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 no such thing as a grouchy old person…

The Badger has noted a rise recently in the ‘suggested for you’ items pushed to him on Facebook. Normally these items are simply ignored, but the other day when ‘Dumfries and Galloway! What’s going on?’ appeared as ‘suggested for you’ the Badger was intrigued. What had he been doing online recently that could make the algorithms behind the scenes conclude this might be of interest? After wracking his brain for a minute, the answer didn’t materialise. May be Facebook is desperately pushing anything to increase the time users stay on the platform? Perhaps, because user stickiness is, after all, core to social media business models, and Facebook will, no doubt, use whatever techniques it can to make money and counter waning user popularity.

The attention-grabber with the ‘Dumfries & Galloway’ item was simply the following headline text:   

‘There’s no such thing as a grouchy old person. The truth is, once you get old you stop being polite and start being honest.’

It made the Badger – who strives to be polite, honest, and never grouchy (although some may disagree) – chuckle, reflect, and realise that the sentiment conveyed by this text applies throughout our working lives and not just in our dotage.

Think back to when you left school, college, or university and entered the workforce. No matter how full of enthusiasm you were, you probably deferred to the views and decisions of colleagues ten or more years older than yourself because they were ‘old’ and more experienced. Now roll forward ten years to when you had married, acquired a large house mortgage, and perhaps a couple of young children. You were now part of the ranks at work that you once considered ‘old’, but you were still probably careful of openly disagreeing with ten-year older colleagues in senior positions to avoid putting your employment and salary income at risk.

Roll forward yet another ten years to when your mortgage is no longer a millstone, you have some financial security, and the children are finding their own way in life. You realise your career has plateaued, those ten-years older are retiring, that leaving the workforce is the next big personal milestone, and that you have nothing to fear from saying what you really think. Directness, impatience, and frustration come to the surface, and younger colleagues think you are just a grouchy ‘old’ person, which isn’t the case. You’ve just reached the part of the lifecycle where you realise that you can be completely true to yourself, and that politeness and saluting the corporate mast have their limits.

Always remember that throughout your career and whatever the role you have in your organisation, you are always ‘old’ to some. The ‘Dumfries and Galloway; What’s going?’ attention-grabber is a progressive truth, because there is no predefined age when you become ‘old’. It’s worth remembering that.

Troublesome projects…and Bertrand Russell

Line managers always get pressure from senior executives to take swift action when a project they’re responsible for experiences serious difficulty. Line managers, especially inexperienced ones, often assuage this pressure by quickly changing the Project Manager. This often-knee-jerk response doesn’t always fix the problem because although the new appointee may be conveniently available, they may not have the breadth of personal, commercial, delivery and technical characteristics needed, or be properly empowered. One of the Badger’s experiences of being appointed as ‘the new project manager’ by a panicking line manager proved not only to be reminder of the strength and diversity of character needed to turnaround a troubled project, but also a memorable introduction to Bertrand Russell.

The project in question was not meeting its contract with an international prime contractor who was delivering a huge strategic programme for their end customer. The Badger’s remit from the line manager was ‘fix everything’ because the finances are perilous, and litigation is looming. Senior executives from all the organisations involved had met in a last ditch bid to avoid an expensive, embarrassing, catastrophe for all concerned. They had agreed to leadership changes and so the Badger found himself appointed at the same time as a new opposite number in the prime contractor.

Our first engagement shortly after being appointed was at a meeting involving both of our respective incumbent team leads, ostensibly as an opportunity for them to air their thoughts and feelings about the contract’s difficulties. The two teams were polarised, divergent, defensive, inconsistent, and in blame mode from the outset! After a particularly fractious exchange, the Badger’s new prime opposite number called a halt for a coffee break and took the Badger to one side. The badger was asked if he was familiar with Bertrand Russell and two of his famous quotes, namely:   

  • The fundamental cause of trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.
  • Collective fear stimulates herd instinct and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.

