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.

Quick to blame or complain, slow to praise…

If you’ve ever been asked to take on the responsibility for fixing a failing project, programme, or service delivery that’s causing serious relationship, financial, reputation or business difficulties, then you’ll know that when you take the reins lots of people will tell you about the bad things, who’s to blame, and what should have happened but didn’t. You’ll also know that far fewer people will tell you about the good things, the good people, and their good ideas to improve matters. There are always good things! They are, however, swamped by a fog of grumbles, complaints, politics and blame narratives! An experienced leader knows about this imbalance and ensures that ‘balance is restored’ by putting the right people with the right attitude in the right place to turn failure into success. After all, it’s a fully committed, positive and aligned team that really turns things around, not the person at the top!

Have you ever wondered why people tend to complain, blame, and exude negativity more than praise and positivity? The answer lies in the physiological wiring of the brain. Put simply, the emotional part of the brain processes ‘bad events’ whereas the rational part processes ‘good events. The former works much faster than the latter, which means we assign fault and blame quickly and frequently but think long and hard before giving praise. Fascinating stuff!

What triggered the Badger to think about this? Two recent events that made the Badger feel that today’s tech-dependent society has lost all sense of balance, objectivity, and community. Both events related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first was a conversation with friends that concluded that ‘Quick to blame or complain, slow to praise’ and negativity has pervaded every facet of journalism, the broadcast media, and social media, and that ‘blame and complain’ has more noticeably become the norm in society as digital tech has boomed over the last twenty years.

The second was in the local supermarket whose shelves and frozen food cabinets were largely empty due to panic buying. Behind the Badger at the checkout, two people proudly crowed about how they had each bought two extra freezers online ‘just in case’, They then bitterly complained to a store worker about the empty shelves and blamed the supermarket chain for incompetence. They then blamed a different local supermarket chain for not having what they wanted either, and the UK and Chinese governments for letting all this happen!

The checkout operator winked. ’I think it’s just the way their brains work. One has a cough so you might not want to serve them’, the Badger said in response. The checkout queue fell silent! The Badger left the store certain that it’s time for our tech-centric society to concentrate more on praise and positivity than blame and complain. That would, however, require a rewiring of our brains.

Hone your Delivery Leadership skills by taking a central, company-wide role…

Blog_28-Jan-2020

The Badger was asked by a group of young IT project managers (PMs) to describe something in his IT delivery career that spawned significant learning. There have been many learning experiences – all important in their own way – but one quickly came to the fore. It was the learning that came from a ‘career transition event’ which required the swift development of new personal skills as well as the rapid assimilation of broader business knowledge in order to deal with new challenges. The event itself was a move from being a successful software, systems integration and service project leader in the company’s engine room, into a central, company-wide, delivery leadership role within the company’s overall business leadership team.

The Badger learned from the move that he had aptitudes that others could see but were unknown to himself! The move to a central company role meant learning new soft and hard skills, and new ways of thinking and behaving that built on the deeply embedded disciplines and learning of a delivery background. After progressing from programmer, through team leading into the delivery leadership of fixed price IT contracts of ever larger scale, complexity and commercial risk, the transition to a central company leadership role was still difficult! Perspective on how the company worked, its priorities, and the context in which decisions were made, all changed.

In explaining this to the young PMs the Badger summarised three things. First that good IT delivery leaders are natural problem solvers and managers of risk. They are organised, commercially aware, good decision makers, and people that get things done. These are valuable traits in a central role because others who operate centrally often have little real experience of doing the real work that brings in profit. The second was that a central company-wide role really does change the perception you have of your company. You see how it really functions, its priorities, and why decisions can sometimes be different to what you expect. The third was that if you as a PM get a chance to work in a central company-wide role then take it! You may find you don’t enjoy the experience, but you will learn lots and it will make you a better and savvier delivery leader. It will definitely change your perspectives and make you think hard about what you enjoy and what you don’t.

One of the PMs subsequently asked the following:

‘So, we should extend ourselves, be thirsty for new knowledge, always build on what we are good at and enjoy doing, and get some central company-wide experience to broaden our minds, our knowledge and our capabilities?

The Badger replied with one word. Correct!

‘Swagger’ – A qualitative indicator of an organisation’s future.

Last week the Badger was caught on the hop by a final year undergraduate who asked the following. What made you join the company you worked for? Was it what they did, their values,  their website or their glossy brochures? Was it a promise of fast career progression? Was it to get a respected name on your CV? Was it the money? Was it desperation and anywhere would do? Or was it because you were impressed by the ‘swagger’ of the people you encountered in the recruitment process?

