Setting the bar too high…

In his school days, the Badger was in the school field athletics team because he was good at javelin, long jump, and – rather surprisingly for someone of average height – the high jump. It was, according to the team coach, the Badger’s natural technique rather than any specific physicality that underpinned why he was good at these events. The coach, a resolute athlete who demanded the same dedication from others, had two favourite phrases to encourage team members to train hard and do better. The first was ‘technique is the difference between reliable success and reliable failure’. The second, used especially for the high jumpers, was ‘you don’t jump high unless you set the bar high’. Little did the schoolboy Badger know that he would regularly hear leaders and managers utter this one throughout his working life!

The Badger’s often heard executives say ‘you don’t jump high unless you set the bar high’ when setting an expected, imperative outcome that is challenging, and when trying to persuade their audience that the challenge is tough, but the outcome is within reach. These last few words, however, are crucial because if an audience don’t sense that the outcome is within reach then they will nod sagely, consider argument futile, and only work half-heartedly towards the objective. If that happens then the road ahead will almost certainly be full of disappointment, blame, low morale, problems, and financial under-performance.

For many leaders and senior staff in sizeable organisations, attending an annual gathering at which executives set out the key priorities and targets for the coming year is routine. The Badger’s attended many such events over the years, and whilst fundamentally there’s nothing wrong in using ‘you don’t jump high unless you set the bar high’ to set ambitious targets, two observations crystallise from the experience. The first is that if the audience sense the challenging target is reachable then they will embrace it, fully align their support and activities, and executives will hold onto their jobs. The second is that if the audience feels the bar has been set so high that you need binoculars to see it, then they will pay lip-service to the challenge, gossip about the credibility of executives, worry about the enterprise’s viability, and speculate about whose heads will roll when outcomes are not met.

The point is simply this. If you are the leader in a company, project, programme, or service, then don’t lose touch with reality or your people. If  you set the bar way too high, then you will have an unhappy workforce, people will leave, output and quality will decline, financial forecasts will not be met, and your credibility as a leader will be damaged. The best leaders stay grounded in reality, make good judgements that balance competing soft and hard priorities, set the bar within reach, and communicate honestly and inspiringly. Those that don’t ultimately suffer the consequences.

The power of techies talking to clients…

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

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

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

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

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

Listening, selective hearing…and hidden motives

Decent leaders and managers know that listening is important to keeping their team engaged, spotting problems, picking up on trends, and gaining the insights and information needed for success. Listening skills featured in many of the training courses the Badger attended throughout his IT career, and the maxim ‘you have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in that ratio because you learn more when you listen than when you talk’ has served him well over the years. The best bosses have listening as a core capability, but it cannot be assumed that every boss or person in a position of influence or power hears the key points in what they are told. Why? Because they’re human and often have ‘selective hearing’ and hidden motives.

Early in his career, the Badger’s boss asked him to covertly assess a dysfunctional, over-running project. Whatever the Badger reported back would, apparently, help the boss make difficult decisions on what next steps were in the company’s best overall interest. In the subsequent one-to-one meeting to convey the findings, the Badger summarised  the project’s status and articulated three key recommendations. The boss listened closely, seemed appreciative, and said the input would be considered overnight and factored into their decision making. They asked to meet with the Badger again the following afternoon.

This follow-up meeting proved memorable. The boss seemed to have a completely different recollection of the previous day’s meeting! They gave the Badger a hard time, and the atmosphere became very tense when the boss claimed the Badger hadn’t made any recommendations the previous day! Horrified, the Badger briefly wondered if his boss was right,  but quickly decided otherwise. The boss took a telephone call which ended the meeting prematurely. On returning to his desk, the Badger concluded that his boss either hadn’t really been listening in the first meeting or was prone to ‘selective hearing’.

Travelling home that evening, the Badger thought – uncharitably  – that his boss had lost his marbles, was not quite the full shilling, or had become one sandwich short of a picnic. The next day, however, provided an answer – the Badger’s boss announced they were leaving the company! The boss knew they were departing all along, which made the problematic project someone else’s problem. Their hidden motive in dealings with the Badger was to simply to go through the motions of  quasi-business as usual dynamics in order to heighten the surprise and impact of their imminent departure announcement.

The Badger learned an important lesson. In one-on-one meetings, the person you are talking to may have good listening skills, but always assume they will have some ‘selective hearing’ and a hidden motive. Appreciating this helps you to prepare and manage a discussion to get the outcome you want.