The Badger said no. His counterpart then used these quotes to make the point that if we could both see the problems and resolutions but were full of doubt and worry about being different to our incumbent teams, then nothing would change, and litigation beckoned. We agreed that we were not stupid, not members of the herd, only focused on finding solutions, unmotivated by personal kudos, and that we expected to take  unpopular decisions. Following this conversation, we both did difficult things with our teams and the turnaround started.

So, remember this. To fix a troublesome project needs a focused and resilient character, intelligence and a breadth of skills, and some awareness of Bertrand Russell’s wisdom!Anyone full of self-doubt or worried about being an outsider is unlikely to succeed.

Returning to balance in supply chains…

Every commercial enterprise and every public sector organisation has a supply chain. When the supply chain works well no one really notices, but when it’s disrupted, for whatever reason, all hell can break loose unleashing all kinds of reactions, realisations, and changed behaviours to deal with the situation. The Covid-19 pandemic and conflict in Ukraine illustrate this rather neatly. They have shown to governments, businesses, and the general public alike, that global supply chains cannot be taken for granted, are  fraught with risk, and can have dramatic economic and inflationary impact when seriously disrupted.

Global supply chains are at the heart of the functioning of the developed world, and the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply highlights some of their advantages and disadvantages.  Globalisation has meant greater exposure to the risk of economic, political, and financial instabilities, health and natural disasters, and to the logistics,  communication, security, and lack of direct control risks that come with far off places. This truth is plain to see as governments and businesses, and we as individuals, deal with the ramifications of the pandemic and geo-political events. It’s unsurprising,  therefore, that much is going on in governmental and business circles to return supply chains to some better balance in order to reduce risk and improve economic resilience. As pointed out here, supply chain reshoring, where this is possible, and the establishment of multiple supply paths with overtly ‘friendly’ countries are being actively progressed to improve future business and economic continuity.  

The Badger’s harboured a feeling for some time that our reliance on complex global supply chains was a problem waiting to happen, and that some kind of ‘event’ would force some retrenchment. It seems that the pandemic and Ukraine have been the trigger  ‘event’, but if this hadn’t been so then it was probably just a matter of time before climate-change weather disasters or military belligerence between superpowers had the same effect.  There have, of course, been global supply chains for centuries – think back, for example, to the Silk Road and the Spice Route. What’s happening in the world today is not their death, but a ‘returning to balance’ that should provide a more balanced, baseline template for the future.

Decades ago, the Badger ran a project that included building hundreds of bespoke computing devices whose LCD screens were produced by just one company in Japan. All went smoothly until the Japanese company unexpectedly stopped manufacturing the screens. The ramifications took months to sort out. The subsequent review and lessons-learned report not only highlighted flaws in the Badger’s company’s approach to managing suppliers the other side of the world, but also recommended that the company’s approach to international supply chains was overhauled to ‘return to balance’ . The phrase is worth remembering and seems very pertinent to what’s happening on the world stage with global supply chains today.

What’s colourless, odourless, beneficial and toxic, and runs the world?

The Badger has a small, framed, vintage print of the Periodic Table of Elements from his school days on his desk. It’s been a constant reminder over the years that everything in our physical world is made up of elements in this table. While at his desk listening to a rather frustrating podcast featuring a climate emissions evangelist and a business leader arguing about fossil fuels, the Badger’s eye was drawn to this trusty print. Something said in the exchange between the protagonists in the podcast made the Badger mentally tune out and recall how his school chemistry teacher used to describe elements in the Periodic Table and common chemical compounds. The trigger for this was the business leader saying that ‘fossil fuels run the world economy and hence our lives and will do so for some time yet’.

