Courage; find it and use it…

The Badger was recently asked ‘What was the most courageous thing you saw someone do during your career?’ The person asking expected an answer that related to someone making an operational, delivery, or business decision that turned out right even though most were sceptical.  The Badger’s answer, however, was somewhat different. It related to a young researcher presenting a paper to a few hundred academics in a large auditorium at a national conference.  

Courage is that mental strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty. Everyone has it, although we often do not appreciate this as we go about our work and life routines. The Badger has seen many demonstrate enormous courage when dealing with business and project delivery situations over the years, and leaders and managers, of course, often encounter situations that require courage to navigate. Nothing the Badger saw, however, surpassed the courage shown by the young researcher presenting their paper at this conference.

The Badger, himself a young researcher at the time, had presented his own scientific paper at the conference and had returned to his auditorium seat to listen to the remaining presentations of the session. As a young presenter made their way to the lectern to give the final paper before lunch, everyone in the audience immediately sensed that something was not right. The young presenter’s entire body was physically shaking. The chairperson asked if everything was okay. The presenter nodded a confirmation and started their presentation.  

From their quivering voice, disjoint delivery, long pauses, and deep breaths between sentences, the whole auditorium realised that they were witnessing a person overwhelmed with nerves. The disjointed flow of words, long embarrassing pauses, and visible shaking continued through the entire presentation. It was uncomfortable to watch, and the presenter’s discomfort rather than the content of their paper became the centre of everyone’s attention. At the end of the presentation, the presenter stood, shaking and silent, in anticipation of questions.  The Badger felt he was witnessing extraordinary courage, and so did the entire audience who erupted with rapturous applause and a standing ovation!

The Badger was at the same table as the presenter for lunch, and conversation inevitably turned to their nervousness. They explained that it was their first time presenting to such a large audience, that public speaking of any kind had never been their forte, and that they had forced themselves to present at the conference because they felt they needed to overcome their public speaking fears to have a successful career in scientific research.  They were shocked by the standing ovation but also elated that it signalled support and encouragement from the scientific community. The researcher went on to become a world expert in their field!

Courage is something we all have deep inside. If you want to achieve your full potential, then find it and liberate it, and the world can be your oyster…

Changing of the guard…

A chance meeting with a frustrated young manager recently led to an interesting discussion about the ‘changing of the guard’ at the company where they work. Their company has been acquired by a much larger one. Apparently, it was a strategic purchase that provides the new owners with lots of opportunity to ‘maximise synergies and improve efficiency’’. Hmm, the Badger immediately thought having lived through this kind of thing several times. The youngster was frustrated because the acquiring company had injected new, inexperienced management whose dominant priority seemed to be procedural and administrative rather than ‘business’.  

The youngster was irritated that the ‘changing of the guard’ had led to reporting to others of similar age who were opinionated, procedural, and intransigent, but fundamentally lacking in knowledge, relevant expertise, and experience. The youngster felt ignored and belittled. The Badger advised calm, objectivity, and not to rock the boat in the short term, but to have game plan to look after their personal interests if things were not really going to work out. The youngster had one and was already executing it!

‘Changing of the guard’, of course, happens all the time in business and wider life. It is a perpetual reality. It does not, however, always put the right people in the right positions, nor does it mean that better decisions will be made. As recent items from City A.M and the IET highlight, we are in the throes of ‘changing of the guard’  today, with millennials – broadly those under 40 – beginning to take  the leadership helm in business and across society. Millennials are wholly digital-native, and have attitudes, expectations, beliefs, and an impatience to redefine the status quo that has been shaped by ‘information age’ technology, the impact of the 2008/9 financial crash, and the COVID-19 pandemic. As they progressively take the helm, it is safe to assume that they will focus on addressing their complaints about the situations left by preceding generations.     

But will things be better in their hands? With millennials often labelled as volatile, fickle, easily offended, over-emotional, work-shy and dominated by social media, it is far from a certainty. Every generation thinks they know best, and every generation makes mistakes which the next one complains about. It will be no different for millennials! Reading the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Risk Report highlights soberingly that we need the world to improve in the hands of the millennials, but evidence that it will is sparse so far. We need our millennial generation of leaders to be focused, resolute, have a strong work ethic, and to take real responsibility and accountability because ‘changing of the guard’ to a cadre of over-emotional, unrealistic, handwringers will just make matters worse. It is time for millennials to step up and really show that the labels used to describe their generation in the past are wrong.

