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…

Work Meetings: Be more selective with your attendance…

Some years ago, the Badger established an annual awards evening to celebrate the work of his IT services employer’s delivery and technical people. It proved to be a great success, and it became a much-anticipated annual event in the company’s calendar before ultimately falling victim to a cost cutting programme. The evening events produced many memorable moments. One of these was the Chief Executive’s opening sentence when giving a few words of thanks at the end of one of the evenings. The sentence was ‘Tonight it’s a pleasure to be surrounded by people that actually do things when I’m normally surrounded by people who talk about doing things.’

The Badger was reminded of this a few days ago when there was some media interest in research by Malmo University about work meetings. Apparently the number of pointless or ineffective work meetings is on the rise and meetings are often more about therapy than productivity. One of the reasons for this seems to be that organisations increasingly have more people that talk about doing things and less people that actually do things! The former – often rising numbers of consultants, advisors, strategists or variants thereof – are apparently vague about their role or what to do which spawns more, mostly ineffective, meetings that impinge on an organisation’s productivity.

The Badger doubts this is a surprise. It’s certainly been the Badger’s experience that the number of work meetings and the number of participants has proliferated in recent years. Focused meetings with the right attendees are, of course, necessary for any organisation to function smoothly but many attendees are often there because they think they should be, or they might miss something by being absent, and not because they need to be. Few people can claim they haven’t either looked at their emails or browsed the internet with their smartphones during a meeting, or worked on something else with the phone on mute when on a conference call! That’s hardly a good indicator that it’s an effective meeting and a good use of your time.

If you’re a doer it’s almost certain that you’re frustrated by attending other people’s meetings just in case ‘something comes up’. So, ask yourself the following. How many meetings did you attend last week? In how many of these did you actually say something useful? In how many of these did you either use your smartphone, or do something else while the meeting was in progress? How many of the meetings made no difference to your normal work? Look at the resultant numbers and really question if you or your organisation got any real value from your attendance.

So, be brave. Discipline yourself to do less meetings! Your organisation needs doers to do productive things rather than be frustrated followers of the herd. Oh, and one final thing. If you’re reading this while you’re in a meeting then tell yourself off…you should be doing something more productive.

Delivery is about people and teamwork…obviously!

As an 18-year old, some months before leaving home for University, the Badger broke a leg playing rugby. It put paid to playing, but it has never blunted the Badger’s passion for the game. These days the Badger’s very much a spectator, either in the stands at Twickenham or the Stoop, or when games are on television, and admiration for those that play at Premiership and International standard has never diminished. So, when England won against New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final last weekend, the Badger was thrilled – to say the least!

In the afterglow, the Badger was struck by the parallels between England’s performance and his own learning from a career in the IT sector focused on ‘delivery’ and driving large project teams to succeed. The England camp had a plan and everyone – coaches to players – were fully aligned and believed in it. The plan wasn’t thrown out of the window when events on the field put it under strain. The England team played for each other, stayed focused, held their discipline when confronted by difficulty, and they were all hungry to be winners. If you can achieve the same dynamics in a team that is developing, integrating, testing and delivering software and IT systems for clients under tough contracts then the chance of success is high.

A Project Manager (PM) once told the Badger that leading IT intensive delivery was all about process, numbers, planning tools, measurement, and having a leader who is direct and intransigent. The PM had these attributes and claimed to be a good PM. The Badger, however, pointed out that the evidence was that the PM’s projects failed more often than succeeded, and drew the PM’s attention to the following quote by Sir Clive Woodward, Head Coach when England won the Rugby World Cup in 2003:

‘Concentrate on measuring performance and winning will take care of itself’. That is a brilliant excuse for coming second’.

Not long afterwards the PM changed career.

In the Badger’s experience, the best delivery leaders know that teamwork rather than individuality is crucial for success. Michael Jordan has put it aptly:

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.”

Delivery is about people and teamwork, and the latter needs more than just the skills and talents of individual people. It needs everyone to have a common motivation and mindset even though they are individuals with unique personalities.

So, if you aspire to be an IT delivery leader then firstly remember that success is not determined by you individually, it’s determined by the creation of an ‘us’ mentality in all the people involved. Secondly, put as much effort into the psychological development of your team as you do into plans, process, measurement and numbers. It will pay dividends. Embrace these two points and you will have awesome job satisfaction when success happens, just like the England team if they win the Rugby World Cup on Saturday!

