Showbusiness for ugly people, Mr Blobby, and the credibility of elderly people with power…

Someone said recently that politics is ‘showbusiness for ugly people.’  It made the Badger laugh because the phrase resonates with recent news items like those, for example, covering China’s 20th Communist Party Congress, Putin declaring martial law, and turmoil in the UK government.  The latter, in particular, has provided comedic value on a par with old television programmes like Fawlty Towers and Yes, Prime Minister. Unlike the first broadcast of these programmes, however, the internet, social media, and 24-hour news mean we don’t have to wait for the next episode because the comedy unfolds continuously in real-time.

Having no allegiance to any political ideology is probably why ‘showbusiness for ugly people’ seemed to resonate so strongly with these news items. Being playful for a moment, the Badger thinks the phrase supports the thesis that in today’s world dominated by attention-grabbing content, Mr Blobby, Paddington Bear, and Winnie the Pooh would do a better job delivering what matters than anyone groomed by the machinery of political parties.

A television news bulletin showing Mr Putin in the Kremlin prompted a visiting relative to ask a great question, namely, ‘Mr Putin is 70 years old, Xi Jinping is almost 70, Joe Biden is almost 80 (and Nancy Pelosi is 82!), so why haven’t they retired?’. They added that they weren’t ageist but merely pointing out that, in their experience, the leaders of large public sector and commercial organisations never appoint anyone of this age to run major projects, programmes, and business units. Why, therefore, are these elderly individuals credible as superpower leaders when they are in the twilight years of mental and physical prowess?

Initially flummoxed, the Badger paused to think for a moment, and then simply said that while many believe the world is a rational place, the reality is that humans are inherently both rational and irrational, as internet and social media content frequently illustrates. The propensity for irrationality can be seen in all walks of life, and especially in those who are trying to hold onto power regardless of whether it’s good for themselves and those around them. Whether elderly superpower leaders are credible is thus questionable.

The visitor expected more, so the Badger pointed out that Biden, Xi Jinping, and Putin are not from a digital-native generation and that they are all past their country’s standard pension age.  Younger, impatient individuals from digital-native generations will be biting at their heels hungry for power and change. In this decade we might thus see events that trigger the replacement of old men as superpower leaders by dynamic individuals from the digital-native generation. Eventually, of course, leaders from the digital-native generation will be corrupted by power too, and the cycle will repeat itself. The visitor looked perplexed and suggested that the Badger needed mind-altering medication…

Take the smartphone challenge…

The Badger’s concentration often lapsed during dry presentations at corporate conferences. He was not alone judging by the extent to which those in audiences were always furtively using their smartphones rather than concentrating on the speakers. It’s still the same today. Indeed, our smartphone makes it difficult to maintain an optimal state of concentration on anything for a prolonged period. When it comes to concentration, the smartphone is not your friend. It’s a source of distraction that not only affects your mental productivity, but also encourages brain habits that are not in your overall interest.

This point arose in a conversation with an old friend who is a psychologist. Over a beer reminiscing about our careers, the Badger’s friend asked him to distil a frequent frustration during his career into just one word. The Badger scratched his head and eventually answered ‘procrastination’ because it always frustrated initiative, creativity, and productive progress. His friend grinned, said procrastination was a natural human reaction to things that seem difficult or challenging, and emphasised that it’s as common in general life as it is in business. Apparently, it happens when our inner energy to prepare, decide, and act, simply fails to overcome our inner resistance. The resulting inaction can frustrate and cause conflict with others.

Pointing to their smartphone, the psychologist said the device neither helped in reducing procrastination, nor helped to promote good life habits or personal productivity, because it disrupts our ability to concentrate. Frequent checking for emails, text messages, news items, and social media posts, during a task apparently disrupts our brain’s focus and hence our productivity. The Badger was sceptical, so his friend challenged him to ‘take the smartphone challenge’ . It would show that his brain could not only be retrained to be less dependent on the device, but also that his concentration and productivity would improve. The challenge was simple. Just turn your smartphone off for one hour, once or twice a week, and use that hour to do a specific task or a hobby. Continue for some weeks and you will notice that your concentration improves, your productivity in each timeslot improves, and that this regime becomes a new habit. It becomes embedded behaviour, and your brain benefits in doing tasks without the distraction of the virtual world. The Badger procrastinated in accepting the challenge, until his friend simply raised their eyebrows!