Improve team spirit and teamwork – deploy a brick!

An old friend is a civil engineer in Hong Kong. They left the UK years ago, jumping at an opportunity to live and work where their martial arts movie idol – Bruce Lee – grew up. Bruce Lee died young but, as the Badger’s friend often tells him, he left many nuggets of wisdom, including ’Instead of buying your children all the things you never had, you should teach them all the things you were never taught. Material wears out but knowledge stays’.  

Whenever Hong Kong hits the headlines, the Badger is reminded of the last boozy meeting with his friend in the UK. It included a discussion about bricks!  Bricks came to fore again this week when a young team leader running defect fixing, build, and regression testing for a large, complex, software system called. They were seeking inspiration because their large team was struggling with a sizeable defect backlog, and frequent fix, build, and regression test failures. Team members were working more as a collection of individuals rather than as a team with a strong team spirit and common purpose.  Paid overtime and a bonus had been introduced, but to little effect. Did the Badger have any suggestions? ‘Yes. Introduce a brick!’

The team leader, taken aback, wanted an explanation and the Badger recounted that he had overcome the same problem by awarding a house brick to someone on the team at the end of each week! The brick was given to the person responsible for something within the team’s overall control that had failed. Commonly, for example, this was for defect fixes that had either not in fact fixed the defect or had introduced other problems. Majority voting by all team members determined who received the brick which had to be displayed prominently on the recipient’s desk.  The ignominy of being awarded the brick proved hugely beneficial to improving individual performance, team spirit, quality, overall teamwork, and progress. Recipients were always reluctant to explain why there was brick on their desk, especially to passing management and visitors!  Over time, the brick encouraged individuals to ask for help from colleagues and it brought some levity to the grind of relentless routine and pressure. At the end of the project, the brick was mounted on a wooden plinth and presented to the person who was top of the recipient league table!  

The team leader chuckled and realised that financial incentives are not a panacea. They work best if coupled with creative ways of encouraging the human behaviours that maximise team spirit and teamwork.   Techniques like the brick work even when financial incentives are unaffordable which is why good delivery leaders have things like this in their arsenal of tools.

The Badger, as per Bruce Lee’s point above, feels not only that he has passed some knowledge on, but also that his civil engineer friend would be very happy to know that bricks can help in the production of software!

Meetings and muppets…

One of the Badger’s bosses from years ago sadly died recently, taken way too soon by COVID-19. On hearing the news, a memory of his boss chairing a large meeting of business and functional leaders quickly came to the fore. The Badger’s boss, someone whose external visage – shall we say – masked an intellect and capability that was second to none, tired of the vacuous hand waving and grand-standing of one of the meeting attendees and interjected with ‘I’m beginning to wonder what muppet appointed you when I hear rubbish like this’. The hand waver immediately responded with ‘Actually, it was you that appointed me!’  The Badger’s boss gave a wry smile and said, ‘Well I must have had a Fozzie Bear moment, which is something I will rectify if you continue being the Swedish Chef’. Everyone giggled and the meeting got back on track.

Later that day, over small talk at a coffee point, the Badger’s boss playfully told him that everyone in meetings considers themselves to be better and more deserving than others present, and that one or more of the attendees are muppets! The boss went on to say that people also sit there wondering how someone less capable than themselves could have been appointed to an important position. The boss advised the Badger to remember these points when attending meetings, to consciously learn about human behaviour, and to use this understanding for advantage whenever you can.

The Badger has indeed sat through meetings over the years wondering how he could be surrounded by muppets and how they could have got to where they were in their careers with such obvious flaws!  Many of you have probably done the same. In the real world of organisations, of course, it is not always about how good you are at your job, your knowledge, or your experience that gets you into a key position, it is often how you play internal politics, who you know, and  how much energy you put into looking good rather than doing a good job. This can be very frustrating, but it is a fact of life and also of human behaviour.  

The Badger’s boss imparted one final point of wisdom before leaving the coffee point, namely, that if you are sitting in a meeting thinking that others are muppets and undeserving of their position, then you must remember that they are thinking exactly the same about you!  The boss looked the Badger in the eye, grinned broadly, and said, ‘In meetings, your career, and life, you need to manage the muppets before they manage you’.  The boss, in an action not dissimilar to the Swedish Chef, then poured coffee down the front of their suit jacket!  The Badger will remember them not only for their wisdom and sound advice, but also because they were never a muppet.  