‘A flock of corporate seagulls arriving from abroad’…

Periodically the Badger catches up with the BOFH column in The Register. It’s a longstanding, insightful and amusing column, and if you’ve worked in IT you’ll relate to the content no matter what your role. A piece from a year ago relating to the arrival and manipulation of auditors has triggered the Badger to start thinking about his own audit and review experiences. That thinking, however, as been interrupted by a call from an ex-colleague in a tizz because their project was to be reviewed by a ‘flock of corporate seagulls arriving from abroad’. The Badger simply recounted the following to establish some calm.

Many years ago, the Badger’s employer was a subcontractor to a US IT prime contractor running a £500m UK IT programme. Prime and subcontractor teams were largely co-located, but relationship, commercial and cultural tensions meant things were difficult. One day the prime’s Programme Director announced that three ‘experts’ from his US head office were flying in to conduct an ‘audit’ to help improve matters. The Badger was to be interviewed during the audit.

The one-hour interview happened 48 hours later. The visitor spent 20 minutes emphasising his seniority, experience, and that he had a direct line to the US CEO, the next 35 minutes asking questions from a standard checklist, and the last 5 minutes double checking he hadn’t missed any. The Badger was unimpressed, but pleased. Why? Because the auditor did 75% of the talking!

Three days later the audit team fed back to the prime’s Programme Director and subcontractor leads in a sparky meeting. Their message? Fix non-compliances with company policies and processes and all would be resolved. No one believed it! The Programme Director openly called them ‘valueless seagulls flying in to get the airmiles and to crap on my team’. The Badger might have been a smidgen more diplomatic, but not much. The auditors said they’d report him to the US CEO! They did. Nothing happened. Their final report was shelved.

The Badger took this from the experience. If you’re interviewed by a ‘corporate seagull’ you’ve never met, then assess if they’re any good in real-time during the interview itself. It’s easy to do. Don’t be in awe. Watch for an ego, the priority given to structure and process, listen closely, and stay silent as much as possible. Only answer the questions you’re asked – don’t embellish, elaborate or offer opinion. You’ll quickly see that a poor seagull will focus on the interview process or themselves and not you or your tactics. A good seagull, however, will quickly see you as a challenge, dynamically adjust their approach, and try to run off with your chips! Stay steadfast to your tactics in both cases.

The Badger’s ex-colleague called back this morning. They were disappointed. Why? They were expecting seagulls but what arrived were sparrows. Where’s the fun and value in that, they asked…

‘The arrogance of acquisition’…

The Badger’s following the legal battle relating to HP’s acquisition of Autonomy in 2011 with interest. It’s providing a fascinating insight into many facets of the acquisition process and the dynamics once the spotlight moved from deal closure to integration. The Badger’s interest stems from having had some involvement integrating three or four acquisitions during his career, and one experience of being ‘acquired’.

The failure rate for acquisitions apparently sits well above 50%. That’s unsurprising given the diverse factors involved. Bringing large groups of people together with different personalities, ambitions, behaviours, cultures, working practices, and IT and financial systems across multiple offices and geographies is always risky! Doing the deal is one thing, but it’s the subsequent integration where the rubber hits the road, workforce hearts and minds are won or lost, and success or failure is determined. One point the Badger learned early in his acquisition-related experience was that people in the acquiring company always unwittingly radiate ‘the arrogance of acquisition’ which conveys that they know best! This can quickly alienate ‘acquired’ people and make the road to success bumpy.

The Badger’s first post-acquisition integration experience involved presenting to a group of ‘acquired’ business leaders on how to manage risk on their delivery contracts. The body language of those present and absence of questions suggested something had not gone down well. After the meeting ended, the Badger approached the most senior attendee for feedback and was told ‘you were trying to teach grandmothers to suck eggs and they felt like second class citizens, which they are not – they are mature and very experienced professionals’. The Badger quickly realised they were right! Talking ‘to’ them rather than communicating ‘with’ them was unwittingly arrogant and never going to win hearts and minds. The Badger adjusted his approach to be inclusive, to listen and be respectful, and everything subsequently went smoothly and successfully. The Badger learned to avoid ‘the arrogance of acquisition’ when dealing with people during integration activities post-acquisition!

Which brings us back to HP and Autonomy where the likelihood of a successful integration looks to have been low from the outset. In this case ‘the arrogance of acquisition’ mixed with post-acquisition leadership disagreements will have created a particularly challenging, polarising and uncomfortable environment for the workforce. Shame, because winning people’s hearts, minds and allegiances is central to the success of an acquisition, and it’s also people that bear the brunt when an acquisition is a failure. So, does the Badger have any view about what individuals should do in the integration post-acquisition? Yes. Watch for the ‘the arrogance of acquisition’ and call it out. What happens in response will provide an insight to the future ethos of the fully integrated company and the next career decisions you should make…