Priorities: Space commercialisation or mankind living in equilibrium with our planet?

The Badger’s always been open-minded, but on the back of the rah-rah about billionaire’s travelling to the edge of space, G.K Chesterton’s comment ‘Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out’ sprang to mind. It may be a step forwards for commercial space activities but with so many problems to solve here on earth, what’s the real benefit to mankind of billionaires puffing out their chests on becoming a space tourist? In fact, what’s the benefit to mankind of space tourism and the commercialisation of space, period?  If you have the luxury of unconstrained independent philosophical thought, then you get to the answer ‘not a lot’ quite quickly. After decades open-mindedly supporting space technology that helps us understand the universe and our home planet, the Badger finds himself questioning the wisdom of the modern ‘space race’ and space commercialisation.     

The modern space race is driven, in one form or another, by entities desiring ‘control and dominance’. There are dreams of harvesting valuable resources from other planets and of humans as a multi-planetary species, but it’s beginning to feel like mankind will have seriously declined on our home planet long before such dreams are realised in a way that brings benefit to the masses. It’s okay to have a vision and dreams, but when it was 1972 that the last person stood on the moon, and presence on the International Space Station since confirms that humans are biologically unsuited to being away from the home planet for lengthy periods, then there’s an obvious case to be made for focusing more on getting better equilibrium between mankind and our own planet than on space endeavours. Future astronauts might, apparently, be ‘gene-edited’ to overcome these biological issues, but that’s no benefit to mankind or our planet today when it really matters. (It could also mean that humans ultimately morph into being the intergalactic ‘plague of locust’ baddies that are often depicted in sci-fi series and movies. That’s not an attractive legacy for future generations).

Hats off to Messrs. Branson and Bezos for achieving their few minutes of weightlessness at the edge of space before returning safely to earth, but their money would be better spent helping mankind live in better equilibrium with the planet they briefly left.  After all, if your home starts to fall apart around you, most rational people will spend their money fixing it rather than buying an expensive luxury that does nothing to address the immediate problem.

With space debris already a growing problem, commercial satellite mega-constellations like Starlink already being considered as ‘pollutants’ of the night sky and disrupters of  astronomy, then perhaps it’s time to reprioritise away from space back to achieving  sustainable, equilibrium between mankind and it’s home planet. Perhaps the time has come not to be so open-minded about the vested interests of space commercialisation that our brains fall out.

Presentations; Long live making an impact presenting to physical audiences…

The Badger yawned while furtively browsing emails and newsfeeds on his smartphone. As he sat in the large audience at the annual company senior management conference, little attention was being paid to the speaker’s presentation. A playful dig in the ribs from an adjacent colleague prompted the Badger to pay more attention, even though many others were disengaged and using their digital devices too.  Anyone who’ve attended many gatherings of this type then you’ll recognise this dynamic. If there’s nothing in the speaker’s delivery or their sides that’s interesting or memorable then large tracts of the audience will disengage and take away little that leaves a lasting impression.   

A chance discussion with a young graduate recently made the Badger appreciate more not only his own diverse experience of giving presentations, but also just how much this diversity had instilled a natural awareness that engaging the audience is essential when presenting. It doesn’t matter if the subject matter is dry corporate messaging, scientific or technological, or business or project related, if the presenter doesn’t make an impression with the audience, then the presentation’s impact will be minimal.  This doesn’t mean that everyone has to be a showman! It just means understanding your audience, playing to the strengths of your personality when you speak, telling a story, using methods and techniques that keep your audience interested and engaged, and ‘reading the room’ and adapting in real-time when you speak.

The Badger’s first presentations, many years ago, were of scientific research papers to audiences that contained academics, experimentalists, and specialist business professionals, at national and international symposia. Over the years since then the Badger’s given many presentations in both intimate and massive venues to university students, IT sector project and programme teams, business unit gatherings, clients, industry conferences, and, yes, company senior leadership conferences.  There were some training courses along the way but learning the ways of holding an audience’s attention came mostly from being on his feet in front of the physical crowd. That’s why the Badger often uses humour, props, pauses, gestures, and demonstrations whenever he can because they not only grab the audience’s attention, but also create memorable talking points long after the presentation has ended.

When the Badger said this during the discussion with the youngster mentioned above, anxiety quickly spread across their face. Why? Because later in the summer they are presenting in a large auditorium to a sizeable physical audience. This fills them with dread, because they’ve only given presentations to virtual audiences using tools like Zoom since graduating. They’ll be fine with a physical audience if they focus on keeping them engaged. The adrenaline and buzz from ‘live performance’ in front of a physical crowd will get them through, whet their appetite for more, and provide personal development beyond that gained from their virtual world experience to date.    

