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’.

Millennials; 100 years ago and today…

When the Badger entered the graveyard of the pretty, 13th century, English village church to put flowers on his mother’s grave, he was intending to write about the financial results of the tech giants. By the time he left, however, this intention had been consigned to the bin. Why? Because of thoughts triggered by seeing 318 white headstones of WW1 Canadian soldiers amidst the graveyard’s maple trees and acers in autumn colour. Most of these soldiers had  survived the Great War but were victims of the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu pandemic while waiting in a local military camp to be repatriated back to Canada.  Reading their inscriptions is always poignant, especially as most were aged between 18 and 30 when they succumbed so far away from home.  Their graves in this quiet corner of England are wonderfully maintained. If you’re interested, you can find who from the Great War is buried in a graveyard near you here.

The spectacular autumn colours, the rows of white headstones, and the fact that the Badger’s grandfathers served in and survived the Great War and the flu pandemic, triggered thoughts about just how different life was a 100 years ago. There were no anti-viral drugs and no antibiotics. There was no National Health Service, no television, no radio, no telephones for the masses, no electricity in the vast majority of homes, and – in the UK – the vote for all men over the age of  21 had only just been granted through an Act of Parliament in 1918. Life was tough, much tougher than most today have endured, but people got through it even though > 200,000 people died in the UK alone during the 4 pandemic waves between 1918 and 1920.

Today we are in the midst of another global pandemic but with tools and capabilities at our disposal that would have been pure science fiction 100 years ago.  Yet Western democracies are struggling to cope, politicians are arguing and scoring points off each other rather than standing shoulder to shoulder, broadcast and social media is full of scaremongering, selectivism, and naysayers spreading gloom and confusion, and economies are crumbling. Behaviour underpinned by the modern digital capabilities available through our smartphones, tablets and laptops has contributed to polarisation and disruption!  Yes, today’s tech gives everyone a voice, but what use is that if rationality and common sense is in the minority and society can be seen to be progressively fraying?  The Badger’s in a strange mood. Perhaps he’s being unfair.

Staring at the grave of a 20 year old soldier from Ontario, a millennial of the last century, the Badger wondered what the soldier would think about his counterparts today and the world they live in. Hmm. However, as the Badger left, a small group of millennial cyclists stopped to look at the graves. They started chatting about this very thing. From what the Badger overheard, there’s hope for us all yet…  

In remembrance…and extended service contracts…

The Badger recently met his cousin, her husband, and their 8-year old daughter at the D-Day Museum on the seafront in Portsmouth – and yes, virus protocols were observed! We met outside by  LCT 7074, the newly installed landing craft that put 10 tanks on the Normandy beaches in 1944. It’s an awe-inspiring sight. We then visited the museum and ended with a cream tea in the museum’s café.

For us adults, the visit was a sobering reminder of why honouring the fallen on Remembrance Day is important. The 8-year old was mesmerised by what she saw and particularly liked the panto-like show the museum put on to give kids a taste of life during the Blitz.  When Mr Churchill asked them ‘will we ever surrender?’ all the kids jumped up and screamed ‘No’ at the top of their voices!  Every adult present glowed with pride.   

Afterwards, over a cream tea, the Badger’s cousin helped her daughter fill in a competition form, and her husband, who works in Service Delivery for a major outsource service provider, chatted about some of his work frustrations. He bemoaned how difficult it was to deliver a service without direct control over resources, perpetually having to apologise for something, and incessant pressure from his management to mitigate financial challenges. He was frustrated with the client for always taking credit when things went well but quickly pillorying the service provider when they didn’t. Apparently, his line management want to extend the duration of the contract to help mitigate financial stress, but the client isn’t keen. He said he felt permanently stressed!

The Badger commiserated and playfully said how pleased he was to have stepped off the corporate hamster wheel. The husband enquired about the Badger’s first reaction whenever he saw media announcements that an outsource or service contract had been extended.  The Badger replied that his reaction is always the same. First, to treat any press release with caution because none of the people making the announcement will be there for the duration! Second, if the extension is before having reached 50% of the original contract duration then the extension is probably some kind of ‘dispute resolution’. Third, the client and service provider are ‘kicking the can down the road’ to create additional time to fix some kind of underlying problem definitively.  The husband grinned and said cynical suspicion was always a good starting point!  

