Troublesome projects…and Bertrand Russell

Line managers always get pressure from senior executives to take swift action when a project they’re responsible for experiences serious difficulty. Line managers, especially inexperienced ones, often assuage this pressure by quickly changing the Project Manager. This often-knee-jerk response doesn’t always fix the problem because although the new appointee may be conveniently available, they may not have the breadth of personal, commercial, delivery and technical characteristics needed, or be properly empowered. One of the Badger’s experiences of being appointed as ‘the new project manager’ by a panicking line manager proved not only to be reminder of the strength and diversity of character needed to turnaround a troubled project, but also a memorable introduction to Bertrand Russell.

The project in question was not meeting its contract with an international prime contractor who was delivering a huge strategic programme for their end customer. The Badger’s remit from the line manager was ‘fix everything’ because the finances are perilous, and litigation is looming. Senior executives from all the organisations involved had met in a last ditch bid to avoid an expensive, embarrassing, catastrophe for all concerned. They had agreed to leadership changes and so the Badger found himself appointed at the same time as a new opposite number in the prime contractor.

Our first engagement shortly after being appointed was at a meeting involving both of our respective incumbent team leads, ostensibly as an opportunity for them to air their thoughts and feelings about the contract’s difficulties. The two teams were polarised, divergent, defensive, inconsistent, and in blame mode from the outset! After a particularly fractious exchange, the Badger’s new prime opposite number called a halt for a coffee break and took the Badger to one side. The badger was asked if he was familiar with Bertrand Russell and two of his famous quotes, namely:   

  • The fundamental cause of trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.
  • Collective fear stimulates herd instinct and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.

The Badger said no. His counterpart then used these quotes to make the point that if we could both see the problems and resolutions but were full of doubt and worry about being different to our incumbent teams, then nothing would change, and litigation beckoned. We agreed that we were not stupid, not members of the herd, only focused on finding solutions, unmotivated by personal kudos, and that we expected to take  unpopular decisions. Following this conversation, we both did difficult things with our teams and the turnaround started.

So, remember this. To fix a troublesome project needs a focused and resilient character, intelligence and a breadth of skills, and some awareness of Bertrand Russell’s wisdom!Anyone full of self-doubt or worried about being an outsider is unlikely to succeed.

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.

Describe the dynamics of today’s digital world in one word…

Would you find it easy or hard to describe the dynamics of our modern digital world in one word? Would one word immediately come to mind, or would you need time to think before deciding? Rather than decide yourself, would you prefer to converge on a word via a group discussion? What would your word be? An ex senior civil servant, in their eighties with a razor-sharp mind, asked these questions in a recent conversation. The Badger took the easy option, answered ‘don’t know’, and we moved on to other things. The questions, however, have bugged the Badger ever since, and so as Storm Eunice buffeted the windows, he settled in his study listening to a playlist of favourite music to decide his answers.

The answer for the first question was ‘it’s hard’. In fact, it took much longer than expected to decide on one word to answer the last question. The answers to the second and third questions came quick and were straightforward. They were, respectively, time to think rather than spontaneity, and deciding for himself rather than potentially succumbing to  groupthink’. The word the Badger ultimately converged on as the answer to the last question was ‘Creep’.

The word has enormous breadth. In materials technology, ‘creep’ is the movement and permanent deformation of a solid under persistent load ultimately leading to failure. Glaciers and lead on church roofs are simple illustrations of the phenomenon. ‘Scope creep’, when requirements drift away from agreed baselines due to client pressure and poor controls, is well-known to those running businesses, projects, programmes, or service delivery. This kind of ‘creep’ often leads to financial problems, commercial disputes, and serious delays. And then, of course, ‘creep’ is sometimes used to describe people who are unpleasant, untrustworthy, insincere, or are just plain odd in their habits, interests, and behaviours.

Creep’ seems a more realistic descriptor for the dynamics of our modern digital world than the word ‘change’. For example, our insatiable demand for resources and fossil fuels is producing creep deformation of aspects of our planet to the point of crisis and questions about our sustainability on it. Additionally, digital innovation and fast technological advancement represents a persistent stress on businesses, governments, and the public producing the erosive creep of personal privacy to the point where societal rupture is a risk. Similarly, the need for social media platforms to keep people engaged and active is causing the creep of fact, news, and sensible debate into just disinformation, misinformation, abuse, and entertainment fuelling growing distrust and antipathy. ‘Creep’, of course, can still be used to describe some people, and it seems particularly apt today for politicians and so-called elites!

Oh, and ‘Creep’, by the way, is a great song by Radiohead! What would your one word to describe the dynamics of today’s world be?

Everyone is a salesperson…

One day, early in his IT project delivery career and during a meeting considering a meaty problem threatening his project’s progress, the Badger’s phone rang. The call went unanswered. The caller, the Badger’s line manager, left a voicemail asking for a call back. On returning the call, they explained that business with a new client was being developed, and that they wanted the Badger to visit the client with one of the sales team to help the client understand the company’s delivery credentials. The Badger grumbled, but the only acceptable response was to agree.

A couple of days later, the Badger and the salesperson met for the first time in a coffee shop an hour before the client meeting. The salesperson confirmed that the objective of the meeting was to build client confidence in the company’s technical and delivery capabilities, and, if asked, to provide an insight into delivering complex projects and programmes from personal experience. The client meeting proved positive and friendly, and afterwards the Badger returned to his project satisfied with how things had gone.