Bank branches, the decline of the High Street, and risk with online-dependence…

Living in a town of 14,000 people, it’s painful to watch the decline of its ancient, characterful, High Street due to the impact of the modern online world. This week it was announced that the town’s last bank branch will close later in 2021. There were 6 major banks on the town’s High Street in 2015, all of which had occupied historic buildings for decades. In a few months there’ll be none and all the old buildings that housed them will be empty. The nearest bank branch will be 10 miles away, the town will have just 2 ATMs, and the local Post Office will be the only place providing basic banking services.  Apart from its empty premises, the High Street is already dominated by more coffee shops, eateries, hairdressers, and estate agents than appears sustainable. This is the same in many towns because the world has become online-first and our behaviour has changed.     

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of online-first for everything. The use of physical money – cash – for in-store purchases halved in 2020 and the downward trend is unlikely to change. As cash disappears, we’ll soon see people rattling charity tins for donations, tip jars on the counters of coffee shops, collection plates at church services, and funfair slot machines all disappear too.  Banks can’t be blamed for behaving like the businesses they are, or for adapting to the needs and expectations of their digital-native customers, especially those born since the 1980s, but the closure of physical branches does impact on society, as outlined by the parliamentary report here.  The High Street’s decline isn’t the fault of the banks, it’s a consequence of the internet, relentless progress in digital technology, and our own behaviour. The decline comes with a sting in the tail for completely digital-native generations as they get older, because the concept of local community is eroding and being replaced by the personal isolation that comes with total dependence on the online world.

A society that’s online dependent for everything isn’t free of risk. The pandemic illustrates just how disruptive a biological virus can be, so just think how troublesome a future global cyber equivalent – deliberate or accidental – could be if you can’t access your money or do anything online. It’ll never happen, you say.  Never say never, especially when 20 years ago people worried about a ‘millennium bug’, 10 years ago there was a global banking crisis, and recent cyber incidents have caused chaos with fuel pipelines and forced store closures. If a cyber-space catastrophe happened, there’ll be no point meeting anyone for coffee in the High Street, because the High Street won’t exist and there’ll be no means to pay for the coffee. It won’t be the fault of banks; it will just be the manifestation of one of the current risks in modern life that we don’t seem to think too much about.

Every generation blames the one before…

Last Sunday was Father’s Day, an occasion for children to acknowledge the contribution of their father to their lives. On Sunday, the Badger spent a few moments in contemplation at his father’s graveside before having lunch with his children and grandson. There were no gifts, just the company of loved ones, lively chat, and an amusing moment when the Badger was described as a ‘Dinosaur Dadasaurous – which is like a normal Dad but more awesome!’

The song ‘The Living Years’ by Mike and the Mechanics sounded out from the playlist providing the background music for the meal. It’s opening line of ‘Every generation blames the one before…’, and the rest of the lyrics seemed not only apt for Father’s Day itself, but also for a world in which the younger generation seems eager to blame the older generation for all of its woes.  This latter point became central to light-hearted discussion over lunch. Everyone had the same view, all be it expressed in different ways, that what’s wrong with today’s world is indeed the fault of an older generation! Why? Because it’s a truism and it’s been that way for millennia! Everyone felt that the question of whether today’s older generation really deserves the blame it currently gets will only really be answered decades hence when it can be seen whether the youngsters have screwed up any less than their predecessors!

Solutions to today’s economic, environmental, technological, and cultural problems will never be found by blaming the past and chastising those who happened to live through those times.  There’s nothing to be gained from inter-generational conflict, especially when there are always winners and losers in the real world. At this point, the Badger emphasises that it really was a light-hearted discussion over the lunch rather than a deeply serious and philosophical debate. Nevertheless, there was, however, unity in  feeling that the mob dynamic so often evident throughout social media is divisive for inter-generational relationships and also one of the world’s current problems that the younger generation need to face up to.  