Promises of certainty…

One funny moment  in the Badger’s career – and, believe me, there were many – occurred in a highly confrontational business meeting. The prime contractor, a multi-national engineering project management organisation, had summoned senior executives from their supplier to explain the continual delay in delivering key systems and software on the critical path of the prime’s entire programme.  The meeting, led by the prime’s UK General Manager, was attended by ~20 people made up of ~15 from the prime and  5  from the supplier.  The supplier – the Badger’s employer – was represented by their UK Managing Director (MD) and senior leaders, one of whom was the Badger.

From the outset of the session, the prime’s UK General Manager was in transmit mode. The ferocity of their tirade about the supplier’s failings was relentless and uncomfortable. It felt like facing into a hurricane!  After ~20 minutes, the General Manager ended their rant by slapping the table, demanding a guarantee that the supplier would get back on track to meet the overall programme’s dates, and picking up their mug of coffee for a drink.  

The Badger’s MD instantly responded with ‘If you want a guarantee then go see your doctor who will tell you that the only guarantee in life is that one day you will die’. The General Manager shuddered causing the mug of coffee to slip from their hand. Their clumsy attempts to recover only led to the mug spinning through the air spraying its contents over themselves, their papers, and their adjacent colleagues. On the supplier side of the table, we could barely contain our laughter!

 A short timeout was called to sort out the mess, refresh spoiled papers, and recover composure.  When the meeting resumed, the Badger’s MD took the initiative with ‘In programme delivery there are never really any guarantees, and you should know that. There are now two choices; either you persist in demanding guarantees from us – in which case we are leaving and we will see you in court – or we can have a sensible and mutually respectful discussion about solving problems. Which is it?’ Common sense prevailed. 

It was listening to a well-known journalist asking for guarantees while interviewing a politician about the COVID-19 pandemic that triggered this memory. There is, of course, a ritual gamesmanship played out between journalists and politicians in interviews, but it seems rather stupid for journalists to flog a dead horse by asking for guarantees when most of the general public can see that no one can provide any promise of certainty in this pandemic. One day a politician might just tell a journalist that if they want a guarantee then they should go see their doctor! Unlikely, but funny if it happened. The lesson from this is, of course, to tread very, very carefully if you are asked if you can guarantee something. Never answer with a clear cut, definitive ‘Yes’!

It’s impossible to live without failing at something…

As the young graduate entered the room, the Badger sensed there was something on wrong. The Badger’s project was the youngster’s second assignment since joining the company after University and they were doing well, showing plenty of potential, and doing their work on time and to a high standard. As they pulled a chair away from the table to sit down, however, their demeanour and body language were broadcasting that there was a problem.  

‘What’s the problem?’, the Badger asked. The youngster was a little emotional and announced that completion of a key task given to them by their team leader would be delayed.  The task was on the critical path and so the whole project would be delayed.  The youngster’s team leader had insisted that they tell the Badger this personally. The Badger gently chuckled, mainly to ease the youngster’s upset, but also to mask his annoyance with the youngster’s team leader! The youngster, who had expected an angry outburst, relaxed, and a sensible discussion ensued during which it emerged that their failure to complete a work task on time coincided with the failure of a relationship in their private life. They were emotional because they felt that their failure would blight their career with the company forever. 

The Badger provided reassurance, told them that everyone fails, and mentioned something that Marilyn Monroe once said – ‘Just because you fail once doesn’t mean you’re gonna fail at everything’.  Quite why this quote came to mind remains a mystery to this day! Nevertheless, the youngster left in a better frame of mind, discussions took place with their team leader, and a way was found to keep the project on track. The Badger has seen the youngster a number of times as their career unfolded. Every time they have thanked him for the Marilyn Monroe quote because it made them realise they should never be afraid of failure. The Badger is very pleased to have been some help, especially as the youngster now successfully runs their own company! Their team leader at the time is still a team leader. 

Failure of one kind or another pervades much of what you can read online in today’s shrill, immediate, globally connected world. It would be easy to get depressed about the state of everything, but we should not despair! Instead, we should remember the wise words of the  Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling – ‘It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.’    These words are as true for governments, institutions, and corporations as they are for individuals.  Never let failure get you down or become your norm. Failure is something every organisation and every person encounters, and dealing with it makes you stronger and more likely to succeed in the future.   