Two days later, the salesperson called to tell the Badger that he was sold to the client to run one of their major programmes commencing the following week! A fuming Badger immediately rang his line manager and angrily questioned their and the salesperson’s integrity. Clearly taken aback and embarrassed, the line manager was adamant that there had been no intent to sell the Badger to the client. Their annoyance with the salesperson was extreme and they divulged that there’d been previous issue with the individual over-stepping their authority. Things were resolved quickly. The line manager demanded an explanation from the salesperson who simply said they’d capitalised on ‘an immediate and irresistible opportunity’ that had arisen after the meeting. They left the company a month later, but the incident bolstered the Badger’s negative view of salespeople at the time.

The Badger’s project completed a few months later, and the line manager assigned him to a role in his business management team. During this assignment, the Badger learned that most salespeople are professional, focused, hardworking, and have high integrity – just like delivery people – and that siloed functional mindsets were counterproductive because everyone works for the same company. The Badger also learned that delivery people at all levels of experience should never think they aren’t also salespeople, and that recognising potential business opportunities must be an essential part of their psyche. Business opportunities present themselves to people in all positions, not just to a dedicated sales team, and a company will succeed more when people recognise these opportunities and feel empowered to take some action, even if it’s just telling the sales team! The old cliché ‘everyone’s a salesperson’ isn’t just a mantra, these days it’s a truism in both our personal and work lives.

Reflecting on a smart meter…

It’s ten years since the UK’s smart meter roll-out programme began, and it’s nine months since a smart meter was fitted in the Badger’s home. It seemed apt this week, therefore, to spend a little time considering whether the smart meter has helped reduce the household’s energy consumption. Accordingly, the Badger sat down at his desk with a cup of coffee to analyse how the household’s annual kilowatt hours have changed over the last seven years when the number of house occupants has been a constant. The analysis revealed that annual kilowatt hours dropped every year up until the smart meter was installed nine months ago. Energy consumption has dropped by 36% from the level seven years ago. Consumption since the smart meter was installed, however, is on track to be essentially on a par with the last pre-smart meter year. 

This means that the sizeable reduction in household consumption was achieved during the era of an old-fashioned, reliable, mechanical meter and not by installing a smart meter. It shows that personal discipline and behavioural change in using energy in the home has a bigger impact than having a smart meter per se.  Having a smart meter for nine months has, however, largely been a benign experience.  The In-Home Display still intermittently displays ‘Connection Lost – move the device closer to the meter’ which is irritating when the smart meter campaign’s website says it’ll work anywhere in your home.  The novelty of monitoring the In-Home display also wore off long ago, and now any hype about smart meters is now, frankly, just ignored. The household may have a ‘modern’ smart meter as part of its updated infrastructure, but as a consumer it doesn’t feel particularly beneficial or worthwhile.     

It seems that the jury’s out on whether households think the smart meter roll out programme has been worthwhile. The Badger, as a consumer paying for this programme through their energy bills, is dubious that it’s worth the billions that have been spent. The programme’s been running for a decade so far. It’s much delayed, and the current target set for 2024 looks both optimistic and somewhat irrelevant given the meters must all apparently be replaced if home gas boilers are to be adapted or replaced to use hydrogen.  One can’t help but feel that this programme has been over-sold and is turning out to be an expensive dud, at least for consumers.   

The simple fact is that a smart meter hasn’t helped to reduce energy use in the Badger’s household over the last nine months. It’s become like its old-fashioned predecessor, a box in a corner that just does its thing.  You don’t need a smart meter to save energy and hence money, you just need to change your household disciplines and personal behaviour…which, of course, costs you nothing.  

Hinkley Point C and the Marble Arch Mound…

The recent BBC television series ‘Building Britain’s Biggest Nuclear Power Station’ about the building of Hinkley Point C on the UK’s North Somerset coast was enthralling. Television cameras not only followed people building the station, but also gave an insight to the engineering, processes, professionalism, and diligent attention to detail that they follow at every step of the build. The Badger found the sections covering the ‘Go/No Go’ decisions for a) pouring nearly 1000 lorry-loads of the correct specification of concrete for the nuclear island foundations, and b) installing the first ring of the reactor containment building, impressive and reassuring!

Normally we see little of such readiness and decision-making processes on major programmes and during his career the Badger was involved in numerous post-mortems of programmes that suffered from poor Go/No-Go readiness and decision-making disciplines, especially with regard to opening up to ‘live’ operations with end users. A failed major programme activity or a failed introduction to use with end users can often be traced back to poor Go/No-Go professionalism with decisions based on poor status information, poor risk assessment, and commercial or political priorities. It is, therefore, reassuring to see that things are being done right with regard to every aspect of readiness with Hinkley Point C.

The recent opening of the Marble Arch Mound in London, however, is a different endeavour. It’s recent opening before it was ready not only led to some ribald laughter in the Badger household, but also lots of derision on social media and in the press – see here, here, and here, for example.   Westminster City Council’s ’s CEO must have felt highly embarrassed at having to apologise via a statement on the Mound’s website that it hadn’t been ready for opening to paying customers. The Badger knew little of the ‘The Mound’, a phrase that seems apt for a horror story, before the tsunami of recent coverage, and so he explored further in a more objective frame of mind.   

The motive for building the ‘The Mound’ was to get people back into the shops, theatres, and restaurants of London over the Summer, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a temporary structure costing ~£2m of council taxpayers money that’s only in place until January 2022. It apparently fails to deliver what was promised.  On absorbing its history, the Badger felt that while the motive was laudable, the concept of ‘The Mound’, the way it was marketed, and its delivery were likely flawed from the outset. The Badger’s conclusion? ‘The Mound’ is a reminder that not every idea is a good one, not every delivery meets expectations, and not every decision is the right one.  It’s also a reminder of human fallibility which is, of course, something which cannot be countenanced at Hinkley Point C where everything must be perfect.   

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.   

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.