neatly, as does the journey from bulky black and white and then colour TVs with Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) screens to today’s ‘Smart’ flatscreen, wall-mounted, multi-functional, entertainment devices. The journey from early mainframe computers for business, to personal computing, the internet, and the powerful tablets and smartphones in our hands also potently illustrates the numerous cycles of innovation and obsolescence that have occurred during the Queen’s reign. It’s a sobering reminder that the technology we embrace today is inevitably tomorrow’s obsolescence.

Nothing lasts forever’ is an undeniable truth, a truth that the end of the Queen’s reign brings into stark perspective. It’s a truth that applies to everyone, everything, and in every facet of life, and one that our new monarch, King Charles III, is now steadfastly embracing. These three words remind us that we should actively and positively deal with the cards that are dealt to us in life, and that there are no better role models for doing this than the Queen we mourn and our new King.

Driverless trains; a necessary transformation…

Train travellers in the UK are being inconvenienced by frequent industrial action by rail sector Trade Unions. Finger pointing, ideological differences, and slow progress in dispute negotiations are clear to see. Attempts by the employers to modernise working practices, improve efficiency, and move towards driverless trains, seem to be a red rag to a bull for the Unions, as the following two sentences from an RMT press release neatly illustrate:  

“Driverless trains are a Tory fantasy that should be consigned to the science fiction shelf. They are dangerous nonsense and just another dead cat lobbed on the table to distract from what’s going on in the real world.”

These words bring a wry smile to the Badger’s face, because they capture a holistic general truth, namely that technology is always available to enable change, but it’s the mindset of people and the motives of their leaders that determine whether and when – or not – the technology will be embraced.

The pandemic has seismically changed railway passenger numbers, people’s travel patterns, and reduced train revenues in the UK. It thus seems unrealistic to think that the way things were pre-pandemic is a good model for the rest of this decade, especially when technology like that here can contribute so much for the greater good.  This decade is transformational for society, whether we like it or not, as a result of global health, energy, and economic crises, geo-political redefinition, and rapidly advancing, technological capabilities. No person or organisation is immune to these changes, which need politicians, employers, and Trade Union leaders to cooperate with shared objectives if they are to be navigated effectively for the country’s benefit. Currently this doesn’t look to be the case when it comes to the railways.

Why is that? Well, successful transformations require stakeholder alignment with common, apolitical, objectives. The press release sentences above suggest this clearly isn’t the case with the UK railways. Deep rooted antagonism is obvious. The Badger feels that one reason for this lies with the fact that rail unions are themselves struggling to transform in today’s world. Government statistics show that unions have many membership, demographic, and societal change challenges, a fact fully recognised by the TUC itself.   Rail union belligerence towards driverless trains might thus be just an act of petulant resistance that does not benefit their members, the travelling public, or the country, in the years to come.

Progress towards introducing driverless trains should be more advanced than for driverless cars on the road network, but it isn’t, and it looks unlikely that they will be common on the UK rail network this decade. There are always pros and cons with automation, but the two press release sentences above help to illustrate why UK productivity is 15% below that in the US and France.  Things need to change…and driverless train technology needs to be embraced rather than demonised.

Innovation, USPs, and the herd instinct…

Have you ever listened to leaders talking in person, or via video or teleconference, about innovation, unique selling points (USPs) that make the company stand out from the crowd, and slogans to be used to grab the attention of potential customers? The answer is  ‘probably’, a word used to great effect in Carlsberg advertising campaigns  that trace their roots back to 1973. The Badger’s sat through many such talks over the years, but one more than twenty-five years ago generated a memorable insight that’s still relevant today.

At a senior staff gathering in a London hotel conference centre, the Group Chief Executive gave a lengthy presentation that announced and justified the company’s move beyond its software, systems development, and systems  integration roots into outsourcing and offshoring services. The presentation not only boasted about this being innovation, but also it conveyed new USPs. Many present were, like the Badger, experienced, delivery-centric people who felt the assertion that this was innovation was highly dubious, and that the new USPs were aspirational and not underpinned by any reality. The audience understood the IT market was changing, but they reacted badly to the claim this move was innovation because competitors were already way-ahead, and it felt like the company was just following the herd rather than playing to its true strengths.