It made the Badger look at the framed print on his desk, think of his school chemistry teacher, and decide that it’s not fossil fuels but something colourless, odourless, beneficial and toxic, that cannot be touched or felt and that can be produced by any country, that really runs the world and its economy today, namely software! Fossil fuels and industries that heavily use them bear the brunt for most activism on reducing global carbon emissions, whereas software, which constantly proliferates at the heart of our ever-expanding digital and ICT world, seems to have a lower profile on the ‘green’ activism scale. Notwithstanding Microsoft’s drive to be carbon negative by 2030 and the existence of the Green Software Foundation, it feels like the design, development, testing, release and use of software in every facet of life deserves much more quantitative ‘green’ attention if global digitalisation and the processing and storage of huge amounts of data isn’t to become the next generation’s emissions and resource sustainability crisis.  

Some argue that software and global digitalisation can help to cut our overall global emissions by 15% or more.  However, researchers at Lancaster University suggest not only that this might not be so, but also that while ICT has driven efficiency and productivity improvements over the years, the historical evidence shows that global  emissions have still risen relentlessly.  The devil’s always in the detail, of course, and spin and greenwashing are everywhere, but surely there’s a need for much clearer, quantitative, transparent data and public awareness about emissions  relating specifically to the design, production, and use of software – that colourless, odourless, invisible, cross-border item that runs the world?

The Badger’s school chemistry teacher knew nothing about software, but they were inspiring, articulate, a creative describer of matters of importance, and a stickler for quantitative assessment. They would have applied the same approach for assessing the production and use emissions of software as if it was an element in the Periodic Table…and, perhaps, so should we.

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.

A retrenchment to globalisation…

IT offshoring to India gained momentum in the late 1990s helped by improved and lower cost telecommunications, the policies and actions of the Indian government, and a few major corporations who opened operations that tapped into the country’s huge young, lower-cost, graduate-level workforce. At the end of the 1990s the Badger was part of the due diligence team for the purchase of a small software product company in Bangalore. The purchase was a strategic investment to establish a presence in India that could ultimately grow into an offshore outsource and software development centre. Visiting India for the due diligence hammered home to the Badger that the true globalisation of  IT work was inevitable, and that India would a force to be reckoned with for outsourcing and software development.

Globalisation – the spread of products, services, and manufacturing etc, across borders producing ever stronger economic interdependence between nations – has been underway for the last two centuries driven by transportation and communication advances. The internet and digital technology, however, has accelerated it exponentially over the last 20 years, but the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on global supply chains, for example, has highlighted that globalisation may have gone too far. It now looks inevitable that the pandemic, continued advances in digital technology and virtual connectivity, and changes to the world order due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict,  will trigger some retrenchment to globalisation as businesses and nations rebalance their risk and dependence on others.

The current level of globalisation has made us all extremely and rapidly vulnerable to events anywhere in the world. Globalisation will, of course, not disappear, but the Badger’s in no doubt that in the current decade we will see some retrenchment to address the vulnerabilities that have been exposed. A trot through the programme of events at this week’s 2022 World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos shows that deglobalisation and the impact of ever more advancing technology permeates most of the sessions, either directly or covertly. The WEF at Davos claims to have achieved much over the past 5 decades, but most people – including the Badger – are hard pushed to name any of its achievements and consider it to be a talking shop for global elites in the world’s most expensive country. However, when those attending Davos are discussing globalisation, then you know there’s something to worry about and change is ahead!

Over the last 20 or so years, the small software company purchased in Bangalore has grown into the broader capability envisaged in its original strategic goals. Since change is perpetual, however, it is not immune to retrenching globalisation or technological advances that enable IT work to be done economically without offshoring at scale. No sector is immune to retrenching globalisation, and this decade is already unfolding to be one of huge change on all fronts. Hold onto your hats, it’s going to be a bumpy ride…  

The power of techies talking to clients…

Those who work in the technical, development, and delivery aspects of the IT industry are highly skilled, productive people often with a STEM-subject background. While some have natural ‘sales’ personalities and attributes, most prefer to focus on their project tasks rather than spend a lot of time interacting with clients. When they do, however, interact with clients, being on the alert for potential new business leads is often not high in their consciousness during their interaction. The Badger fitted this bill  early in his IT career, until a senior client visited the large software and systems integration project he was working.