An independent review and temporary traffic lights…

Driving home after a meeting with the leader of a modest-sized business, the Badger joined a slow-moving traffic queue on a semi-rural road. In the distance, he could see that temporary traffic lights letting through just two or three cars at a time were the reason for the queue. As vehicles inched forward, the Badger’s thoughts wandered back to the meeting that he’d just left. The business leader, an unusual character, was struggling with delays and spiralling costs on a long running project, and with getting his project staff to change their long-standing, comfortable, ‘it’s too difficult’ ways of working. The leader wanted to find a way of overcoming this challenge without completely destroying their good personal relationship with their staff.

At the start of the meeting the leader’s demeanour was initially one of quiet desperation, but this changed to one of relief and enthusiasm as the discussion progressed. The Badger suggested getting an experienced, independent outsider to review the project and produce a report that recommended actions to be taken. This provoked some fruity language signalling that there was no desire to pay someone who’d swallowed an MBA handbook to author a report that told them what they already knew! Undeterred, the Badger persevered and pointed out that a review and report by the right independent person would provide the objective, dispassionate, and tangible ammunition in black and white to force the changes needed to reduce cost. After all, this is a common method in major businesses, public sector organisations, and government departments. The leader had a ‘light-bulb moment’. They realised that a written report would be a useful vehicle for deflecting the ‘blame’ for changes more towards the independent reviewer than themselves!

As the car reached the front of queue at the traffic lights, the Badger wondered why this supposed leader hadn’t thought about the merits of an independent review and report themselves. The Badger’s attention, however, quickly moved to the highway work being performed, namely the clearance of compacted leaves and vegetation from a 20-metre stretch of the paved footpath running alongside the carriageway. There were three panel vans, a trailer, one worker chatting on his phone in a van’s cab, one worker using a mini-bulldozer to scrape leaves from the footpath and put them further back on the verge,  and one worker using a portable petrol-powered leaf-blower to blow looser debris from the footpath onto the verge. It must be cheaper, the Badger mused, and healthier for the workers, more fossil-fuel efficient, and less impactful on the climate if this work was done by two men with one van, a wheelbarrow, a shovel, a rake, and a broom. The Badger smiled; an independent review of working practices is surely needed!

Serious internet failure – never say never

For the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, everyone was together recently to celebrate the Badger’s grandson’s second birthday. It was a memorable occasion. All the adults, however, felt a little chastened by the suffering of Ukrainian  families with children at the moment. As the toddler opened presents, the Badger felt not only uneasy about the world he will grow up in, but also uneasy that his life will utterly depend on the internet. At just two-years old, the toddler is already powering-on the Badger’s tablet, swiping its screen, and watching the Teletubbies on YouTube! The little one will only know of life before the internet from stories told by his parents and grandparents, books, and content from the internet itself. Well, that’s just the way it is. Progress is progress, and those born this century are already full-blown digital and internet-reliant natives.  

The toddler went off for a pre-bedtime bath towards the end of the party, and the  Badger, resting on a comfy sofa, began to muse on how the little one’s generation would cope if there was a dramatic, prolonged, serious failure of the internet in the future.   Conventional wisdom has it that the internet has no single points of failure, and is too big, too decentralised, and has too much in-built redundancy to fail. The prevalent view is that a serious interruption that impacts our lives for a prolonged period will never happen. As the Badger began to doze, he remembered what he had learned during his IT industry career, namely to ‘never say never’, to expect the unexpected, and to remain cool, rational, objective, and focused when the unexpected happens. He concluded that it’s not a question of if, but when such an internet event might occur.   

Reflections on failure of the internet pop up regularly over the years – see here, here, and here, for example. All they really do, however, is reinforce the ‘never say never’ point. In complex computer systems and networks there’s always scope for unexpected human actions and technical events to have unforeseen and dramatic consequences. The Russian threat to vital undersea cables that carry internet traffic between Europe and North America (see here, here, and here) illustrates , for example, why ‘never say never’ is a sensible position. If Mr Putin has gone ‘full tonto’ and the Russian Navy performs a coordinated attack on these cables then the internet’s resilience and fault tolerance, and our life routines, will be tested like never before.  

The Badger’s grandson, about to go to bed, climbed on the Badger’s lap and shouted, ‘wake up, grandad’. Everyone laughed. The Badger opened his eyes and made a mental note to teach his grandson some of the self-sufficiency life skills needed to function without the internet…just in case he needs them in years to come.    

