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’.

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!

Hearing is not Listening…

When the Badger was a teenager, his parents said he suffered from ‘selective hearing’ because of a tendency to ignore things he didn’t want to acknowledge. The Badger’s ‘selective hearing’ was not a physical or mental condition! All the words spoken were actually heard, but the Badger’s mind simply chose not to acknowledge what was being said. As he matured, the Badger soon learned the difference between hearing and listening, and that listening was a crucial ‘soft’ skill in life and a career.

Hearing and listening are different, as highlighted neatly here. Hearing is a sense. It happens when sound hits our eardrums and is processed in our brain. Listening, on the other hand, is a conscious action to give attention to what is being said. It goes beyond just hearing the sound of words. The world needs good listeners, but, sadly, not everyone is a good listener.

Many years ago, the Badger was tasked with sorting out a major systems and software project providing the crucial control system for a specialist manufacturing process. The end client was building a new facility for the manufacturing process and a large US engineering organisation was the prime contractor for the whole endeavour. The IT systems were seriously late and delaying the entire programme of works. The Badger, his boss, and his boss’s boss were summoned to a meeting with the prime contractor’s general manager to explain the actions we were taking. It was a memorable meeting!

The general manager, a civil engineer with no real appreciation of IT or software, had marshalled a team of 20 people to hear what we were doing to stem our project delays. The Badger explained comprehensively, but the subsequent Q&A culminating in the general manager saying ‘If I want to paint this facility faster, I get 50 extra painters to start on Monday. Why aren’t you getting 50 extra programmers to start on Monday?’ The Badger answered and a tirade about the importance of avoiding delay ensued from the general manager who ended by shouting ‘You are not hearing me. Get more programmers for Monday!

The Badger’s boss’s boss calmly said ‘We are hearing you. But you are not listening to us, which I find surprising given your seniority’. The general manager was flummoxed. We left the meeting. That moment cemented the importance of listening in the Badger’s psyche forever.

So, if you are starting out on your career in today’s tech dominated world, don’t neglect developing and honing good listening skills. They help you to make better decisions at home and work, and help you to remain objective and rational in a world full of ‘hearsay’ and ‘selective hearing’. Better listening is what we should all do. If your listening skills are below par, then it’s time to do something about it.

Want to be a Project Manager? Read Kipling’s ‘If’ first…

Over the years, the Badger immensely enjoyed engaging with youngsters early in their careers, especially young team leaders keen to become project managers in the IT services world. As someone with a long career delivering IT projects, the Badger was often ‘an invited guest’ to give the benefit of his experience at the final sessions of team leader training courses. The young, enthusiastic, attendees always asked probing questions about the Badger’s experience and the sessions – free format, open, informal and honest – always proved informative for the guest and participants alike!

Many of the questions across the sessions were predictable. Many related to ‘structure and process’, for example, or the soft skills needed to create ‘team spirit’, but most were simply about what young, impatient, team leaders needed to do to be appointed as a project manager. Hardly surprising, because youngsters are always eager to get project management on their CV, to have career progress, and to earn more money as fast as possible – either with their current employer or some other company! Most saw project management as a necessary first step into real management and leadership with power and authority. Most were familiar with materials from the Project Management Institute or the Association for Project Management, but few had a realistic appreciation of the personal characteristics, qualities and skills needed to manage a client, a project team, a contract, the attention of line management, a plan, a financial budget, a whole project lifecycle, change, risk and so on, all at the same time!

The Badger always told them that not all team leaders have the personal characteristics to be successful project managers. There was always caused a lively debate. In one session, the Badger was explicitly asked how to get an independent informal opinion of the suitability of someone’s personal characteristics for project management. The answer? Simple. Just ask 5 people you have worked with in the past -not friends or anyone associated with your current work – if you meet the spirit of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’. If 3 or less say ‘Yes’ then you should ‘wonder if your personal characteristics are suited to project management’.

Sometime after the Badger bumped into two session attendees who had followed up on ‘If…’. One received 2 Yes’s and the other 3. Both valued the exercise because it made them question themselves, their motives, and especially their personal ability to cope with possible failure. Both still wanted to be project managers. Indeed, both went on to be successful project managers! So, what’s the Badger’s point here? Simply that you learn about yourself when you extend yourself, but it’s always prudent to test if others think you have what it takes before you do so. Just remember that at the end of the day, you don’t know what you can do unless you try.