As lunch finished, the Badger wondered what his own father would have made of a generation born this century who know more about the World of Warcraft or Call of Duty than they do about World War 2 and the austere, non-digital life that his generation endured.  Having lived through the war and its aftermath, he wanted subsequent generations to be free, to have better education than he had, and to face life’s problems with resolve, fortitude, and action rather than complaint because, as he would often say, ‘that’s life’!  A shudder went up the Badger’s spine. The playlist had moved on playing Frank Sinatra singing ‘That’s Life’!  It appears that fathers wield a special power on Father’s Day that transcends today’s technology. If only it could be harnessed to stop inter-generational blame games so that we concentrate on the future and not the past…

Assume nothing, Believe no one, Challenge everything…

More years back than is sensible to think about, and while still in short trousers in the IT industry, metaphorically that is, the Badger was sent on the company’s in-house project management course.  In those days, project management courses for software and systems development were delivered by those from within the organisation whose day job was actually delivering systems.  The first hour of the course provided a nugget of wisdom that the Badger’s carried with him ever since. It came from the company’s Managing Director (MD) who gave a memorable opening address.   

As the course attendees settled down on the first day, the MD stood up, settled on the edge of a table, welcomed everyone, and then spoke eloquently without notes for forty minutes. Those present felt important when the MD told everyone they were humbled to be addressing people who not only delivered complex things for clients, but also made the real profits of the company and were the bedrock of the company’s ‘can deliver, will deliver, come what may’ reputation.  The MD went on to talk about their own experience as a project and then a business leader, emphasising that the best people in these roles had A, B, C, D, E built into their psyche. They explained this asAssume nothing, Believe no one, Challenge everything, Decide based on fact and data, Execute decisions to completion’. The MD urged his audience to remember this and to apply it in everything they did if they aspired to be the best project manager they could be.  

Assume nothing, believe no one, challenge everything…is at the heart of police, forensic, and any type of objective work requiring the analysis of information to make important decisions. The MD’s point was not that everyone should be a policeman and distrustful of everyone they meet, but that the best delivery and business leaders have these attributes built into their psyche even if they’re not conscious of it.

These attributes in the Badger’s own psyche were activated this week when an SMS message arrived purporting to be from IPSOS MORI, a well-known polling organisation.  It said it was following up a letter inviting the Badger to register his child for a COVID-19 test kit, and that this would help monitor infection rates for new variants. It also provided website details to register. The Badger quickly cycled through A to E and did the right thing – which did not entail complying with the instructions in the message! There had been no letter, there are no children in the Badger household, and IPSOS MORI has no reason to have the Badger’s contact details.  

The point of this tale is that in today’s online and instant communication world having A.B.C.D.E in your psyche isn’t just important in the professional world, project management, and business, it’s important to be in everyone’s psyche in order to stay safe and secure in daily life.   

Noise…

The subsidiary’s numbers for the month didn’t look good. The decline over six months was continuing, and the CEO had convened a leadership team meeting to take some major decisions. Most attending believed that some market repositioning and restructuring needed to happen. The Human Resources (HR) Director, however, was resistant because staff wouldn’t like it. The CEO, unruffled and calm, simply asked, ‘What exactly is worrying staff at the moment?’ The HR Director said that in one region staff believed they should have a pay rise, in another there was upset that refreshment points often ran out of coffee in the afternoon, and that there was a general feeling that they should have better IT equipment.  The HR Director also said that the CEO was unpopular.  

The CEO smiled wryly and reminded the HR Director that whereas acting in the best interest of the whole company was in their job description, popularity was not. The CEO then reminded the HR Director to focus on the big picture and the company’s overall needs rather than pockets of noise which had little bearing on the major decisions that needed to be taken. The HR Director said little for the rest of the meeting. If you’ve had a leadership role then you might relate to this tale, because decisions are always taken against a background of noise containing a spectrum of comment, opinion, hearsay, and questionable information.

Noise, a word that first appeared in the 12th Century, has described the hum of daily life’s background information and tittle-tattle for a long time. In today’s world, social media produces much of this noise. The background level is the highest it has ever been because newspapers, online news sites, celebrities, politicians, and many others, feed off social media content to create the stories and content needed to fill airtime and their own objectives.  Today’s noise seems more important than it is, especially for recent generations who are not afraid to say what they think about anything using social media.