In the hotel bar afterwards, a subsidiary executive provided some wise words of insight when tackled informally about the presentation. They pointed out that although the business world worships innovation as necessary for survival and growth, the reality is that true innovation is rare and it’s imitation that is the endemic driver. They used examples of the new products and approaches emerging across the IT industry at the time to illustrate that these were born out of imitation and not innovation. The executive also highlighted that since the herd mentality is a feature of human behaviour, no one should ever be surprised that companies follow the herd and assert USPs that are primarily just slogans to differentiate in business conversations with potential clients. The bigger a company, the executive asserted, the more the slogan is influenced by spin and market trends, and the more tenuous the link with raw capability. This has coloured the Badger’s calibration of company sales and marketing messaging ever since, and the executive’s innovation, USP and herd mentality insight still resonates in today’s world in which we are bombarded with information relentlessly, and organisations do everything they can to grab, keep, and capitalise on our attention. So, just remember that if something claims to be an innovation today, then be sceptical because imitation is endemic and true innovation is scarce. Similarly, always explore any asserted USP to see if it passes the ‘unique’ test amongst industry peers, because it’s the herd instinct rather than uniqueness that dominates the world of business.

From Ziggy Stardust to autonomous trains…

The Badger’s currently reading ‘How we lived then’ by Norman Longmate, a book about everyday life in Great Britain during the Second World War. It cost £1 from a charity shop and it’s a fascinating read. Written in 1971, it describes what life was really like for ordinary members of the public between 1939 and 1945. If you thought things were difficult during COVID, then think again! The Badger was attracted to the book because his parents rarely spoke about their young adult lives in the war years, and because it was written in 1971 at the start of decade of turmoil, transformation, and rich personal memories.

By the 1970s, life for young adults had changed dramatically to that in the 1940s when, for example, military or civilian war service, rationing, and music from the likes of Glen Miller or Bing Crosby provided its drumbeat. In the 1970s, life for young adults was unrestrained, independent, and full of transformations and diverse music like David Bowie’s 1972 album ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ and many other classics of the same year. You might be wondering, at this point, how you get from 1970s books and music to autonomous trains? Well, easily as it happens, because the 1970s was also a decade of transformation for our railways and today, some 50 years later, they are undergoing transformation again driven by government infrastructure investment, huge advances in digital technology, and changing passenger dynamics following the pandemic.

In the 1970s, diesel and electric locomotives had replaced steam, electronic signalling was in its infancy, electrification was limited, ticketing meant visiting a manned ticket office at a railway station and strikes and cancelled trains were commonplace. This short 1972 film provides a simple insight to the railways and its technology of the time. As it ends, it makes a crucial point, namely that railway people were in an industry that is ‘both old and new’.

Today the railways are providing a service to passengers with powerful smartphones in their pockets, with better quality rolling stock, with self-service ticketing using machines and online facilities, and with real-time passenger information at the same time as progressing a Digital Programme deploying high-tech signalling, train control, and safety systems to increase capacity, reduce delays, and drive down costs. As this signalling piece highlights, this is a complex, difficult and slow task because the railway industry is always going to be ‘both old and new’ making transformation a perpetual process akin to re-engineering a Jumbo Jet while in flight! Nevertheless, progress towards a digital future and autonomous trains is being made.

Transformations are often constrained by workforce factors rather than technology. With train strikes imminent, it’s depressing that workforce factors still get in the way of the railway industry speedily embracing the modern, digital, increasingly autonomous, world we all inhabit. Sadly, some things don’t seem to have changed much since the 1970s.

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…  

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?

Observing the NHS…

Opening bleary eyes at 5:30am in a hospital ward bed to see the smiling face of a PPE-clad nurse wanting to thrust swabs into your nose and throat for a COVID test is an interesting start to the day! This test marked the start to each long, visitor-free, in-patient day that would eventually end around 10p.m. at night.

