Exploding batteries…

A note in a Christmas card this week was not only a reminder that the imminent festive and New Year holidays aren’t always jolly occasions for some people, but also that our modern lives depend on rechargeable batteries. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, household devices, DIY tools, gardening equipment, and electric cars all have a battery at their heart, but do we fully appreciate the risks of having battery powered devices in our households? Probably not. We tend to take their safety for granted because they are certified to comply with requisite safety standards.

The Christmas card and the note therein was from a cousin. It conveyed Christmas greetings, and also information that the battery in their mobility scooter had recently exploded causing a fire and attendance by the fire brigade. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but smoke damage has rendered their home uninhabitable for the next six months.  The Badger phoned his cousin, who has poor mobility due to advanced cancer, and was impressed by their insistence on looking forward with positivity rather than dwelling on events and their new circumstances. The first thing they said was a line from the movie Forrest Gump, namely ‘My mama always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’’  Their objectivity and optimism was remarkable given their health and the stress of having their life turned upside down before Christmas.

A security video shows the mobility scooter, unplugged, not being charged, unused for a number of days, and covered by its standard weather-proof cover, simply burst into flames when the battery exploded! The fire brigade are now using this as part of their campaign to raise awareness of the potential fire hazards associated with rechargeable batteries in, for example, e-bikes, e-scooters, and …mobility scooters used by the infirm.

As we approach Christmas, the Badger’s intent here is not be alarmist,  but simply to make three points. The first is to not only encourage you to be aware of the risk that comes with the use and storage of equipment with rechargeable batteries, but also to raise the profile of related fire brigade safety campaigns. The second is to reinforce a point the cousin made in our conversation, namely that Christmas is not really about material things, it’s about people, community, and looking forward rather than dwelling too much on past tribulations. The third is simply to wish all readers a happy and safe Christmas and New Year, and to encourage optimistic thoughts whatever your personal circumstances. Oh, and there’s one final thing. After the Badger finished talking to his cousin, he felt overwhelmingly relieved that Santa’s sleigh for delivering Christmas presents to children across the world is powered by magical forces, and not by batteries that could explode!!!

Think differently about your performance appraisal with your boss…

The reactions of people who’ve just had a performance appraisal with their boss varies enormously and also highlights how different we are as individuals. Personal reactions, of course, cover a wide spectrum. The Badger’s experience, however, is that while a person’s demeanour and body language says a lot about their reaction, most people share little more than the odd comment about their appraisal with others. There are always, of course, people who think they’ve been treated poorly and say so to anyone who will listen. In the Badger’s experience, such individuals tend to be self-centred, averagely talented, poor listeners, and they normally have egotistic or narcistic personalities.  These individuals, and those at the other end of the spectrum who are just downright lazy, unproductive, and permanently negative,  tend to share their displeasure widely and keep HR functions busy with claims of unfair treatment.

A youngster in their first job since leaving University 15 months ago whined to the Badger this week that their appraisal had been a shock and unfair. The youngster, hungry for rapid career and salary progression, unfortunately failed to recognise that they haven’t adjusted to working life as well as their peers. The Badger explained this, and in the course of doing so remembered some wisdom from a training course he attended many years ago. On that course, a behaviour expert, building on the sport coaching work of Tim Gallway, emphasised that we should think about individual performance using the simple equation ‘Performance = Talent – Interferences’. If someone has 100% Talent, then their Performance is never 100% because there are always Interferences from personal and/or organisational factors. Personal interferences come, for example, from lifestyle, health, family and/or caring responsibilities. Organisational interferences come, for example, from skill set mismatches with work role, adequacy of role definition, relationships with leaders and work colleagues, organisational bureaucracy, and factors like organisational dynamism and workforce stagnation if business growth is poor.

The behaviour expert’s key message was that everyone has Interferences, so no one can ever perform at 100%! Interestingly, they used the same equation to describe the performance of a company. In this case, Talent represents a company’s portfolio of  products and services, and Interferences are largely the policies, processes, and  controls that influence the delivery of the portfolio to clients. Bigger companies tend to have more Interferences than smaller ones, and no company ever performs at 100%, although clever accounting and expectation management often masks this!

So, think about your performance appraisal in the terms above. Your Talent is constant, so your Performance dips when Interferences rise. Eventually Interferences will reach a level that makes you feel like doing something different with your life. It’s very empowering when this happens, because it definitively changes the way you approach your appraisal with your boss.  

