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!

Hearing is not Listening…

When the Badger was a teenager, his parents said he suffered from ‘selective hearing’ because of a tendency to ignore things he didn’t want to acknowledge. The Badger’s ‘selective hearing’ was not a physical or mental condition! All the words spoken were actually heard, but the Badger’s mind simply chose not to acknowledge what was being said. As he matured, the Badger soon learned the difference between hearing and listening, and that listening was a crucial ‘soft’ skill in life and a career.

Hearing and listening are different, as highlighted neatly here. Hearing is a sense. It happens when sound hits our eardrums and is processed in our brain. Listening, on the other hand, is a conscious action to give attention to what is being said. It goes beyond just hearing the sound of words. The world needs good listeners, but, sadly, not everyone is a good listener.

Many years ago, the Badger was tasked with sorting out a major systems and software project providing the crucial control system for a specialist manufacturing process. The end client was building a new facility for the manufacturing process and a large US engineering organisation was the prime contractor for the whole endeavour. The IT systems were seriously late and delaying the entire programme of works. The Badger, his boss, and his boss’s boss were summoned to a meeting with the prime contractor’s general manager to explain the actions we were taking. It was a memorable meeting!

The general manager, a civil engineer with no real appreciation of IT or software, had marshalled a team of 20 people to hear what we were doing to stem our project delays. The Badger explained comprehensively, but the subsequent Q&A culminating in the general manager saying ‘If I want to paint this facility faster, I get 50 extra painters to start on Monday. Why aren’t you getting 50 extra programmers to start on Monday?’ The Badger answered and a tirade about the importance of avoiding delay ensued from the general manager who ended by shouting ‘You are not hearing me. Get more programmers for Monday!

The Badger’s boss’s boss calmly said ‘We are hearing you. But you are not listening to us, which I find surprising given your seniority’. The general manager was flummoxed. We left the meeting. That moment cemented the importance of listening in the Badger’s psyche forever.

So, if you are starting out on your career in today’s tech dominated world, don’t neglect developing and honing good listening skills. They help you to make better decisions at home and work, and help you to remain objective and rational in a world full of ‘hearsay’ and ‘selective hearing’. Better listening is what we should all do. If your listening skills are below par, then it’s time to do something about it.

Want to be a Project Manager? Read Kipling’s ‘If’ first…

Over the years, the Badger immensely enjoyed engaging with youngsters early in their careers, especially young team leaders keen to become project managers in the IT services world. As someone with a long career delivering IT projects, the Badger was often ‘an invited guest’ to give the benefit of his experience at the final sessions of team leader training courses. The young, enthusiastic, attendees always asked probing questions about the Badger’s experience and the sessions – free format, open, informal and honest – always proved informative for the guest and participants alike!

Many of the questions across the sessions were predictable. Many related to ‘structure and process’, for example, or the soft skills needed to create ‘team spirit’, but most were simply about what young, impatient, team leaders needed to do to be appointed as a project manager. Hardly surprising, because youngsters are always eager to get project management on their CV, to have career progress, and to earn more money as fast as possible – either with their current employer or some other company! Most saw project management as a necessary first step into real management and leadership with power and authority. Most were familiar with materials from the Project Management Institute or the Association for Project Management, but few had a realistic appreciation of the personal characteristics, qualities and skills needed to manage a client, a project team, a contract, the attention of line management, a plan, a financial budget, a whole project lifecycle, change, risk and so on, all at the same time!

The Badger always told them that not all team leaders have the personal characteristics to be successful project managers. There was always caused a lively debate. In one session, the Badger was explicitly asked how to get an independent informal opinion of the suitability of someone’s personal characteristics for project management. The answer? Simple. Just ask 5 people you have worked with in the past -not friends or anyone associated with your current work – if you meet the spirit of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’. If 3 or less say ‘Yes’ then you should ‘wonder if your personal characteristics are suited to project management’.

Sometime after the Badger bumped into two session attendees who had followed up on ‘If…’. One received 2 Yes’s and the other 3. Both valued the exercise because it made them question themselves, their motives, and especially their personal ability to cope with possible failure. Both still wanted to be project managers. Indeed, both went on to be successful project managers! So, what’s the Badger’s point here? Simply that you learn about yourself when you extend yourself, but it’s always prudent to test if others think you have what it takes before you do so. Just remember that at the end of the day, you don’t know what you can do unless you try.

What’s the purpose of this meeting and is it necessary?

When President Trump suggested over the weekend that his daily coronavirus briefings are no longer ‘worth the effort’ the Badger laughed. Why? Not because Mr Trump’s a professional comedian, or because the Badger is particularly a supporter or opponent of the President, but because he asked what many leaders and managers in business – regardless of how well they are trained – say too infrequently, namely ‘What’s the purpose of this meeting and is it necessary?’

Meetings are, of course, an important part of the drumbeat and fabric of most organisations. But, notwithstanding the passage of time since the article here was written in 1996 and the massive advances in technology since then, has anything really changed when it comes to the people and meetings? Most leaders and managers would like to think so, but the Badger’s not so sure. Lots of training courses on how to focus, organise, run and behave at meetings have existed for years, but it still seems that the question ‘What’s the purpose of this meeting and is it necessary?’ doesn’t get asked as frequently as it should.

The Badger learned many things about meetings over the years, and President Trump’s comment brought three of those learning points immediately to the fore.