Change…

What a year it’s been! There can’t be many people across the globe who haven’t been touched in some way by personal, social, or economic impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic.  It would be very easy, as a New Year approaches, to not only indulge in hand-wringing sadness, regret, and despondency about the events of 2020, but also to speculate – with or without optimism – about the future. But there’s enough of that in the traditional media, on the internet, and on social media platforms, so the Badger set himself a challenge over the Christmas holiday to sum up both the last year and the future using just one word!

That word didn’t take long to emerge. It was streaks ahead of the alternatives. The word was ‘change’.   

This year has seen ‘change’ in nearly everything – how we shop, the structure and the nature of industry sectors, the profile of scientists, technologists and health and care professionals, the way we work, travel, and interact with other people, the shape of the economy and our cities, and our awareness of how the world really works. We now all know that rather than bombs and guns, things you cannot see which don’t respect geographic boundaries can wreak real havoc to our lives and threaten our species. We have also all seen just how dependent we are on global supply chains, digital technology, the well-being of the planet, and – indeed – on each other.

Change doesn’t stop, so the word ‘change’ is more than apt to describe the future. The First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 100 years ago were triggers for major personal, societal, and economic change, and so its highly likely we’ll see the same once the Covid-19 pandemic abates but this time much, much faster.  Why? Because the pandemic has made us face the reality that the old ways really were truly unsustainable.

The Badger thinks we have all been reminded of one thing this year, that you can never be certain in life of what’s around the next corner.  Predicting the future is fraught with risk and disappointment, especially with the world continuing to be in a very difficult place. But with ‘change’ inevitable in 2021, the Badger thinks there’s only one New Year resolution for sensible people to make and that’s to  ‘embrace rather than resist the changes ahead’.   Whether we like it or not, change is a perpetual aspect of our lives. History shows that resisting it leads to disadvantage, avoidable anxiety, and ultimately personal, societal, and economic collateral damage that serves no one well. And on that point of philosophical reflection, the Badger wishes you well and that you have a better 2021 than 2020.

‘Blue Christmas’ and Alvin and the Chipmunks…

A senior client at a large engineering firm asked the Badger to be an observer at a  meeting about a major programme that was off the rails. It was a whole day affair involving the client, the programme manager, and the key people from the IT, engineering maintenance, engineering operations, finance, resourcing, and stores and logistics departments. Throughout the day, individuals and departments blamed each other for  difficulties, belittled the programme manager and their decisions, and even questioned the company’s  strategic decision to embark on the programme. The Badger realised that everyone had lost sight of the big picture, were dwelling on the past, and engaging in internal politics and point scoring. At the heart of the  programme’s predicament was the wrong attitude, approach and behaviour of every one of those present.

At the end of the meeting, the client asked the Badger if he had an observation to share. The Badger just said ‘Today everyone has blamed someone else, dwelt on the negatives, and engaged in factionalised points scoring.  This programme is failing and so each of you is already tarred with failure. If you want to be associated with success then each of you needs to stop bickering and blaming others, unite around strategic objectives, and take personal responsibility for doing the right thing’.  There was silence. The client grinned and closed the meeting.  

The Badger was reminded of this last night while sitting by the Christmas tree cogitating on television, online and social media coverage of new restrictions to curb the virus that impact everyone’s Christmas plans. The interminable hand-wringing, hysteria, political point scoring, shrill cries of unfairness and woe,  and blaming others for disrupting Christmas is very similar but unfortunate reality of today’s instant attention-grabbing world. The reality is that every one of us, without exception, has a responsibility involving uncomfortable choices and decisions if this devious virus is to be beaten. Just like for the wayward programme noted above, our individual attitude, common sense,  behaviour, and collaboration is what will determine success. Yes, recent restrictions make Christmas even more difficult for everyone, including the Badger, but we are a highly adaptable species and so we’ll cope.  

This year Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’ from 1957 will be apt for many of us. This  Christmas will be difficult but also a rich source of memories and stories to be passed down the generations for years to come and so it deserves something to put a smile on your face.   Let’s make Christmas ‘glass half full’ rather than ‘glass half empty’  and listen to Alvin and the Chipmunks as we focus on absent family and friends! It might help to alleviate the gloom and put a smile on your face for a couple of minutes. And on that note, the Badger wishes you all a safe Christmas with as much happiness as it’s possible to muster in these turbulent times…

Information pollution…

After months of abstinence, the Badger treated himself to fish and chips  while visiting Crawley, a town which has seen sizeable unemployment during the Covid-19 pandemic due to its proximity to Gatwick Airport. The chip shop was open, all the appropriate virus protection measures were in place, and a rumbling stomach made it impossible to resist! 