Patients were not allowed visitors until their stay surpassed five days. After that, one person could visit for one hour, but only once in every subsequent five-day period. No one grumbled. Instead, the Badger and fellow patients used video calls from personal smartphones or tablets to maintain contact with loved ones. The absence of visitors meant we experienced and observed ward operations performed without distractions, and we habitually shared our remarkably consistent primary observations during the quiet troughs that speckle an in-patient’s day.

Firstly, there was unanimous respect for doctors, nurses, and the ward staff who kept things shipshape (many of whom work 11 hour shifts with just a 30-minute unpaid break). Secondly, we observed that although the NHS is slowly transforming to the digital world, there’s still too much paper-based activity constraining efficiency. One nurse commented, ‘If someone borrows your drugs form before I get to you, it’ll take me half an hour to track it down’. Thirdly, we observed that nothing happens unless a busy doctor says so and signs a piece of paper, which they rarely do promptly. Telling a patient in the morning they’re being discharged, and then telling them in the evening that the doctor’s been busy and has gone home without signing the discharge paper is incredibly annoying and systemically inefficient!

There was also a consistent view that debates about NHS funding, a staple for media reporting, are red herrings because there’s much the NHS can improve itself that needs will rather than money. Its own Long Term Plan shows that it knows it must transform from a way of delivering health services that’s still locked into a model largely created when it was founded in 1948. It just needs to progress faster.

Finally, like most transformations, we observed that it’s the people and working practice issues of change rather than technology that is the biggest challenge. Transforming the NHS, the biggest employer in Europe and the world’s largest employer of highly skilled professionals with a headcount of 1.35 million, over half of which are professionally qualified clinical staff, is undoubtedly a massive task. It’s akin to reengineering a giant A380 plane full of passengers while it’s in flight, but it has to be done for the service to be sustainable. Even with its observable flaws, inefficiencies, and transformational strains, we all felt safe, in expert hands, and hugely proud that our country has the National Health Service as part of the bedrock of life across the population.

A change would do you good…

We can be happy, fulfilled, stressed, anxious, bored, and frustrated at work  all within the same day! It’s normal for our feelings to oscillate like this, but when we’ve endured months of feeling unfulfilled, bored, and frustrated with no improvement in sight our thoughts often turn to leaving our employer for pastures new. Thinking about leaving and actually leaving are, of course, different. It’s common to think about leaving  but circumstances and priorities in our personal life often stay our hand from actually resigning. Our subconscious also tends to persuade us to put up with the status quo for much longer than sensible in the hope that things will get better.

A few months ago, the Badger met someone wrestling with these dynamics. For the first time in a decade with their employer, they were thinking of leaving because their knowledge, skills, and experience had been under-used since a company reorganisation two years ago had replaced their respected boss with a new one. They were desperately bored and frustrated, and the relationship with their new boss had progressively become more distant. They asked the Badger how frequently he’d thought about leaving during his career, and whether he’d any thoughts to offer. After a sharp intake of breath, the Badger ignored the former question but delivered the following insightful words.

We all deal with thinking about and the decision to voluntarily leave an organisation differently, because psychologically we each deal with fear of the future in diverse ways. No one truly knows what the future holds for them. This uncertainty psychologically steers many towards staying in their comfort zone and avoiding risk. This means that when job satisfaction is low, we may well think long and hard about leaving but not actually take the ultimate step of resignation. So, if you’re thinking about leaving, first ensure you know yourself and what makes you tick. Make sure you not only assess all the pros and cons of staying objectively, but also consider matters in your private life that have a bearing on your decision carefully and honestly. Listen to  George Harrison’s song  ‘All things must pass’  because it’s a reminder that things never stay the same in life, and make a plan covering how and when you will resign before making your final ‘stay’ or ‘go’ decision,

Yesterday, the person called the Badger to say they’d left their employer and to thank him for words that made them realise they shouldn’t be fearful of the future because people adapt to the twists and turns of life. As the Badger felt quietly pleased at having helped in some way, ‘A change would do you good’ by Sheryl Crow started playing from a smart speaker in the background! We laughed, and agreed that strange surveillance sprits are at large monitoring conversations in today’s world…