The first was that the more senior you are, then the more time you spend in meetings and the less time you spend doing something that is personally productive. Second was that the regular monthly and/or quarterly reviews that project, programme, line and executive leaders will recognise as part of the operational drumbeat in most organisations are about gamesmanship! Those being reviewed try to focus attention on what they know and issues that are being addressed with clear action plans and remain tight-lipped on growing worries or issues which are currently unquantified. The reviewers know this and try to expose the answer to the question ‘What do they know that I don’t, and what should they be doing that they aren’t?’ The Badger’s been both sides of the table many times! Of course, policies in organisations encourage openness but that’s rarely the case in practice because meetings involve people, and people have egos, personal motives and individual agendas to feed.

And the third learning point? Simply the importance of systematically and repeatedly asking the question ‘What is the purpose of this meeting and is it necessary?’ If the answer is confused or unpersuasive, then your time is normally better spent doing something else. So regardless of the fact that President Trump might align with the same point, the Badger’s ‘simple knowledge, simply conveyed’ advice is always ask the question ‘What is the purpose of this meeting and is it necessary?’ and take action appropriate for the answer you get…

Hone your Delivery Leadership skills by taking a central, company-wide role…

Blog_28-Jan-2020

The Badger was asked by a group of young IT project managers (PMs) to describe something in his IT delivery career that spawned significant learning. There have been many learning experiences – all important in their own way – but one quickly came to the fore. It was the learning that came from a ‘career transition event’ which required the swift development of new personal skills as well as the rapid assimilation of broader business knowledge in order to deal with new challenges. The event itself was a move from being a successful software, systems integration and service project leader in the company’s engine room, into a central, company-wide, delivery leadership role within the company’s overall business leadership team.

The Badger learned from the move that he had aptitudes that others could see but were unknown to himself! The move to a central company role meant learning new soft and hard skills, and new ways of thinking and behaving that built on the deeply embedded disciplines and learning of a delivery background. After progressing from programmer, through team leading into the delivery leadership of fixed price IT contracts of ever larger scale, complexity and commercial risk, the transition to a central company leadership role was still difficult! Perspective on how the company worked, its priorities, and the context in which decisions were made, all changed.

In explaining this to the young PMs the Badger summarised three things. First that good IT delivery leaders are natural problem solvers and managers of risk. They are organised, commercially aware, good decision makers, and people that get things done. These are valuable traits in a central role because others who operate centrally often have little real experience of doing the real work that brings in profit. The second was that a central company-wide role really does change the perception you have of your company. You see how it really functions, its priorities, and why decisions can sometimes be different to what you expect. The third was that if you as a PM get a chance to work in a central company-wide role then take it! You may find you don’t enjoy the experience, but you will learn lots and it will make you a better and savvier delivery leader. It will definitely change your perspectives and make you think hard about what you enjoy and what you don’t.

One of the PMs subsequently asked the following:

‘So, we should extend ourselves, be thirsty for new knowledge, always build on what we are good at and enjoy doing, and get some central company-wide experience to broaden our minds, our knowledge and our capabilities?

The Badger replied with one word. Correct!

‘Stench’ – a virtual fragrance for the festive season?

If you work for an organisation that takes the development of its people seriously then you’ll have attended courses with elements that sensitise you to the importance of body language when engaging with others. The Badger was first sensitised to this when attending two short courses in quick succession many years ago. The first course covered interviewing and recruiting new graduates, and the second covered leading software and system development teams. Both featured personal interaction sessions that were videoed and critiqued by the trainers and other attendees – a very effective way of learning about the powerful signals our body language conveys. Since then, and with many other courses under the belt, the Badger has been in many situations where controlling one’s body language and watching that of others has helped to convert difficult circumstances into acceptable outcomes.

People have been communicating with each other for millennia. We are conditioned by our heritage to know that the best communication happens when we are physically face to face so that we can hear what’s said and simultaneously see the physical nuances of those in the same room. Modern technology, however, encourages instant communication that is devoid of a contextual body language component. Email’s a good example. How many times have you sent an email that’s been misinterpreted when read by recipients? More times than we all care to admit. The body language component is missing from the words.

Another example is the recent Elon Musk v Vernon Unsworth court case relating to comments made on Twitter. A jury found in favour of Mr Musk. His offending Tweets were judged to be essentially ‘playground insults’ rather than real defamatory insults. The Badger has no opinion on the right or wrong of this finding, that’s a matter for the courts, but isn’t it somewhat sad that the finding seems to legitimise trading hurtful insults using modern social media platforms like Twitter? Surely this isn’t good for society? ‘Playground insults’ normally take place in a real playground where words are said with body language visible. Surely if it’s okay to trade ‘playground insults’ using Twitter, then that’s clear evidence that civilisation is crumbling into an anarchistic morass?

After the Musk ruling, one of the Badger’s friends commented – admittedly after more mulled wine than prudent – that Twitter should invent a virtual fragrance called ‘Stench’ for anyone who wants to make playground insults using its platform over the forthcoming festive season. The Badger laughed, because the amusing and playful intent was clear in their words and body language. We laughed again when we decided that ‘playground insults’ should stay in a real playground and not be traded in the virtual world. Why? Because ‘playground fisticuffs’ are a much cheaper and more effective way of resolving playground disputes than resorting to lawyers. Oh, and finally, in case you’re wondering, for the avoidance of doubt and all that, none of this is intended to insult anyone or any organisation!