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…

Presentations; Long live making an impact presenting to physical audiences…

The Badger yawned while furtively browsing emails and newsfeeds on his smartphone. As he sat in the large audience at the annual company senior management conference, little attention was being paid to the speaker’s presentation. A playful dig in the ribs from an adjacent colleague prompted the Badger to pay more attention, even though many others were disengaged and using their digital devices too.  Anyone who’ve attended many gatherings of this type then you’ll recognise this dynamic. If there’s nothing in the speaker’s delivery or their sides that’s interesting or memorable then large tracts of the audience will disengage and take away little that leaves a lasting impression.   

A chance discussion with a young graduate recently made the Badger appreciate more not only his own diverse experience of giving presentations, but also just how much this diversity had instilled a natural awareness that engaging the audience is essential when presenting. It doesn’t matter if the subject matter is dry corporate messaging, scientific or technological, or business or project related, if the presenter doesn’t make an impression with the audience, then the presentation’s impact will be minimal.  This doesn’t mean that everyone has to be a showman! It just means understanding your audience, playing to the strengths of your personality when you speak, telling a story, using methods and techniques that keep your audience interested and engaged, and ‘reading the room’ and adapting in real-time when you speak.

The Badger’s first presentations, many years ago, were of scientific research papers to audiences that contained academics, experimentalists, and specialist business professionals, at national and international symposia. Over the years since then the Badger’s given many presentations in both intimate and massive venues to university students, IT sector project and programme teams, business unit gatherings, clients, industry conferences, and, yes, company senior leadership conferences.  There were some training courses along the way but learning the ways of holding an audience’s attention came mostly from being on his feet in front of the physical crowd. That’s why the Badger often uses humour, props, pauses, gestures, and demonstrations whenever he can because they not only grab the audience’s attention, but also create memorable talking points long after the presentation has ended.

When the Badger said this during the discussion with the youngster mentioned above, anxiety quickly spread across their face. Why? Because later in the summer they are presenting in a large auditorium to a sizeable physical audience. This fills them with dread, because they’ve only given presentations to virtual audiences using tools like Zoom since graduating. They’ll be fine with a physical audience if they focus on keeping them engaged. The adrenaline and buzz from ‘live performance’ in front of a physical crowd will get them through, whet their appetite for more, and provide personal development beyond that gained from their virtual world experience to date.    

To impress at an interview takes more than qualifications…

Well-established companies often cooperate with the careers or employment services functions of universities. Such liaisons can raise the company profile with students considering their career options at the end of their course, and also help with achieving annual graduate recruitment objectives. A comment by a friend’s daughter on a practice interview at the end of her degree course, reminded the Badger that he and his company’s Human Resources (HR) Director once participated in an ‘interview practice day’ for final year Information Technology students arranged through an established company/university liaison.  

The format was simple. The Badger and the HR Director jointly interviewed each student as if it were for a real job.  Each student had been told the week previously to approach the session as if they were really trying to get an offer of employment. A university staff member observed each interview and then met with the interviewers at the end of the day for an overall debrief.  Feedback to the students happened the following day.

It was an interesting day, and the diverse personalities, attitudes, and approaches of the students brought home that everyone is different! With a couple of exceptions, most did themselves proud. To the Badger’s surprise, most wore smart attire for their interviews. For a few, however, a smart appearance proved no protection against weaknesses exposed by the experienced and skilled interviewers.  

The most memorable interview was with a young man wearing combat trousers and a tee-shirt with ‘I’m the Boss’ emblazoned across the front. This young man was highly intelligent, academically gifted, articulate, domineering, and permanently in transmit-mode!   He evaded every question and spent the entire session telling the interviewers how successful he was academically and how incredibly successful he was going to be in the future. At the end of the session, he stared at his interviewers and pompously asked, ‘I’m going to be hugely successful, aren’t I?’   The HR Director winked at the Badger and simply replied with ‘Perhaps, but not with our company’. The university observer laughed out loud!  At the post-event debrief, it transpired that tutors were already worried that the young man’s personality would hold him back from achieving his full potential.  

The Badger looks back on that day fondly.  It was an example of mutually beneficial company/university cooperation. It was a reminder that students, just like people everywhere, are all different. Some were idealistic, some realistic, and some were just plain deluded, but that’s the way it’s always been through the generations. Finally, it was a reminder for students that to impress at an interview requires soft-skills, preparation, and not just academic qualifications. If you don’t prepare holistically for a real interview, then you’re wasting your time…and time is precious in today’s world.

Petulance in a mad world

In a world driven by immediacy, social media, instant news, and instant opinions, it’s still possible to relax serenely with an interesting book. That is, of course, if you have the personal discipline to concentrate without using a keyboard for a sensible period of time. The other day the Badger was lounging at home immersed in ‘A Good Ancestor’ by Roman Krznaric. The radio was on and the Badger’s baby grandson was on the floor at his feet playing with a set of keys. The calmness of the scene was, however, broken when the Badger’s wife tried to swap the keys for a toy. The toddler’s noisy eruption of petulance coincided with the song  It’s a Mad World’ playing on the radio. The Badger sighed; his concentration broken. In that moment, the book, the petulance, and the song seemed like an apt reminder of the petulant, self-centred, mad, mad world we live in!  

Petulance can be seen everywhere – on the street, on social media, in current affairs and politics, in journalism, in business and during our life at work. It is something we are all guilty of on occasion.  One memorable display the Badger has witnessed happened at the conference dinner of a company leadership event held in Washington D.C, USA. The dinner started with a tour of the Capitol building. This was followed by a group photograph on its steps, and then the meal itself in a nearby location. The entertainment at the end of the meal involved giving every person a musical instrument so that a compere could teach the assembled multitude to play a part in performing a tune that was the finale of the event.  The Chief Finance Officer (CFO) was given a tambourine and erupted with a spectacular display of petulance. There was foot-stamping, table-thumping, and yelling until they got what they wanted – a drum!  This public display of bad temper became the talking point in the bar at the end of the evening. The CFO’s reputation was damaged for a very long time.

Petulance is part of the human condition, but if you don’t recognise that, and you don’t control it at work, then you risk being labelled by your bosses and colleagues as ill-disciplined, unreliable, and temperamentally unfit for your role. Everyone gets asked to do things they don’t want to do at work, but if your reaction when this happens is mostly petulant then you should anticipate having a short career, at least with your current employer. If you want a long and successful career, then recognise that you have petulance and learn to manage it!  Petulance is rife and more visible than ever in today’s mad world, but that’s no excuse for adopting it as a norm in your life. The best people manage their petulance…and what the world needs more than ever today is for more of us to strive to be one of the best.