The Badger’s company bosses arranged for the client and their entourage to spend a whole day with the project. The Badger grumbled because his teams were under schedule pressure but the grumbling, of course, fell on deaf ears and the visit went ahead with the client’s entourage meeting the software, systems, and test teams throughout the day. The visit ended with a client feedback session involving the Badger’s bosses and others from within the project. The senior client was rewardingly positive and asked the Badger’s bosses the following:    

‘Your techies and delivery people are impressive and  ooze knowledge, skill, and commitment. Talking to them has emphasised that your company not only has strength in depth but was also the right choice for this project. However, why do we only see people with account, business development, or sales titles when we want to discuss some of our wider business pains? If we saw and more routinely interacted with those from your engine room, then you would probably win more work from us’.

This opened the Badger’s eyes to the latent power of techies talking to clients and the under-use of the company’s engine-room community in identifying potential leads for new business. The number of staff in this community was much greater than those in formal sales, business development, and account management roles, and so it seemed obvious that more engagement between client and company technical and delivery staff  would benefit relationships and growth for the company. It also struck the Badger that talking to clients was good for the personal and career development of even the most introvert techie. The client’s words also highlighted that engine-room staff are not only the cornerstone of a company’s reputation, but also a powerful force that can influence a company’s ability to generate new business opportunities.

Ever since this feedback session the Badger has encouraged techies to recognise the power of talking with clients and to be attuned to identifying potential leads for additional business. Today wise companies encourage this dynamic routinely, because if they don’t then their competitors will be reaping the benefit of stronger relationships and better business growth.

Information Technology Year was 1982…

This year is the 40th anniversary of ‘Information Technology Year’.  Yes, 1982 was designated ‘Information Technology Year’, a joint government/industry campaign to raise national awareness on the use, application, opportunities, and benefits of information technology. In 1982, less than 20% of the UK population knew of IT, most UK businesses had not embraced it in anyway, and telephones all had curly wires. How things have changed!

The year 1982 saw the arrival of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and Spielberg’s film ‘E.T.’, Sony selling the first CD audio players, the advent of the Commodore C64 8-bit computer, a 15-year-old schoolboy creating the first computer virus, and the founding of computer games company Electronic Arts.   Not only did the Sinclair ZX Spectrum arrive with 16KB or 48Kb RAM, but Margaret Thatcher demonstrated and gave one as a present to Japan’s Prime Minister during a visit to Japan! The UK Post Office also issued a set of postage stamps to celebrate ‘Information Technology Year’

Millennials and subsequent generations often not only find it difficult to relate to the computing environment of ‘Information Technology Year’, but also to appreciate that ithelped them on the road to being engaged with computers during their education. It makes the Badger chuckle observing millennials and children visiting the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley. They are amazed that even a modest smartphone in their pocket vastly surpasses the computers of 1982 when processors were the size of wardrobes, disk storage cabinets were the size of a chest of draws, and card punch machines for programming still existed! This 1982 film from Australia  neatly illustrates the world of information technology at the time.

Sometimes politicians deserve a little credit. Kenneth (now Lord) Baker MP was a small shareholder in the small but growing software company Logica in the 1970s. This helped him realise the huge potential impact of IT and the need to raise awareness of this nationally. He pressed for government agreement to goals like the introduction of computing in schools, fibre optic technology, and the paperless office. He persuaded the Prime Minister (Margaret Thatcher) to visit Logica in 1981 and became the first Minister for Information Technology. His appointment led to the 1982 ‘Information Technology Year’ and started the ball rolling to get computers into schools, homes, and many businesses. It effectively seeded millennials’ access to computers throughout their education and made many of them realise that computers were interesting, useful, and fun.

Forty years after ‘Information Technology Year’, everyone’s daily life depends on  computers, communication networks, and information technology. It must be time, therefore, for some kind of new ‘Technology Year’ with the profile and long-term impact of the one in 1982. If there is one, then who’s the modern Kenneth Baker figure, and why doesn’t it appear in the Royal Mail’s list of new postage stamps for 2022?