What’s the point of contributing your thoughts and feelings on social media platforms when it’s just adding to today’s background noise? Is anyone interested for more than a few seconds? Does adding to life’s noise make any difference when the best leaders make decisions in the interests of whatever entity they are leading, regardless of the background noise?  The Badger chatted to his teenage nephew about these questions, and it was soon clear that the answers depend on your age, your values, and your life experience.  However, the youngster noted that although many of their friends spent more time feeding social media than spending quality time with each other, they did wonder what their life really gained by contributing to the noise of the modern world. Perhaps teenagers have more wisdom than we give them credit for… 

Petulance in a mad world

In a world driven by immediacy, social media, instant news, and instant opinions, it’s still possible to relax serenely with an interesting book. That is, of course, if you have the personal discipline to concentrate without using a keyboard for a sensible period of time. The other day the Badger was lounging at home immersed in ‘A Good Ancestor’ by Roman Krznaric. The radio was on and the Badger’s baby grandson was on the floor at his feet playing with a set of keys. The calmness of the scene was, however, broken when the Badger’s wife tried to swap the keys for a toy. The toddler’s noisy eruption of petulance coincided with the song  It’s a Mad World’ playing on the radio. The Badger sighed; his concentration broken. In that moment, the book, the petulance, and the song seemed like an apt reminder of the petulant, self-centred, mad, mad world we live in!  

Petulance can be seen everywhere – on the street, on social media, in current affairs and politics, in journalism, in business and during our life at work. It is something we are all guilty of on occasion.  One memorable display the Badger has witnessed happened at the conference dinner of a company leadership event held in Washington D.C, USA. The dinner started with a tour of the Capitol building. This was followed by a group photograph on its steps, and then the meal itself in a nearby location. The entertainment at the end of the meal involved giving every person a musical instrument so that a compere could teach the assembled multitude to play a part in performing a tune that was the finale of the event.  The Chief Finance Officer (CFO) was given a tambourine and erupted with a spectacular display of petulance. There was foot-stamping, table-thumping, and yelling until they got what they wanted – a drum!  This public display of bad temper became the talking point in the bar at the end of the evening. The CFO’s reputation was damaged for a very long time.

Petulance is part of the human condition, but if you don’t recognise that, and you don’t control it at work, then you risk being labelled by your bosses and colleagues as ill-disciplined, unreliable, and temperamentally unfit for your role. Everyone gets asked to do things they don’t want to do at work, but if your reaction when this happens is mostly petulant then you should anticipate having a short career, at least with your current employer. If you want a long and successful career, then recognise that you have petulance and learn to manage it!  Petulance is rife and more visible than ever in today’s mad world, but that’s no excuse for adopting it as a norm in your life. The best people manage their petulance…and what the world needs more than ever today is for more of us to strive to be one of the best.

Pride…

A long time ago, in fact a couple of years after the anti-climax of the ‘Year 2k millennium bug’, the 9/11 atrocity, and the collapse of the dot.com bubble, the Badger attended his employer’s annual international leadership conference in London.  The Badger has participated in many of these events throughout his career. They happen, in one form or another, in most sizeable organisations to ‘align’ leaders and managers with strategic objectives, business priorities, and key messages and themes for the coming year.  Such conferences often involved gathering large numbers of people in the same place, but the last two decades have seen more creative and cheaper ways of achieving the same objectives by using global video conferencing.

The particular conference to which the Badger refers was a face to face gathering with a predictable format involving lots of corporate presentations and orchestrated workshops. From the Badger’s perspective the real value of the event lay in the ability to network with seniors from around the world. This particular conference took place at a time when the IT services market was the toughest it had been for decades. The company was in the doldrums and morale across the whole organisation was extremely low.

Although presentations at these conferences are rarely memorable, at this one there was one from the Global HR Director on ‘Pride’ that stood out.  It was the best presentation the Badger had ever seen them give! Its theme was the importance of having and showing pride – that feeling of deep satisfaction derived from not only your own achievements, but also the achievements of those with whom you work – in overcoming low morale across the organisation. The message was simple, namely, stop wallowing in the gloom causing the corrosive low morale, and start celebrating all the good things that people did at every level in the organisation every day.

With a key role in the company’s delivery community, the Badger already knew about having and demonstrating pride!  Good leaders of delivery teams inherently know that you must have and show pride in your own and your team’s achievements, no matter how small or difficult they have been. Good delivery leaders know that their own success depends on their team, and that celebrating the small achievements as well as the bigger ones is good for the team morale that is crucial for success.   

Delivery is done by people who take pride not only in their personal standards and work, but also in playing their part in teams getting the job done successfully. This was clearly the case with those involved with the funeral ceremonials for Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, last Saturday. Everyone involved in producing and delivering the ceremonials of this sombre, historic, but fitting event should be proud of their individual and collective achievement.  They did themselves, the Duke, the Royal Family, the Queen, and the country proud.  