The Badger’s cousin intervened to change the subject and her daughter innocently asked if her Grandad had an iPad while growing up the 1940s. We all laughed. Her mother replied ‘No, he didn’t need one because, as you saw in the show, life is about more than just the internet and gadgets’.  Quite.  The little girl then asked what outsourcing was and if it explained why her Grandad was always grumpy like her father! None of us had an answer…

Everyone seems offended by everything all of the time!

One of the things we all learn as we go through life is that everyone is different. Some people are brutal and selfish, some are supportive and caring, some are extrovert and some are not, some are hand wavers and some are into detail, some are structured and cautious and some are impulsive and carefree, and so on.  Finding our own way of dealing with people who are different to ourselves is one of life’s journeys.

Last week the Badger met a young graduate who has just started their first job since leaving University. They are finding the people they work with ‘difficult’, describing all their work colleagues as strong personalities who are focused solely on getting their work done on time and to budget. They admitted to finding it tough, not unusual for youngsters who leave University with an expectation of the work environment only to find the reality quite different. They also mentioned that they were offended by many of the attitudes, opinions, and behaviours of their work colleagues.  The Badger listened carefully, gave some general advice, and then told them something his father had said fifty years ago when the Badger came home from school one day offended by a teacher’s unflattering comments on an essay submitted as homework.   

His words, which have stayed with the Badger ever since, were:

‘Life is full of offence, but you can choose to be offended, or you can choose not to be offended. The better person will choose not to be offended because the alternative is to accept a path to permanent resentment and hatred’.

The youngster reacted by saying that unlike five decades ago ‘Everyone in the world today is offended by everything all of the time’. The Badger agreed that the evidence for this is tangible and suggested that it is one of the downsides of the dramatic evolution of the internet, social media, and mobile tech in the last twenty years. Playfully, the Badger also said that it wouldn’t be that way if people didn’t spend all their time glued to their smartphones and social media. Oh dear! That was a bad move.

The youngster thought, wrongly, that the Badger was having a dig at a generation that doesn’t know a time before the internet and social media. ‘I’m offended that you should say that’, they said. The Badger, slightly taken-aback, simply rolled his eyes and said, ‘Don’t be’.  The conversation ended and the youngster walked off in a huff tapping something into their smartphone.

That was last week. This morning, the Badger found out that they will be leaving their employer before their probationary period is up because ‘they don’t fit in and their performance is below expectation’.  Not surprised, the Badger thought. Perhaps now they will appreciate that the world is not your oyster if you are offended by everything all the time…   

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should…

A client and their supplier were at loggerheads. The former was withholding payment of a large milestone payment and the latter was threatening to turn off IT systems they ran for the client unless payment was made. The impasse had rumbled on for some time with both parties using expensive lawyers to pore over a poor contract. The client asked the Badger for a completely independent view on what to do. A poisoned chalice, especially when and it was quickly apparent that uncompromising and intransigent personalities on both sides were at the heart of the problem.

A solution was found by facilitating awareness on both sides that ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’. The client was withholding payment and supplier threatening to turn off IT because they could, regardless of any contract, but neither was a sensible or ethical thing to do. Both parties eventually realised this. Ultimately the client paid the money, the supplier withdrew threats to turn off IT, personalities on both sides were changed, and lawyers were redirected from a litigation path into improving the poor contract. Things slowly normalised and the Badger was ultimately thanked for reminding everyone that ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ should never be forgotten when times are difficult.

The other day this phrase came to mind again when reading about a Russian company proposing to use microsatellites for celestial advertising in the night sky,  Estee Lauder making a product advert on the Internal Space Station (ISS), the winner of a proposed reality TV show getting a seat on the 2023 mission to the ISS, and  the impact on the night sky of Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellite constellation.  

Surely the commercialisation of Space illustrates not only human ingenuity and creativity, but also human stupidity! One of the joys of life is to step into a cloudless night and peer at the stars, just like our ancestors have done for thousands of years.  It’s doubtful that many of us really want that to be interfered with, but it seems inevitable that it will be.  We have a habit of slowly polluting or destroying whatever environment we touch – the ground, the sea, the air, and even the internet and social media – and the Badger finds it rather sad that the night sky is the next in line. 

Have our leaders considered ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ with regard to Space commercialisation and our night sky? No chance. Why? Well there may be a clue in the final lines of Monty Python’s ‘The Galaxy Song’ from the 1983 film ‘The Meaning of Life’:

So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth!