Now, some months after turning off his devices for an hour twice a week to write creatively using pen and paper, the initially sceptical Badger can report that the challenge works! It’s now embedded behaviour, and the concentration, productivity, and quality of output improvements have been obvious. So, don’t procrastinate, take the smartphone challenge yourself. If you give up or it doesn’t work for you, then this in itself tells you something about your willpower and the extent to which your brain has been affected by your own fear of missing out (FOMO) if disconnected from the virtual world.

The ‘Decade of Great Correction’…

The Badger chuckled after chatting to an elderly lady going to the shops on a mobility scooter. They had commented on not only the state of the world and the impact it was having on them personally, but also on the puritanism and woke culture that’s made them cautious about talking to strangers in case they say something that causes offence. They also complained that people are too ready to accept what they read in the press and on social media, and that this meant we are all doomed before the decade is out! This prompted the Badger to cogitate on how historians might ultimately label our current decade.

Thoughts were consolidated over an americano in a local coffee shop. The Badger concluded two things. Firstly, that the online world hasn’t changed the basic fact that fretting about the state of the real world and its personal impact is an inherent part of both life and the human psyche. Online facilities have merely expanded the universe of what we can worry about! Secondly, that historians will label the 2020’s as the ‘Decade of Great Correction’ because the enormous breadth of difficult circumstances is fundamentally changing behaviours.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered seismic waves of change across social, economic, and political fronts. Personal attitudes, values, behaviours, and habits are changing as a result, and the ramifications will reverberate through the rest of the decade. The tech sector is not immune to these changes. Peloton and Zoom, for example, are already encountering tougher times, streaming services are worried about subscriber levels, social media platforms are coming under increasing regulatory scrutiny and geo-political influence, and consumers are savvier about the online world.

The Russia/Ukraine conflict has caused multidimensional disruption contributing to a dramatic rise in inflation everywhere. Individuals and businesses alike are struggling to survive with soaring energy prices, something that’s likely to persist given superpower relationships do not seem conducive to stability in the world. Overlaid on this is an unfolding global recession, an unwinding of the quantitative easing that has damaged people’s prudency regarding personal savings since the 2009 financial crash, and rising interest rates that will stress those who borrowed heavily during the era of cheap money. And then there’s climate change…

A correction in most people’s lifestyles is afoot (see an unusual sign here, for example). Many will retrench from consumerism and materialism to the same core priorities as our ancestors, namely shelter, putting food on the table, and protecting loved ones. This will impact industrial, social, and political dynamics for years to come. The ‘Decade of Great Correction’ thus seems an apt descriptor for the 2020s!

The Badger finished his coffee. He left the shop wondering if it would still be there once their next utility bill arrived.

Digital pollution

The High Street, closed to traffic, was crowded with people for the  annual Christmas Street Market. The numerous stalls selling craft items, festive decorations, food, and drink were doing good business. A group of ladies from Rock Choir sang songs and the smell of mulled wine hung enticingly in the air. Turnout was impressive. Everyone was enjoying themselves, especially after covid forced the market’s cancellation last year. Amongst the stalls there some booths where charities and campaign groups were drumming up support for their cause. One of these was manned by a millennial climate change campaigner who radiated enthusiasm. The  crowd moved unexpectedly, and before he could take evasive action the campaigner engaged the Badger in conversation!

Their spiel was well-practiced. Fossil fuels are bad, the oil, plastics, and chemical industries are all irresponsible polluters driven by corporate greed, and people who travel by plane or car are killing the planet. The Badger had no appetite for a prolonged debate, so he pointed to the campaigner’s iPad and to heir colleague listening to music on a smartphone and politely said, ‘You should be looking at your own digital pollution’. Movement of the crowd enabled the Badger to move on before the campaigner, slightly taken aback, could respond.

The Badger’s interest in digital pollution was heightened recently by both reading some articles (e.g. here, here, and here) and getting frustrated at a recent surge in irrelevant emails and ‘you might like’ social media content all of which just got ignored and deleted.  Every email, every interaction with the cloud, every search of the internet, every stream of a song or film, every social media post, every piece of online commentary, argument, misinformation, disinformation and propaganda, and every piece of digital advertising and marketing, not only comes with an emissions price, but also pollutes our well-being – as neatly articulated here.  Digital pollution is real; it has an emissions footprint and an insidious effect on our psychological well-being by affecting our emotional and intellectual capacity. On both counts this is worrying because emissions from building, delivering, and using digital technology already make up 4% of global emissions  and some are predicting an eight-fold rise in data traffic by 2030.

