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…

Improve team spirit and teamwork – deploy a brick!

An old friend is a civil engineer in Hong Kong. They left the UK years ago, jumping at an opportunity to live and work where their martial arts movie idol – Bruce Lee – grew up. Bruce Lee died young but, as the Badger’s friend often tells him, he left many nuggets of wisdom, including ’Instead of buying your children all the things you never had, you should teach them all the things you were never taught. Material wears out but knowledge stays’.  

Whenever Hong Kong hits the headlines, the Badger is reminded of the last boozy meeting with his friend in the UK. It included a discussion about bricks!  Bricks came to fore again this week when a young team leader running defect fixing, build, and regression testing for a large, complex, software system called. They were seeking inspiration because their large team was struggling with a sizeable defect backlog, and frequent fix, build, and regression test failures. Team members were working more as a collection of individuals rather than as a team with a strong team spirit and common purpose.  Paid overtime and a bonus had been introduced, but to little effect. Did the Badger have any suggestions? ‘Yes. Introduce a brick!’

The team leader, taken aback, wanted an explanation and the Badger recounted that he had overcome the same problem by awarding a house brick to someone on the team at the end of each week! The brick was given to the person responsible for something within the team’s overall control that had failed. Commonly, for example, this was for defect fixes that had either not in fact fixed the defect or had introduced other problems. Majority voting by all team members determined who received the brick which had to be displayed prominently on the recipient’s desk.  The ignominy of being awarded the brick proved hugely beneficial to improving individual performance, team spirit, quality, overall teamwork, and progress. Recipients were always reluctant to explain why there was brick on their desk, especially to passing management and visitors!  Over time, the brick encouraged individuals to ask for help from colleagues and it brought some levity to the grind of relentless routine and pressure. At the end of the project, the brick was mounted on a wooden plinth and presented to the person who was top of the recipient league table!  

The team leader chuckled and realised that financial incentives are not a panacea. They work best if coupled with creative ways of encouraging the human behaviours that maximise team spirit and teamwork.   Techniques like the brick work even when financial incentives are unaffordable which is why good delivery leaders have things like this in their arsenal of tools.

The Badger, as per Bruce Lee’s point above, feels not only that he has passed some knowledge on, but also that his civil engineer friend would be very happy to know that bricks can help in the production of software!

One in more than 15 million…

Way back in 2006, the Badger and a colleague instigated an annual ‘BAFTA’ style awards evening to recognise the successes of our company’s delivery and technical staff. Making the case for having such an event was straightforward because the sales community already had one, and the delivery and technical community had the biggest number of employees and deserved recognition because they did the real work that generated company profits! The first event, with Richard Hammond from Top Gear as a guest, proved a huge success.   

Those that do things always deserve to have their successes properly recognised. This point was at the forefront of the Badger’s mind as he left an NHS Vaccination Centre last Friday after becoming one of more than fifteen million UK people who have received their first COVID vaccination jab. At 5pm last Thursday, the Badger received an unexpected call from the local Health Centre to schedule an appointment for the jab. The appointment was made for the jab to be administered at a ~1000-seater concert venue serving as a vaccination hub on Friday at 5:15pm, 24 hours later.  

On Friday, the Badger arrived in good time and was immediately impressed. Everything from car parking, temperature checks, registration on arrival, guidance leaflets, socially distanced waiting arrangements, vaccination cubicles, and the monitoring for immediate side effects before leaving, was awesomely simple, well organised, and worked like clockwork. As someone whose career centred on programme and project delivery, the Badger found himself instinctively sensing that this programme is not only well thought through, but also being executed by passionate, professional, and caring people who want to succeed and know what they have to do.    

Musing on the way home afterwards, the Badger decided that this programme warrants delivery and technology ‘BAFTA’ awards like those mentioned above! It is not, after all, politicians, media pundits, or social media influencers who make delivery programmes a success, it’s the good people behind the scenes with no media profile who are doing the real work.  Those doing the planning and tracking, the IT, administration, vaccine manufacturing, logistics, marshalling the car parks, and the army of volunteers, all deserve our thanks and recognition, regardless of whether they work in the NHS or for its suppliers.

The Badgers sure that whatever bumps in the road lay ahead with this vaccination programme, they will be overcome if the politicians keep to its current objectives and approach. The fact that more than 15 million people have had a jab so far also shows that the British people have not lost their mojo, common-sense, or ‘can do, will do’ attitude. When  public organisations, commercial companies, and the British people work together to get things done then they are truly a force to be reckoned with…and long may that continue.

Fully autonomous cars – time for realism

Evangelists, visionaries, ‘blue sky’ thinkers, idealists, innovators; it doesn’t matter what you call them, they are needed for progress. For real progress that ‘sticks’ to happen, however, then we need realists too. The Badger, whose career centred on delivering difficult IT-intensive programmes, is a realist even though he did his fair share of ‘blue sky’ thinking in his time!  It’s this realism that’s behind why the Badger always maintains a healthy scepticism about predicted timelines for when the next wave of technology will be rolled out to the public.  This timeline scepticism has always stood the Badger in good stead.

Predictions by excited, future-gazing, tech evangelists may attract lots of media attention but their timelines often grossly under-estimate what’s really involved in getting something rolled out to consumers or end users at serious scale. Things in the real world are often more difficult than anticipated – that’s just life!  So, it wasn’t a shock to the Badger that Uber has sold its autonomous vehicle division to a start-up and that some are wondering whether driverless cars have stalled.  Trials on public roads, of course, continue, there are companies investing in the technology and jockeying to gain commercial advantage, the technology is still coming to terms with the hard to quantify human variable that pedestrians do unexpected things, and there are still many  legal and ethical issues to resolve. And so it seems a pretty safe bet from a realist’s perspective that fully autonomous cars will not be in the majority navigating the UK’s roundabouts for many years yet.

Anyone who has run a major IT-intensive delivery programme knows that Transition and Transformation phases when moving from the old to the new are fraught with risk, challenge, and delay due to the unexpected. The scale of the Transition and Transformation challenge in moving to a fully autonomous car system can be seen simply by a quick look at published UK government figures. There were over 38 million cars on British roads in 2019 and only 1.6% of them were fully or partially electric. It will take at least another decade just for electric rather than fossil-fuel powered cars to be in the majority, so if you are grounded in reality then it’s difficult to believe that fully autonomous cars will be the general public’s ‘go to’ method of transportation anytime soon. It looks like 2021 will see lots more autonomous vehicle related tech, but the Badger feels little of it will shorten the overall timeline for getting complex fully autonomous vehicles operating safely at scale with conventional people-driven vehicles on the country’s roads.

You may feel the Badger has started 2021 as anti-tech, anti-progress, and anti-autonomous vehicles. That’s not the case, he’s just pro-realism and a prudent sceptic – which is always a sensible position to take if you want to retain some objectivity in today’s, instant, globally, connected, digital world.  

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’.

‘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…