Quite!  A sentiment from 37 years ago that still resonates strongly today…

‘Discuss, decide, do’…life’s full of decisions…

Bah, humbug!  That was the Badger’s reaction after flicking through the television news channels the other morning.  The facts in the news were one thing, but the doom and complaint-laden analysis of interviewers and interviewees just emphasised that much should be taken with a pinch of salt!  It wasn’t a good start to the day.

But then the Badger’s phone rang. It was a ‘first-time’ Project Manager seeking advice from someone with ‘independent wisdom’ on the type of project they were running.  The Badger was flattered and pleased to help.  The first-timer was under significant pressure to hit key delivery milestones in the coming few weeks.  They admitted to being overwhelmed by the plethora of decisions they had to make and frustrated that delivery was at risk because of interminable, inconclusive discussions with their internal line masters.

It became clear that the first-timer felt that prior to every decision there needed to be discussions to achieve consensus. They were also fearful of making wrong decisions.  Fortunately, they had the maturity to chat about their situation and take input from someone completely independent.  The Badger simply conveyed the following four points:

  • Decision making happens in all facets of life. No one makes the right decision 100% of the time, and so – to borrow from Franklin D Roosevelt’s 1933 US Presidential Inauguration address – the only thing you have to fear in making a decision is fear itself. Never prevaricate, make a decision.
  • If you want to succeed as a Project Manager then recognise there’s a ‘Discuss, Decide, and Do’ cycle to everything you do, but exercise your authority and don’t allow the ‘Discuss’ element to overwhelm the timeline of this cycle.
  • Be brave. Cut through barriers and dithering and make your mark. Show your team, your line management and the client that you have a ‘buck stops here’ mindset. If you can’t then delivery-focused Project Management may not be for you.
  • There are always nay-sayers and grumblers, but most will never sit in your hot seat with your responsibilities. Spend more time preparing for the decisions of the future than listening to the opinions of others on the decisions of the past.

The first-timer went quiet for a moment and then asked ‘So what you’re really saying is that as Project manager I need to be single-minded, have a backbone, cut through the fog to make decisions, and realise that if I want my Project to deliver then it can’t be run as a democracy?’ Answer? Err, Yes, something like that!  

When the call ended the Badger had an optimistic sense that something latent in the first-timer’s psyche had been liberated.  Time will tell. The call also triggered the Badger to make a decision of his own – not to listen to the analysers and grumblers on television news. Because that’s the only way to start the day with optimism and an open mind…

So you think you’re not biased? Think again…

All organisations have policies and processes for recruiting people from the external market into vacant roles and candidates typically meet their prospective employer for an ‘interview’ at some stage, even with today’s technology. Those doing the interviewing tend to be well-trained by their employers, which was certainly true for the Badger who has interviewed many people for roles at all levels of seniority and some of these were sessions never to be forgotten!

Many years ago, the Badger interviewed a series of candidates to project manage and lead the overall delivery of a major IT contract with a new client. One candidate was of a lady whose CV showed six roles with impressive titles at four different companies in the previous three years. The interview proved memorable. She was ten minutes late, made no attempt to apologise, and immediately launched into how perfect she was for the role as soon as she was seated. Hmm, not a great start, but the Badger quickly took control and focused on what needed to be explored.   

It transpired that the impressive titles on her CV covered mainly administrative project support functions rather than overall delivery leadership. It also transpired that she had moved companies four times in three years because she was ‘under-appreciated and didn’t fit’.  But it wasn’t any of this that made the meeting, it was what she said afterwards as the Badger politely escorted her back to reception.  She asked if she would have a second interview and whether was she in the running for the role. The Badger said no politely on both counts. The lady glared and said, ‘It’s because you are biased against women, isn’t it?’  Taken aback for a second, the Badger replied – truthfully – ‘No. It’s because when I asked you to describe the traditional system delivery lifecycle and a number of the key risk points in it, you couldn’t’.  The lady stormed off!

This sticks in the memory because it triggered the Badger to improve his awareness and knowledge of bias and the effect it has on one’s own behaviour and that of others.  It made the Badger really appreciate that everyone has in-built ‘unconscious bias’, and that knowing this, and the fact that it’s easier to see it in others than it is to see it in yourself, helps you make better decisions.  There’s some informative ‘unconscious bias’ articles  here, here, here and here.

Ever since the interview with the lady, two related things have been raised in the Badger’s consciousness.  The first is to use your training when interviewing and be aware of ‘unconscious bias’ when making your decision.  The second is not to be fazed if someone accuses you of being biased, because it’s a fact of human existence that your accuser has their own in-built bias too!