Courage; find it and use it…

The Badger was recently asked ‘What was the most courageous thing you saw someone do during your career?’ The person asking expected an answer that related to someone making an operational, delivery, or business decision that turned out right even though most were sceptical.  The Badger’s answer, however, was somewhat different. It related to a young researcher presenting a paper to a few hundred academics in a large auditorium at a national conference.  

Courage is that mental strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty. Everyone has it, although we often do not appreciate this as we go about our work and life routines. The Badger has seen many demonstrate enormous courage when dealing with business and project delivery situations over the years, and leaders and managers, of course, often encounter situations that require courage to navigate. Nothing the Badger saw, however, surpassed the courage shown by the young researcher presenting their paper at this conference.

The Badger, himself a young researcher at the time, had presented his own scientific paper at the conference and had returned to his auditorium seat to listen to the remaining presentations of the session. As a young presenter made their way to the lectern to give the final paper before lunch, everyone in the audience immediately sensed that something was not right. The young presenter’s entire body was physically shaking. The chairperson asked if everything was okay. The presenter nodded a confirmation and started their presentation.  

From their quivering voice, disjoint delivery, long pauses, and deep breaths between sentences, the whole auditorium realised that they were witnessing a person overwhelmed with nerves. The disjointed flow of words, long embarrassing pauses, and visible shaking continued through the entire presentation. It was uncomfortable to watch, and the presenter’s discomfort rather than the content of their paper became the centre of everyone’s attention. At the end of the presentation, the presenter stood, shaking and silent, in anticipation of questions.  The Badger felt he was witnessing extraordinary courage, and so did the entire audience who erupted with rapturous applause and a standing ovation!

The Badger was at the same table as the presenter for lunch, and conversation inevitably turned to their nervousness. They explained that it was their first time presenting to such a large audience, that public speaking of any kind had never been their forte, and that they had forced themselves to present at the conference because they felt they needed to overcome their public speaking fears to have a successful career in scientific research.  They were shocked by the standing ovation but also elated that it signalled support and encouragement from the scientific community. The researcher went on to become a world expert in their field!

Courage is something we all have deep inside. If you want to achieve your full potential, then find it and liberate it, and the world can be your oyster…

Changing of the guard…

A chance meeting with a frustrated young manager recently led to an interesting discussion about the ‘changing of the guard’ at the company where they work. Their company has been acquired by a much larger one. Apparently, it was a strategic purchase that provides the new owners with lots of opportunity to ‘maximise synergies and improve efficiency’’. Hmm, the Badger immediately thought having lived through this kind of thing several times. The youngster was frustrated because the acquiring company had injected new, inexperienced management whose dominant priority seemed to be procedural and administrative rather than ‘business’.  

The youngster was irritated that the ‘changing of the guard’ had led to reporting to others of similar age who were opinionated, procedural, and intransigent, but fundamentally lacking in knowledge, relevant expertise, and experience. The youngster felt ignored and belittled. The Badger advised calm, objectivity, and not to rock the boat in the short term, but to have game plan to look after their personal interests if things were not really going to work out. The youngster had one and was already executing it!

‘Changing of the guard’, of course, happens all the time in business and wider life. It is a perpetual reality. It does not, however, always put the right people in the right positions, nor does it mean that better decisions will be made. As recent items from City A.M and the IET highlight, we are in the throes of ‘changing of the guard’  today, with millennials – broadly those under 40 – beginning to take  the leadership helm in business and across society. Millennials are wholly digital-native, and have attitudes, expectations, beliefs, and an impatience to redefine the status quo that has been shaped by ‘information age’ technology, the impact of the 2008/9 financial crash, and the COVID-19 pandemic. As they progressively take the helm, it is safe to assume that they will focus on addressing their complaints about the situations left by preceding generations.     

But will things be better in their hands? With millennials often labelled as volatile, fickle, easily offended, over-emotional, work-shy and dominated by social media, it is far from a certainty. Every generation thinks they know best, and every generation makes mistakes which the next one complains about. It will be no different for millennials! Reading the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Risk Report highlights soberingly that we need the world to improve in the hands of the millennials, but evidence that it will is sparse so far. We need our millennial generation of leaders to be focused, resolute, have a strong work ethic, and to take real responsibility and accountability because ‘changing of the guard’ to a cadre of over-emotional, unrealistic, handwringers will just make matters worse. It is time for millennials to step up and really show that the labels used to describe their generation in the past are wrong.