The Badger, very sensibly, paused to think before answering. The Badger considered a simplistic answer, something like ‘there were many reasons why the Badger accepted the formal job offer when it arrived’. But, in truth, what made the Badger to join the company he worked for was very straightforward. Every person encountered in the recruitment process was extraordinarily passionate about the work they did. Their energy, ‘can do’ and ‘always up for a challenge’ attitude was palpable and infectious. They had ‘swagger’. Not the arrogant ’Jack-the-lad, I’m important’ type, but the type that quietly radiates confidence, optimism, professionalism, trust and an ‘action speaks louder than words’ attitude to challenges. So, the Badger responded accordingly.

The follow-up question was ‘In the same circumstances, would you make the same decision today as you did then’? The answer was ‘Yes’. The small IT company the Badger joined had a growing, second-to-none, reputation for building and delivering challenging and complex software and systems. It persevered when faced with problems and delivered when most competitors would throw in the towel and engage the lawyers. The company didn’t have high profile in the media. It’s unique selling point (USP) was essentially the ‘swagger’ of its loyal, highly capable people who did what they said they would do. Clients liked that commitment, and the ‘swagger’ of the company’s people underpinned the company’s ‘does difficult things and always delivers’ reputation.

The company eventually grew into a multi-national corporate, and the ‘swagger’ of its people inevitably changed. Bureaucracy started to constrain behaviour and attitude, and ‘swagger’ became diluted as a trickle of people leaving for pastures new became a perpetual operational dynamic. People became less delivery focused,  more political, and their willingness to make excuses rather than deliver results became more noticeable. The company’s mojo and USP suffered as a result! So, if you’re interested in early warning signs that the organisation you work for is slowly losing its mojo, then don’t look at your executive leaders, look at how the ‘swagger’ of the people around you is changing. The ‘swagger’ of people is the qualitative barometer of your organisation’s future prospects. Oh, and if feel your own ‘swagger’ is on the wane, then just remember there’s a big wide world out there full of opportunity to drive it back up to new peaks…

The Sillybilly Bank (TSB)…

Mainstream IT services companies wouldn’t be around today if they hadn’t learned lessons from poor delivery over the years. That doesn’t mean their delivery machinery is perfect – far from it – but it does mean they’re generally good at identifying and addressing risk. With 35 years IT delivery under the belt, the Badger’s nose still twitches when he sees, hears, or reads about IT delivery that’s gone wrong. Recently the nose twitched uncontrollably as the Badger caught up on past material about the 2018 TSB IT migration debacle and assimilated TSB’s independent review by Slaughter & May into their disastrous migration from Lloyds to their own systems. The latter has attracted lots of media comment – see, here, here, here and here, for example.

The Badger’s quietly followed the TSB debacle since it happened, labelling the bank as the ‘The Sillybilly Bank’ for the catalogue of failings. Throughout the last 18 months the Badger has always felt the debacle was unlikely to have just a single root cause. There’s been enough signals to suggest that corporate dynamics, financial pressure, poor planning, poor Go-live decision processes, lack of a solid fallback strategy, IT delivery expertise, and – as picked up in the media – poor common sense, all played a part. Future reports from the UK Banking Regulators will hopefully add more colour into the mix and provide more certainty.

In mulling things over, three impressions have come to the fore in the Badger’s mind. Firstly, that TSB’s parent Banco Sabadell – Europe’s ~36th largest bank and ~ 100th in the world – might be guilty of an ‘arrogance of acquisition, we know best’ attitude. They knew the migration was more complex than anything they’d attempted previously and they were warned in 2015 the migration budget was aggressive. Secondly, that Banco Sabadell appears keen to direct all the responsibility for the debacle onto TSB. This smacks of ‘responsibility denial‘ because Banco Sabadell must have endorsed the migration decisions and it was their own IT arm, SABIS, doing the IT. If they didn’t endorse decisions, then surely their corporate governance failed?  The third impression is that the Abilene Paradox was most likely rampant!

One recent piece of commentary neatly says ‘no one comes out of the TSB debacle smelling of roses’, and ‘the whole sorry episode is an example of how not to behave in an overseas takeover’. It’s hard to disagree. So, here’s a question. Would you trust a bank and its parent where there seems to have been governance, risk management, decision- making, and IT failures and the parent points the finger wholly at its subsidiary? You’ll have your own answer. One thing’s certain. When confidence is lost, customers overcome their lethargy and move elsewhere, which, if you look at the switching statistics, is exactly what TSB’s customers have been doing…