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.

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.

Return to Space…

Idling on the sofa at home after a meeting, the Badger wanted to do nothing more energetic than watching a Netflix film. Whatever he watched, the Badger knew it would probably have something in common with the meeting he attended, namely that it would be much longer than it needed to be! With low expectations that it would keep his attention for the duration, the Badger  selected the documentary film ‘Return to Space’ about SpaceX’s activities to deliver astronauts from American soil to the International Space Station (ISS).  The film proved more engaging than expected. Why? Not because it features Elon Musk, but because the Badger, as an IT professional and delivery leader with strong roots in science and engineering, could relate from his own career experiences to the SpaceX team’s dedication and hard work, and their relief and exhilaration when their goals were met.

After the documentary ended, the Badger’s lasting impressions centred on four things. The first was that this endeavour would not have been possible without a multidisciplinary team of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. This should inspire youngsters to study STEM subjects and develop their careers accordingly. The second was that the whole leadership and management were disciplined and entirely focused on important milestones, solving problems, and the ultimate goal. No team will deliver without focused, disciplined, objective, and committed leadership and management. The third was the excellent teamwork, testing, risk mitigation, and fact-based rigour in decision making on display. Those involved were motivated, clear on their roles and responsibilities, and stood by the decisions and judgement calls made. The fourth thing was that Information Technology and integrated computer systems were at the heart of absolutely everything.

Anyone who has worked on major programmes and been there when the ultimate goal is achieved can relate to the palpable relief, job satisfaction, and euphoric pride shown by everyone on the SpaceX team when they delivered the two astronauts to the ISS and returned them safely to Earth. There’s nothing like the feeling of personal and professional satisfaction and elation that every team member, not just those in leadership positions, feels when a programme or project delivers. It’s a great feeling!

As he rose from the sofa, the Badger’s smartphone announced the arrival of an email  from British Gas. They had emailed the previous day saying that the Badger’s energy account had been migrated to a new system. The new email simply notified that an  energy statement was available online. With a sense of foreboding, the Badger logged into his energy account and found all was not well. SpaceX and British Gas may not be in comparable industries, but in ‘Return to Space’ the former cared that they got things right and delivered progress. Sadly, the opposite seems true for British Gas. Perhaps they need a dose of Elon Musk…

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.

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.

Reflecting on a smart meter…

It’s ten years since the UK’s smart meter roll-out programme began, and it’s nine months since a smart meter was fitted in the Badger’s home. It seemed apt this week, therefore, to spend a little time considering whether the smart meter has helped reduce the household’s energy consumption. Accordingly, the Badger sat down at his desk with a cup of coffee to analyse how the household’s annual kilowatt hours have changed over the last seven years when the number of house occupants has been a constant. The analysis revealed that annual kilowatt hours dropped every year up until the smart meter was installed nine months ago. Energy consumption has dropped by 36% from the level seven years ago. Consumption since the smart meter was installed, however, is on track to be essentially on a par with the last pre-smart meter year. 

This means that the sizeable reduction in household consumption was achieved during the era of an old-fashioned, reliable, mechanical meter and not by installing a smart meter. It shows that personal discipline and behavioural change in using energy in the home has a bigger impact than having a smart meter per se.  Having a smart meter for nine months has, however, largely been a benign experience.  The In-Home Display still intermittently displays ‘Connection Lost – move the device closer to the meter’ which is irritating when the smart meter campaign’s website says it’ll work anywhere in your home.  The novelty of monitoring the In-Home display also wore off long ago, and now any hype about smart meters is now, frankly, just ignored. The household may have a ‘modern’ smart meter as part of its updated infrastructure, but as a consumer it doesn’t feel particularly beneficial or worthwhile.     

It seems that the jury’s out on whether households think the smart meter roll out programme has been worthwhile. The Badger, as a consumer paying for this programme through their energy bills, is dubious that it’s worth the billions that have been spent. The programme’s been running for a decade so far. It’s much delayed, and the current target set for 2024 looks both optimistic and somewhat irrelevant given the meters must all apparently be replaced if home gas boilers are to be adapted or replaced to use hydrogen.  One can’t help but feel that this programme has been over-sold and is turning out to be an expensive dud, at least for consumers.   

The simple fact is that a smart meter hasn’t helped to reduce energy use in the Badger’s household over the last nine months. It’s become like its old-fashioned predecessor, a box in a corner that just does its thing.  You don’t need a smart meter to save energy and hence money, you just need to change your household disciplines and personal behaviour…which, of course, costs you nothing.  