Our digital world has many benefits, but it comes with a form of pollution that’s much less obvious than the oil slicks and plastic flotsam we can readily see. Every interaction with data and online content comes with an emissions price and an insidious impact on how we think, feel, and behave. Just keep this in mind every time you use email, search the internet, and use online services and social media. Young campaigners at Christmas Markets should have digital pollution higher on their agenda. If it’s ignored, then in years to come their children and grandchildren will inevitably blame them for inaction on all of its polluting effects.

Indelible memories of 9/11…

Saturday is the 20th anniversary of the atrocity that killed thousands of innocent people at the World Trade Centre in New York.  If you weren’t there then it’s almost certain that you watched the harrowing event play out on television screens on that fateful Tuesday, 11th September 2001. It was a heinous crime, horrifying to watch on TV in a different country, and it left people with indelible memories wherever they were in the world on that day. These memories are often specific and deeply personal, and two of the Badger’s, for example, are as follows.

The first is of how the Badger became aware of the tragedy at work in a building outside London, some 3,500 miles from New York. Sitting in his office pouring over project documents relating to a 200-strong development team resident in the same building, the Badger was oblivious to the unfolding horror until his concentration was broken by a telephone call from his teenage son. In a voice dripping with concern, his son’s first words were ‘Where are you? Are you okay and somewhere safe? Have you seen the news?’.  The Badger was surprised by his son’s unexpected, anxiety-laden, words. It quickly transpired that he thought his father was in London and that ‘London would be the next target’. The profound relief of his son when the Badger answered reassuringly has proved unforgettable. After the call, the Badger went to a news website, saw a picture of a blazing tower, and knew that the world would be changing.   

The second is of a meeting the following day in London. It involved two people from the company’s Lexington-based subsidiary, 10 miles from downtown Boston. The pallor, demeanour, and body language of two shocked people who had travelled to London the previous Sunday for a week of business meetings with UK-based leaders was unforgettable.  The Badger’s boss, who chaired the meeting, set the original agenda aside to concentrate on their well-being and needs. They were grateful because all they really wanted to do was get back to Boston as quickly as possible to be with their families.  Their professionalism and patriotism while highly stressed, emotionally vulnerable, stuck in a foreign country due to the grounding of planes, and concerned for their loved ones, was hauntingly memorable.   

We should remember that at the time of 9/11 the internet was pedestrian by today’s standards.  It didn’t dominate our lives then, and the likes of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iPhones, Android phones, and tablet computers didn’t exist.  If today’s smartphones, social media platforms, and streaming had existed in 2001 then the trauma and immediate personal suffering of those caught up inside the towers would have been horrifyingly at our fingertips in real-time. Today’s tech means life is different to 20 years ago, but we should perhaps be thankful that it didn’t exist at the time of 9/11 because the trauma experienced by everyone everywhere would have been worse by orders of magnitude.    

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…

Meetings and muppets…

One of the Badger’s bosses from years ago sadly died recently, taken way too soon by COVID-19. On hearing the news, a memory of his boss chairing a large meeting of business and functional leaders quickly came to the fore. The Badger’s boss, someone whose external visage – shall we say – masked an intellect and capability that was second to none, tired of the vacuous hand waving and grand-standing of one of the meeting attendees and interjected with ‘I’m beginning to wonder what muppet appointed you when I hear rubbish like this’. The hand waver immediately responded with ‘Actually, it was you that appointed me!’  The Badger’s boss gave a wry smile and said, ‘Well I must have had a Fozzie Bear moment, which is something I will rectify if you continue being the Swedish Chef’. Everyone giggled and the meeting got back on track.

Later that day, over small talk at a coffee point, the Badger’s boss playfully told him that everyone in meetings considers themselves to be better and more deserving than others present, and that one or more of the attendees are muppets! The boss went on to say that people also sit there wondering how someone less capable than themselves could have been appointed to an important position. The boss advised the Badger to remember these points when attending meetings, to consciously learn about human behaviour, and to use this understanding for advantage whenever you can.

The Badger has indeed sat through meetings over the years wondering how he could be surrounded by muppets and how they could have got to where they were in their careers with such obvious flaws!  Many of you have probably done the same. In the real world of organisations, of course, it is not always about how good you are at your job, your knowledge, or your experience that gets you into a key position, it is often how you play internal politics, who you know, and  how much energy you put into looking good rather than doing a good job. This can be very frustrating, but it is a fact of life and also of human behaviour.  