There’s more to getting a smart education than ever-smarter technology…

With a bleak Winter on the horizon, Pink Floyd’s ‘We don’t need no education…’ grumbling from the radio, and Remembrance Day a few days away, thoughts about the grip that tech has on our lives have been a trifle melancholic. Remembrance Day is always poignant for the Badger. His grandfathers, who he never knew, served in the Army during WW1, and his father rarely spoke of his childhood, his life during WW2, or his post-war Army service. The poignancy is heightened this year because the horrors and hardships they endured are evident today in a Ukrainian family currently being hosted by a family member. Sadly, the tech-dominated ‘progress’ of the 21st century has done little to change the propensity for humans to inflict harm on other humans.  

Research has expanded the Badger’s knowledge of his forefathers’ lives, producing enormous pride, and admiration for their resilience in the face of adversity. One grandfather won two Military Medals for bravery in WW1. The other was invalided out of the Army after being gassed in the trenches, a primary factor in his death in early middle-age. The Badger’s father was a child evacuee from London when WW2 started in 1939. He was orphaned in 1942 and joined the Army in 1946 serving in a decimated post-war Germany, and then in Egypt. When pressed, he would only say that these experiences were ‘character-building’ and had influenced his three favourite sayings, namely ‘There’s no such thing as can’t, try’, ‘If you’ve got a problem, don’t bleat about it, deal with it’, and ‘Every day is a day for learning’. When the Badger was growing up, these were part of the parental soundtrack of life and became embedded attitudes. It was his father’s way of passing on lessons learned from difficult life experiences. 1

The Pink Floyd rendition here reminds the Badger that education has not only changed dramatically over the decades, but also that today’s Tech makes it easier, in some respects, to adopt an ‘Every day is a day for learning’ attitude. The days of blackboard and chalk, and throwing chalk at a pupil not paying attention, are gone! The smartest of educations, however, comes from complementing learning delivered by ever-smarter technology with face to face, non-virtual, cross-generational discussions with people sharing their experiences and life lessons. Part of the Badger’s melancholic tinge is due to a feeling that ever-smarter technology is progressively diluting this kind of learning. Another part is a feeling that whilst today’s world is different to that of his forefathers, it isn’t really any better. The melancholic tinge will no doubt fade in a few days. On Remembrance Day, the Badger will be paying tribute to his forefathers, and their values, with great pride. ‘Every day is a day for learning’ is very much part of their legacy. Make it part of yours too.

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.

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.

School kids’ imagination and driverless vehicles…

A recent IET item about what school kids expect from driverless cars provides an interesting insight to how our digital-native school children imagine and think about the future. Their internet-dominated world provides lots of content about a future full of driverless cars, robots, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and renewables replacing fossil fuels. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that driverless cars grab their imagination, especially as they have the vehicles operated by their parents as a tangible, modern-day reference point.

It has always been the case that when school kids are asked how they imagine life to be a few decades in the future, their answers are influenced by their awareness of technology advances, hot societal issues, their interests, and factors like their family and schooling environment. When the Badger was a schoolboy, the Apollo Space Programme putting men on the moon was in full swing, nuclear reactors were proliferating to generate electricity, satellites were blossoming to broadcast television pictures around the world, and semiconductors were rapidly changing the size, capability, and quality of radios, televisions, gadgets, and mainframe computers used by major corporations. If the Badger and his school friends had been asked what life would be like some decades later, then living on the moon, human interplanetary space travel, abundant cheap electricity, and less work and more leisure time due to automation would have featured in the answers. Such answers are, in fact, similar to those in this interesting BBC Archive footage of 1960’s kids talking about the year 2000 .

Comparing what the Badger and his friends would have imagined with how things turned out just confirms what mature adults know, namely that the future is always different to what kids think it will be! After all, humans are not living on the moon or engaging in interplanetary space travel, nuclear reactors haven’t given everyone abundant cheap electricity, automation hasn’t really produced less work and more leisure time, and no one imagined the internet. It’s a certainty, therefore, that what today’s school kids are imagining the future to be will not happen as they envisage. There’s a quite simple reason for this and it’s this; kids’ imagination is unencumbered by the hard realities of politics, finance, economics, bureaucracy, legalities, and liabilities. It’s these realities that explain why the future is never quite what they imagine.

Today’s school kids should always be encouraged to imagine the future, but will what they imagine for driverless cars journeys on public roads become a reality in a few decades time? Unlikely, because delivering what technology can do into real use is always constrained by non-technological factors. Where the non-technological barriers are lower, however, things happen faster. For example, the school kids of farmers who imagined driverless tractors many years ago are seeing this come to fruition. Truly driverless tractors for use in fields will be coming off the John Deere factory line later this year.  