The Web at 30, and getting cancelled…

There’s an interesting article entitled ‘Going global: the world the Web has wrought’ in this month’s edition of Physicsworld, the member magazine of the Institute of Physics. It covers how the Web has taken over the world in the last 30 years and the role of physicists and programmers in enabling this to happen. The article points out that the benefits of the Web have not come without tremendous economic and social dislocations, and its last sentence – ‘The world has indeed been transformed by the Web, but not entirely for the better’ – captures a truth that resonates with those whose careers spanned the Web’s progression.

The Badger made this ‘not entirely for the better’ point to a neighbour’s daughter, home from university for the weekend, and got a lecture in response! The Badger is a fuddy-duddy, apparently, whose opinions are irrelevant because his generation are responsible for everything that’s wrong and the Web has brought people nothing but good. Hmm! Resisting the urge to argue, the Badger just smiled and calmly suggested the young lady’s view might change on gaining more life experience after university. With a stare that could kill, she stormed off!

At the local supermarket later, the Badger bumped into her mother who apologetically mentioned that her daughter had ‘cancelled’ the Badger. She then said, ‘Join the club; last week she told me that I was cancelled too’. We laughed. The youngster’s mum theatrically rolled her eyes and then wryly bemoaned the amount of time her daughter spent surfing the Web. Being told you’re cancelled was a new experience, but not a bothersome one because it’s an absurdity that just illustrates the ‘not entirely for the better’ point about the transformational impact of the Web.

Many in our younger generations today seem intent on banning, reinterpreting, or cancelling anyone or anything from earlier times because it might offend. Enabling the growth of a sentiment which redefines the truth and facts of earlier eras stands out as one of the Web’s ‘not entirely for the better’ transformational impacts. Microsoft’s new ‘inclusivity checker’ in Word, see here and here,  is a simple example of the sentiment’s pervasiveness. In the Badger’s view, the words actually written by authors, songsters, and spoken by famous people in earlier times are the facts of their era and suggesting ‘inclusivity’ modifications for them just promotes the breeding of a denial and dishonesty in society that future generations will regret.

From the Badger’s experience above, it seems that all you must do to be cancelled is point out that the Web is ‘not entirely for the better’, be of an older generation, and stand up for the preservation of the language and facts of history, no matter how uncomfortable they may be in a modern setting. If that’s the case, the Web is facilitating the slide to a cultural oblivion that future generations don’t deserve.

A change would do you good…

We can be happy, fulfilled, stressed, anxious, bored, and frustrated at work  all within the same day! It’s normal for our feelings to oscillate like this, but when we’ve endured months of feeling unfulfilled, bored, and frustrated with no improvement in sight our thoughts often turn to leaving our employer for pastures new. Thinking about leaving and actually leaving are, of course, different. It’s common to think about leaving  but circumstances and priorities in our personal life often stay our hand from actually resigning. Our subconscious also tends to persuade us to put up with the status quo for much longer than sensible in the hope that things will get better.

A few months ago, the Badger met someone wrestling with these dynamics. For the first time in a decade with their employer, they were thinking of leaving because their knowledge, skills, and experience had been under-used since a company reorganisation two years ago had replaced their respected boss with a new one. They were desperately bored and frustrated, and the relationship with their new boss had progressively become more distant. They asked the Badger how frequently he’d thought about leaving during his career, and whether he’d any thoughts to offer. After a sharp intake of breath, the Badger ignored the former question but delivered the following insightful words.

We all deal with thinking about and the decision to voluntarily leave an organisation differently, because psychologically we each deal with fear of the future in diverse ways. No one truly knows what the future holds for them. This uncertainty psychologically steers many towards staying in their comfort zone and avoiding risk. This means that when job satisfaction is low, we may well think long and hard about leaving but not actually take the ultimate step of resignation. So, if you’re thinking about leaving, first ensure you know yourself and what makes you tick. Make sure you not only assess all the pros and cons of staying objectively, but also consider matters in your private life that have a bearing on your decision carefully and honestly. Listen to  George Harrison’s song  ‘All things must pass’  because it’s a reminder that things never stay the same in life, and make a plan covering how and when you will resign before making your final ‘stay’ or ‘go’ decision,

Yesterday, the person called the Badger to say they’d left their employer and to thank him for words that made them realise they shouldn’t be fearful of the future because people adapt to the twists and turns of life. As the Badger felt quietly pleased at having helped in some way, ‘A change would do you good’ by Sheryl Crow started playing from a smart speaker in the background! We laughed, and agreed that strange surveillance sprits are at large monitoring conversations in today’s world…

The origin of the word penguin…

The Badger rang the call centre for help after experiencing problems using a company’s online mechanisms. After listening to a recorded message about covid and navigating the various options, the Badger joined a queue wondering if Blondie’s ‘Hanging on a telephone’ would be better music than Vivaldi. Eventually Bronwen came on the line. Her unmistakably Welsh accent and name struck a chord as she resolved the Badger’s problem. The Badger thanked her for her help and asked if she was actually in a call centre in Wales. Bronwen chuckled, said that many callers ask the same question, and then confirmed she was in South Wales and that the weather outside was typically Welsh!