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.

Assume nothing, Believe no one, Challenge everything…

More years back than is sensible to think about, and while still in short trousers in the IT industry, metaphorically that is, the Badger was sent on the company’s in-house project management course.  In those days, project management courses for software and systems development were delivered by those from within the organisation whose day job was actually delivering systems.  The first hour of the course provided a nugget of wisdom that the Badger’s carried with him ever since. It came from the company’s Managing Director (MD) who gave a memorable opening address.   

As the course attendees settled down on the first day, the MD stood up, settled on the edge of a table, welcomed everyone, and then spoke eloquently without notes for forty minutes. Those present felt important when the MD told everyone they were humbled to be addressing people who not only delivered complex things for clients, but also made the real profits of the company and were the bedrock of the company’s ‘can deliver, will deliver, come what may’ reputation.  The MD went on to talk about their own experience as a project and then a business leader, emphasising that the best people in these roles had A, B, C, D, E built into their psyche. They explained this asAssume nothing, Believe no one, Challenge everything, Decide based on fact and data, Execute decisions to completion’. The MD urged his audience to remember this and to apply it in everything they did if they aspired to be the best project manager they could be.  

Assume nothing, believe no one, challenge everything…is at the heart of police, forensic, and any type of objective work requiring the analysis of information to make important decisions. The MD’s point was not that everyone should be a policeman and distrustful of everyone they meet, but that the best delivery and business leaders have these attributes built into their psyche even if they’re not conscious of it.

These attributes in the Badger’s own psyche were activated this week when an SMS message arrived purporting to be from IPSOS MORI, a well-known polling organisation.  It said it was following up a letter inviting the Badger to register his child for a COVID-19 test kit, and that this would help monitor infection rates for new variants. It also provided website details to register. The Badger quickly cycled through A to E and did the right thing – which did not entail complying with the instructions in the message! There had been no letter, there are no children in the Badger household, and IPSOS MORI has no reason to have the Badger’s contact details.  

The point of this tale is that in today’s online and instant communication world having A.B.C.D.E in your psyche isn’t just important in the professional world, project management, and business, it’s important to be in everyone’s psyche in order to stay safe and secure in daily life.   

Pride…

A long time ago, in fact a couple of years after the anti-climax of the ‘Year 2k millennium bug’, the 9/11 atrocity, and the collapse of the dot.com bubble, the Badger attended his employer’s annual international leadership conference in London.  The Badger has participated in many of these events throughout his career. They happen, in one form or another, in most sizeable organisations to ‘align’ leaders and managers with strategic objectives, business priorities, and key messages and themes for the coming year.  Such conferences often involved gathering large numbers of people in the same place, but the last two decades have seen more creative and cheaper ways of achieving the same objectives by using global video conferencing.

The particular conference to which the Badger refers was a face to face gathering with a predictable format involving lots of corporate presentations and orchestrated workshops. From the Badger’s perspective the real value of the event lay in the ability to network with seniors from around the world. This particular conference took place at a time when the IT services market was the toughest it had been for decades. The company was in the doldrums and morale across the whole organisation was extremely low.

Although presentations at these conferences are rarely memorable, at this one there was one from the Global HR Director on ‘Pride’ that stood out.  It was the best presentation the Badger had ever seen them give! Its theme was the importance of having and showing pride – that feeling of deep satisfaction derived from not only your own achievements, but also the achievements of those with whom you work – in overcoming low morale across the organisation. The message was simple, namely, stop wallowing in the gloom causing the corrosive low morale, and start celebrating all the good things that people did at every level in the organisation every day.

With a key role in the company’s delivery community, the Badger already knew about having and demonstrating pride!  Good leaders of delivery teams inherently know that you must have and show pride in your own and your team’s achievements, no matter how small or difficult they have been. Good delivery leaders know that their own success depends on their team, and that celebrating the small achievements as well as the bigger ones is good for the team morale that is crucial for success.   

Delivery is done by people who take pride not only in their personal standards and work, but also in playing their part in teams getting the job done successfully. This was clearly the case with those involved with the funeral ceremonials for Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, last Saturday. Everyone involved in producing and delivering the ceremonials of this sombre, historic, but fitting event should be proud of their individual and collective achievement.  They did themselves, the Duke, the Royal Family, the Queen, and the country proud.