The Badger placed his order and the counter assistant, a lady in late middle-age, made conversation while she waited for a fresh batch of chips to complete frying. ‘Will you have the new vaccine?’, she enquired. ‘Yes. What about you?’, the Badger replied. What followed was a torrent of reasons for why she would not have the vaccine.  The lady said the government could not be trusted, the vaccine had been rushed, short-cuts had been taken, pharmaceutical giants were only doing it to make big profits, and that everything she saw in newspapers, on television, on the internet and on social media had made her very wary. Looking at her smartphone as she spoke, the lady went on to say that she wasn’t going to take the risk of getting ill from the vaccine because her elderly mother and her children depended on her.  The Badger listened and inwardly sighed,  but at that point the fresh chips became available and the conversation went no further.

Mulling over the lady’s words while eating the food a few minutes later, the Badger decided  that her view provided an illustration of  how ‘information pollution’ influences many in the modern world. According to widely available statistics, we  look at our smartphones at least  every 10 minutes during waking hours, much of it to watch  attention grabbing, instantaneous social media feeds like Twitter and Facebook. As the thought provoking article here points out, speed of information availability eclipses accuracy, and so misinformation, distortion, selectivism, and falsities easily become the norm pushing fact into the background.

‘Information pollution’ is rife and it is one of the biggest ‘man-made’ challenges for digital-native generations to deal with if we want society to avoid descending into anarchy. Regulation and legislation are necessary and inevitable to ensure media and social media platforms genuinely tackle the issue rather than just pay lip service to it.  Pollution, after all,  comes in many forms. The chemical, oil, manufacturing, farming, and pharmaceutical industries have to comply with laws covering poisons and pollution, so why should  ‘information pollution’ be treated differently?

So, there you have it. A conversation in a fish and chip shop can make you think!  As the Badger finished the last chip, he resolved to maintain the healthy analysis of information to get at the facts that has stood him in good stead in his work and private life for years. Accordingly, even with ‘information pollution’ still rising, having the vaccine is clearly the rational  and common-sense thing to do. Life, after all, is full of dealing with risk of one form or another.

If you can’t stand the heat…

The young Badger’s first assignments in the IT industry involved technical work and software development. Much was learned, and this fuelled an appetite for advancement and greater challenges, one of which was becoming a ‘divisional coordinator’ helping a Divisional Manager run every aspect of their line of business. This role significantly enhanced the Badger’s understanding of human nature, and the motivations and behaviours of those who get things done in an organisation.

Every fortnight the Divisional Manager and the Badger attended fortnightly operational reviews with the former’s boss, the Group Manager responsible for multiple Divisions.  These were uncompromisingly direct meeting! As a youngster, the Badger found sitting next to his boss as they were verbally chastised and interrogated about every minor issue an uncomfortable experience, even though the Badger’s boss took it in their stride.  

After one particularly vociferous and harsh session that involved raised voices,  the Divisional Manager took the young Badger to a local tea-room for a debrief.  Over tea and cake, the Badger asked why his boss stayed so calm in the face of these verbal whippings. He smiled, said it was because he understood his boss, and went on to make the following points:

  1. Leaders and managers are paid to make things happen. They had to be demanding or nothing would happen. Running any enterprise requires tough and demanding people to achieve real outcomes. Remember, a business is not a democracy.  
  2. Humans are not exempt from ‘the survival of the fittest’ inDarwin’s theory of evolution. People have different personalities and temperaments, but everyone has a hurtful streak. Successful leaders learn about  human behaviour and how to handle those they interface with using techniques appropriate to their strengths, weaknesses, and temperament. Sometimes it’s necessary to be ruthlessly brutal because some people require that to get the message!
  3. Remember the ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me’ mantra from school days because if you let being called names hurt you then whoever is calling you the names wins! Leaders never dwell on this. Instead, they stay focused on their job.  

The Badger was reminded of the above while watching a popular UK television series that has the public voting for a member of a group of minor celebrities to undergo an ordeal. The public had consistently voted for the same frightened individual and in doing so neatly illustrated the innate human capacity to pick on the perceived weakest in any group. Interestingly, it also illustrated that if the picked-on individual faced up to their demons then they won out and public attention focused elsewhere!   

Human nature hasn’t really changed over the decades. It’s as true today as it’s ever been that you need to toughen up to succeed in any environment.  President Harry S. Truman’s words from 75 years ago are still apt…’If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’.