Speaking to Bronwen triggered fond memories of visits to Wales,  a part of the UK with beautiful landscapes, a rich industrial heritage, and a strong cultural identity. It’s a country that’s seen a huge decline in its coal mining, steel, and slate mining industries over the last half-century. The Badger’s first visits to Wales were in his student days. The first was a weekend stay with his London flatmate’s family in Pontlottyn in the Rhymney Valley. The warm welcome was unforgettable. The second visit was part of the Badger’s degree course. It involved a week touring  metal production, casting, and fabrication facilities across South Wales. The highlight was watching the operation of a blast furnace, a Bessemer converter, and a rolling mill flattening giant red-hot steel ingots into 3mm strip at Port Talbot. It was an awesome experience!

Since that time, tourism, public services, customer support services, and light manufacturing in areas like electronics and technology have taken over from coal, steel, and slate as the mainstays of the Welsh economy. Today Wales has the largest data centre campus in Europe and it’s an attractive place for technology-centred companies to have operations. In the Badger’s student days, there was net migration of people seeking employment and a better quality of life outside Wales. This isn’t the case today. With modern service, technology, and digital businesses continuing to grow, Wales is seeing inward migration and growth in its population.

Twenty years after first visiting as a student, the Badger became a more frequent visitor  when his employer acquired a datacentre and IT service desk in South Wales. Welsh pride and values was encountered in abundance during these visits, and the Badger learned that if you build on rather than denigrate the character, culture, and heritage of a workforce then they will always rise to a challenge. As an English friend with Welsh family roots put it a few days ago, the word ‘penguin’ derives from the Welsh language which illustrates that the Welsh people have always made a mark on the world. A growing worldwide reputation in the arena of semiconductor technologies might have been a better illustration…

Embarrassment facilitates learning…

The Badger, engrossed in his laptop, heard a knock at the front door. It was a couple of his wife’s friends arriving for a gossip over coffee and cake. The Badger let them in and returned to his laptop. A little later, when the coffee was ready and their conversation centred on one of the friend’s teenage daughters who’s in her final year at college, the Badger was pestered to join them. The teenager had been highly embarrassed in a recent class after acquiescing to a boy becoming leader of her group because he demanded that ‘he knew best.’  The teacher had dismantled the boy’s credibility in front of the whole class causing embarrassment in the group by association. As the Badger sipped his coffee, he was asked if he’d experienced anything similar during his career and, if so, what he’d learned from it.

The Badger, a little taken aback, described an occasion from early in his IT career, namely the first time he worked on a competitive bid during a gap between project assignments. The bid was of modest value to a new client in a new market area for the company. The compact team was led by a slippery, self-obsessed salesman who claimed to be well-connected with the client. Once the bid was submitted, there were formal presentations to the client from the different companies competing for the work. The Badger and others were tasked to attend the presentation with the salesman.

On the day, the salesman, brimming with confidence, did all the presenting, made unapproved promises, and came across as a slippery deal junkie focused solely on the client’s procurement lead who was one of the four key client people in the front row of the audience. The salesman answered all the questions himself, directing them to procurement lead and not the person who asked the question. He was oblivious to his colleagues discomfort and the clever dismantling of his credibility by the questioners. We didn’t win the work.

It was a debacle. The Badger was highly embarrassed but learned three things from the experience. Firstly, that focusing on the decision maker and their key influencers is crucial. Other than the procurement lead, the salesman had never engaged with any of the key client people in the front row. Secondly, women in business are equals and just as astute, capable, and ruthlessly direct as men. The decision maker and key influencers in the front row were women who rightly felt ignored by the salesman’s focus on the male procurement lead. Thirdly, it’s okay to feel embarrassed. It forces you to learn, change, become resilient, and develop a confidence to speak up when something’s not right.

The Badger had obviously said something that struck a chord with his wife and her friends, because their faces lit up and he was offered more coffee and cake…