The Badger’s boss imparted one final point of wisdom before leaving the coffee point, namely, that if you are sitting in a meeting thinking that others are muppets and undeserving of their position, then you must remember that they are thinking exactly the same about you!  The boss looked the Badger in the eye, grinned broadly, and said, ‘In meetings, your career, and life, you need to manage the muppets before they manage you’.  The boss, in an action not dissimilar to the Swedish Chef, then poured coffee down the front of their suit jacket!  The Badger will remember them not only for their wisdom and sound advice, but also because they were never a muppet.  

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’.

So you think you’re not biased? Think again…

All organisations have policies and processes for recruiting people from the external market into vacant roles and candidates typically meet their prospective employer for an ‘interview’ at some stage, even with today’s technology. Those doing the interviewing tend to be well-trained by their employers, which was certainly true for the Badger who has interviewed many people for roles at all levels of seniority and some of these were sessions never to be forgotten!

Many years ago, the Badger interviewed a series of candidates to project manage and lead the overall delivery of a major IT contract with a new client. One candidate was of a lady whose CV showed six roles with impressive titles at four different companies in the previous three years. The interview proved memorable. She was ten minutes late, made no attempt to apologise, and immediately launched into how perfect she was for the role as soon as she was seated. Hmm, not a great start, but the Badger quickly took control and focused on what needed to be explored.   

It transpired that the impressive titles on her CV covered mainly administrative project support functions rather than overall delivery leadership. It also transpired that she had moved companies four times in three years because she was ‘under-appreciated and didn’t fit’.  But it wasn’t any of this that made the meeting, it was what she said afterwards as the Badger politely escorted her back to reception.  She asked if she would have a second interview and whether was she in the running for the role. The Badger said no politely on both counts. The lady glared and said, ‘It’s because you are biased against women, isn’t it?’  Taken aback for a second, the Badger replied – truthfully – ‘No. It’s because when I asked you to describe the traditional system delivery lifecycle and a number of the key risk points in it, you couldn’t’.  The lady stormed off!

This sticks in the memory because it triggered the Badger to improve his awareness and knowledge of bias and the effect it has on one’s own behaviour and that of others.  It made the Badger really appreciate that everyone has in-built ‘unconscious bias’, and that knowing this, and the fact that it’s easier to see it in others than it is to see it in yourself, helps you make better decisions.  There’s some informative ‘unconscious bias’ articles  here, here, here and here.

Ever since the interview with the lady, two related things have been raised in the Badger’s consciousness.  The first is to use your training when interviewing and be aware of ‘unconscious bias’ when making your decision.  The second is not to be fazed if someone accuses you of being biased, because it’s a fact of human existence that your accuser has their own in-built bias too!

An 88 year-old’s take on tech during pandemic lockdown…

It’s been tough for the elderly during the pandemic, especially if they live alone in their own homes and relatives live a long way away. Good neighbours, community volunteers, and some of the tech that younger people take for granted have been a big help, provided, of course, the elder in question wants to embrace the support.

A local acquaintance is 88 years old and has lived in the same house since the 1960s. They have lived there alone since their partner died 25 years ago. They suffer from arthritis which is progressively limiting what they can do. They are proudly independent, stoic, and keep their old house spotless. Before the pandemic, they frequently used public transport, did their own shopping, met friends for coffee at a local daycentre, and regularly attended their church. None of this now happens but they don’t complain about how difficult it is for elders who are not in care homes, don’t get visits from carers, and who have families that live too far away to provide anything other than telephone contact. Television is their primary source of company. They do not have a mobile phone, broadband, or social media. Their landline telephone – with a 30-year-old handset – is their lifeline to the outside world.

The Badger’s been keeping a watchful eye and doing their shopping, just like many citizens everywhere during the pandemic. Once a week we have a long, face to face, socially distanced chat that clearly lifts their spirits. This week they asked the Badger about video calls because they had heard about them on television, and their distant family wants them to accept having an easy to use video facility for the elderly put in their home. The Badger promptly used his smartphone and WhatsApp to show them  how easy video are to make in practice.

They marvelled at what’s possible, but immediately said they didn’t want ‘that kind of technology’ in the house or in their life! Asked why not, they gave two reasons. The first was ‘it’s too complicated to learn at my age’, but the second really took the Badger by surprise. From watching television and listening to the radio, they have decided that the internet, social media, and smart tech are responsible for most of the strife in the world. They don’t want anything that causes strife in their life!

They elaborated by saying that every generation has a nemesis, and that the impact of rampant smart tech will be the younger generation’s nemesis in times to come. The Badger was quietly impressed! How many of us will be able to formulate and articulate such an insightful view on reaching the ripe old age of 88? Will tech have overtaken our capacity for independent thought by then? Hmm…