Speaking truth to power in a commercial organisation…

The Badger was reminded of the dangers of speaking truth to those in power while talking to a friend at a social event recently. While sharing stories of the ying and yang of company life, his friend mentioned that they had been quietly tapped on the shoulder to say that they were at risk of redundancy. The Badger’s friend, with many years of loyal service, explained that their relationship with their boss had deteriorated, and that their boss was manipulating their exit because they had been consistently and relentlessly telling them the truth about project difficulties and necessary corrective actions. The boss, apparently, didn’t want to accept the truth, the difficulties were getting worse, and the Badger’s friend’s level of frustration suggested that both individuals had come to the end of their tethers!

Speaking truth to power is fraught with danger and to minimise its risks requires not only having an objective understanding of the personality and priorities of the person holding the power, but also good awareness of organisational politics, culture, and other factors. Without this, someone speaking truth to power might not foresee or prepare for the personal consequences of possible retaliation. These points were made to the Badger by his own boss many years ago during a coaching session. Their advice has influenced the way the Badger has spoken truth to power ever since.

One crucial piece of advice was that when speaking your truth, you must fully understand that you are either challenging something the person with power is responsible for, or their view or opinion of a situation or circumstance. It is thus essential to focus on the issue rather than on criticising the person or others. It is also essential, before you speak, to think through not only the possible retaliations and negative consequences for yourself, but also your gameplan should these materialise. If you don’t embrace these points then you may be ignored, your frustration will fester,  and you will be both flummoxed and unprepared should someone, for example from HR, tap you on the shoulder because you’re ‘a problem’. The Badger’s boss commented that anyone speaking truth to power must themselves partake in the gamesmanship that is inherent in the functioning of any sizeable commercial organisation.

Good leaders and managers, of course, want open communication and to hear truths spoken by peers and subordinates. Indeed, many cultivate dispassionate, objective, and dependable trusted advisors who tell them the truth. The least effective, on the other hand, only hear what they want to hear and are dismissive of truths from others. Unfortunately, the Badger’s friend had not foreseen the dangers of speaking truth to leaders. They have, however, learned to think before speaking, to always consider the potential personal consequences beforehand, and to have a pre-prepared game plan to look after your interests if you get a tap on the shoulder. Speaking truth to power requires gamesmanship…

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?

Everyone is a salesperson…

One day, early in his IT project delivery career and during a meeting considering a meaty problem threatening his project’s progress, the Badger’s phone rang. The call went unanswered. The caller, the Badger’s line manager, left a voicemail asking for a call back. On returning the call, they explained that business with a new client was being developed, and that they wanted the Badger to visit the client with one of the sales team to help the client understand the company’s delivery credentials. The Badger grumbled, but the only acceptable response was to agree.

A couple of days later, the Badger and the salesperson met for the first time in a coffee shop an hour before the client meeting. The salesperson confirmed that the objective of the meeting was to build client confidence in the company’s technical and delivery capabilities, and, if asked, to provide an insight into delivering complex projects and programmes from personal experience. The client meeting proved positive and friendly, and afterwards the Badger returned to his project satisfied with how things had gone.

Two days later, the salesperson called to tell the Badger that he was sold to the client to run one of their major programmes commencing the following week! A fuming Badger immediately rang his line manager and angrily questioned their and the salesperson’s integrity. Clearly taken aback and embarrassed, the line manager was adamant that there had been no intent to sell the Badger to the client. Their annoyance with the salesperson was extreme and they divulged that there’d been previous issue with the individual over-stepping their authority. Things were resolved quickly. The line manager demanded an explanation from the salesperson who simply said they’d capitalised on ‘an immediate and irresistible opportunity’ that had arisen after the meeting. They left the company a month later, but the incident bolstered the Badger’s negative view of salespeople at the time.

The Badger’s project completed a few months later, and the line manager assigned him to a role in his business management team. During this assignment, the Badger learned that most salespeople are professional, focused, hardworking, and have high integrity – just like delivery people – and that siloed functional mindsets were counterproductive because everyone works for the same company. The Badger also learned that delivery people at all levels of experience should never think they aren’t also salespeople, and that recognising potential business opportunities must be an essential part of their psyche. Business opportunities present themselves to people in all positions, not just to a dedicated sales team, and a company will succeed more when people recognise these opportunities and feel empowered to take some action, even if it’s just telling the sales team! The old cliché ‘everyone’s a salesperson’ isn’t just a mantra, these days it’s a truism in both our personal and work lives.

Time for a new microwave oven…

A long time ago in the galaxy of life, far, far away, a system development project involving 50 people regularly experienced a problem with its development and test computer. In those days – when remote datacentres were just a peripheral blip on the innovation radar – computers were often collocated with the team but in a dedicated, air-conditioned room. Responsibility for the equipment, and for interfacing with its supplier to get proprietary software and hardware fixed when problems arose, rested with the team itself. The regular problem experienced by this particular team was simply that after months of functioning impeccably, they returned one Monday morning to find their computer powered up but unusable. Recovering it to a usable state took all morning causing frustration and loss of productivity. Thereafter, the same thing happened every Monday morning for the next 6 weeks.  

The computer supplier sent their experts to diagnose whether the root cause lay with either a software problem in the operating system, or an intermittent hardware or power supply issue, but nothing significant came to light.  Then, late one Friday night when only the development team leader remained working late, there was a breakthrough. The cleaners arrived to perform their nightly duties.  Once a week on a Friday night, however, a cleaner would vacuum the computer room’s floor.  The development team leader noticed that a few seconds after the cleaner entered the computer room, the terminal on their desk froze because the computer had crashed. They quickly realised what the root cause of the recent problems was.