Young people regard scientists as trusted voices in society…

According to new research conducted for British Science Week which runs to 20th March, most young people feel that scientists need to do more to engage them with science. The research, involving surveys of 2000 14-to18 year olds and 2000 adults about their perspectives of science, scientists, and trust in different societal groups, provides some interesting but not unexpected insights. The comment ‘From this research, it’s clear that young people regard scientists as trusted voices in society, more so than politicians, journalists, or influencers’ made by Katherine Mathieson, the Chief Executive of the British Science Association (BSA), resonated strongly with the Badger.  

Young people’s regard for scientists as trusted voices in society has been reinforced by the work, raised media profile, and clear, honest, and articulate  communications of Professor’s Chris Whitty, Jonathan van Tam, Sarah Gilbert, and many other scientists from public and commercial organisations, during the COVID pandemic. Young people have also heard one of their own generation, Greta Thunberg, frequently tell politicians and journalists ’Don’t listen to me, listen to the scientists’. They regularly see the stark contrast between ‘facts’ from scientists and ‘spin’ from politicians and the media. It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that youngsters trust scientists more than politicians when, for example, only 16% (103 out of 650) of elected UK Members of Parliament (MP) have any science, engineering, or mathematics background or interest, and the other 84% have an education dominated by politics, law, economics, history, and philosophy.   

Regarding scientists as a trusted voice in society is a good thing. If politicians, journalists, and social media influencers want to improve their reputations and be trusted on a par with scientists then they probably need more scientists and engineers in their ranks. After all, everything we use in society wouldn’t be there without the work, knowledge, and ingenuity of scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

Last year saw an unprecedented growth in young people wanting to take science subjects at university. This upswing looks likely to continue. Indeed, the Badger’s nephew is considering going to university in 2023 to study a science subject because, as he puts it, his ambition is to ultimately ‘be a leading expert in something important that impacts society’. Currently, however, his thoughts are wavering a little because science subjects are ‘hard’ and many of his friends are preferring ‘easier’ subjects. The Badger, however, is confident that his nephew will decide on a ‘hard’ subject. Why? Because this highly principled lad wants to be a scientist and be seen by others to be part of a community that is seen by his peers as a bastion of trust in future society. British Science Week will hopefully inspire other young people along similar lines, because the never-ending chaos of our world needs trustworthy voices more than ever before.    

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?

Digital pollution

The High Street, closed to traffic, was crowded with people for the  annual Christmas Street Market. The numerous stalls selling craft items, festive decorations, food, and drink were doing good business. A group of ladies from Rock Choir sang songs and the smell of mulled wine hung enticingly in the air. Turnout was impressive. Everyone was enjoying themselves, especially after covid forced the market’s cancellation last year. Amongst the stalls there some booths where charities and campaign groups were drumming up support for their cause. One of these was manned by a millennial climate change campaigner who radiated enthusiasm. The  crowd moved unexpectedly, and before he could take evasive action the campaigner engaged the Badger in conversation!

Their spiel was well-practiced. Fossil fuels are bad, the oil, plastics, and chemical industries are all irresponsible polluters driven by corporate greed, and people who travel by plane or car are killing the planet. The Badger had no appetite for a prolonged debate, so he pointed to the campaigner’s iPad and to heir colleague listening to music on a smartphone and politely said, ‘You should be looking at your own digital pollution’. Movement of the crowd enabled the Badger to move on before the campaigner, slightly taken aback, could respond.

The Badger’s interest in digital pollution was heightened recently by both reading some articles (e.g. here, here, and here) and getting frustrated at a recent surge in irrelevant emails and ‘you might like’ social media content all of which just got ignored and deleted.  Every email, every interaction with the cloud, every search of the internet, every stream of a song or film, every social media post, every piece of online commentary, argument, misinformation, disinformation and propaganda, and every piece of digital advertising and marketing, not only comes with an emissions price, but also pollutes our well-being – as neatly articulated here.  Digital pollution is real; it has an emissions footprint and an insidious effect on our psychological well-being by affecting our emotional and intellectual capacity. On both counts this is worrying because emissions from building, delivering, and using digital technology already make up 4% of global emissions  and some are predicting an eight-fold rise in data traffic by 2030.

Our digital world has many benefits, but it comes with a form of pollution that’s much less obvious than the oil slicks and plastic flotsam we can readily see. Every interaction with data and online content comes with an emissions price and an insidious impact on how we think, feel, and behave. Just keep this in mind every time you use email, search the internet, and use online services and social media. Young campaigners at Christmas Markets should have digital pollution higher on their agenda. If it’s ignored, then in years to come their children and grandchildren will inevitably blame them for inaction on all of its polluting effects.

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…