 The cleaner was plugging her equipment into a switchless socket in the computer room and throwing the nearest switch in the mistaken belief that it controlled power to the socket. It didn’t; it controlled power to the computer! Throwing the switch caused an immediate, disruptive, uncontrolled shut down. When cleaning was complete, the cleaner always returned the switch to its original position and the computer would reboot into the nebulous state that the team found it on Monday mornings. It transpired that the cleaner was new and had taken over cleaning the computer room some 6 weeks previously without a proper handover from a colleague.

This is a salutary reminder that the root cause of a problem that manifests itself in computing equipment doesn’t always mean there’s a fault with the equipment itself. As the Badger has found, for example, when your laptop seems to have regular difficulty accessing the internet using Wi-Fi every Sunday lunchtime, one shouldn’t immediately assume it has a technical problem. First check if an older microwave oven is being used to prepare lunch and then check if things run tickety-boo between times. If the answer’s yes to this then, as the Badger’s found, it’s time to buy a new microwave oven…

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!

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’!

One in more than 15 million…

Way back in 2006, the Badger and a colleague instigated an annual ‘BAFTA’ style awards evening to recognise the successes of our company’s delivery and technical staff. Making the case for having such an event was straightforward because the sales community already had one, and the delivery and technical community had the biggest number of employees and deserved recognition because they did the real work that generated company profits! The first event, with Richard Hammond from Top Gear as a guest, proved a huge success.   

Those that do things always deserve to have their successes properly recognised. This point was at the forefront of the Badger’s mind as he left an NHS Vaccination Centre last Friday after becoming one of more than fifteen million UK people who have received their first COVID vaccination jab. At 5pm last Thursday, the Badger received an unexpected call from the local Health Centre to schedule an appointment for the jab. The appointment was made for the jab to be administered at a ~1000-seater concert venue serving as a vaccination hub on Friday at 5:15pm, 24 hours later.  

On Friday, the Badger arrived in good time and was immediately impressed. Everything from car parking, temperature checks, registration on arrival, guidance leaflets, socially distanced waiting arrangements, vaccination cubicles, and the monitoring for immediate side effects before leaving, was awesomely simple, well organised, and worked like clockwork. As someone whose career centred on programme and project delivery, the Badger found himself instinctively sensing that this programme is not only well thought through, but also being executed by passionate, professional, and caring people who want to succeed and know what they have to do.    

Musing on the way home afterwards, the Badger decided that this programme warrants delivery and technology ‘BAFTA’ awards like those mentioned above! It is not, after all, politicians, media pundits, or social media influencers who make delivery programmes a success, it’s the good people behind the scenes with no media profile who are doing the real work.  Those doing the planning and tracking, the IT, administration, vaccine manufacturing, logistics, marshalling the car parks, and the army of volunteers, all deserve our thanks and recognition, regardless of whether they work in the NHS or for its suppliers.

The Badgers sure that whatever bumps in the road lay ahead with this vaccination programme, they will be overcome if the politicians keep to its current objectives and approach. The fact that more than 15 million people have had a jab so far also shows that the British people have not lost their mojo, common-sense, or ‘can do, will do’ attitude. When  public organisations, commercial companies, and the British people work together to get things done then they are truly a force to be reckoned with…and long may that continue.

A dot on a magic quadrant…

A friend and ex-colleague Skyped for a chat over a virtual coffee. We touch base regularly to chew the fat, reminisce, and chat about whatever comes to mind in the world of IT.  As soon as we connected, the friend apologised for the background noise from their two children, both under five years old. The Badger chuckled. Working from home may be the new normal, but the presence of young kids does not make it easy! 

Until a year ago, the friend worked for a big corporate. However, they left to join the leadership team in a small, specialist, fast-growing, software company.  One of the topics that came up in our conversation was Gartner’s Magic Quadrant . The topic arose because their company has been debating whether they would benefit from appearing on one of Gartner’s widely used grids.  Gartner,  a research and advisory company founded in 1979, has  annual revenues of over ~$US 4 billion from its consultancy, publication, and conference activities. It is influential across the IT industry, but not without controversy –  see, for example, here. There have been lawsuits from smaller companies – see here, for example – but these have failed because the courts view Gartner’s quadrants as ‘opinion’.

The Badger was asked his opinion about whether the friend’s small but dynamic  company  would benefit from appearing on one of Gartner’s grids. The Badger’s reply centred on three things. Firstly, that had always been suspicious of companies that crowed about their Gartner Magic Quadrant positioning in their marketing!  Secondly, that Gartner is itself a very big business and not immune to pressures from its clients if it wanted to preserve the scale of its revenues. Many of its clients will also appear in its  Magic Quadrants.  Thirdly, the published grids are – as the courts seem to accept – opinions derived from Gartner’s own methodology. Alternative  opinions from much smaller analysts using different, but equally valid methodologies, exist.

The Badger told his friend that, in his opinion, they should not worry about Gartner grids. Instead, they should continue to concentrate on innovating their software offerings, delivering them on-time and profitably, and achieving high levels of client satisfaction.  After all, the real benefit to the company and the real value to the client lies  in having a reliable delivery engine room, not in being a dot on someone’s ‘opinion’ grid.

The Badger’s friend nodded, thanked him for his opinion, and said their internal discussions were moving in a similar direction, with only the marketing man an outlier. The friend’s three year old then arrived, climbed onto their parent’s knee call, waved at the Badger, and asked if they could have a laptop. Not yet, was the response. The Skype session then ended abruptly because the youngster had hit the power button.  Kids – just one of the perils of working at home!

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.   

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’.