Are optimists, pessimists, or realists the most successful leaders?

The Badger was asked many times during his career to engage with delivery and business leaders encountering serious problems delivering a contracted project to requirement, time, and budget. These requests were often initiated by the company’s Chief Executive who simply asked the Badger to ‘chat with those responsible and see if you can help’. They knew the Badger would interpret the request as ‘get stuck in and get the  problems on this contract resolved’. Being aware of the personal traits of the people you deal with, especially those in senior positions, is crucial to interpreting what they really mean when they ask you to do something!

One such ‘how can I help’ conversation with a business leader proved memorable because it spawned a hypothesis that the Badger feels has been validated over the years. Although we knew each other in passing, it was the first time we had met for any substantive conversation. After some initial chit-chat, the business leader quickly focused on describing the delivery, financial, and contractual difficulties of their project. They had, apparently, already spoken to a couple of experienced staff about helping to resolve the difficulties, but neither was, in their eyes, suited to the task. They described one as a cheery but superficial, glass-half-full optimist, and the other as a pedantic, too laid-back, glass-half-empty pessimist. The Badger remembers wondering how he would measure up!

After an hour’s discussion, the business leader asked the Badger to help resolve the project’s problems, adding that ‘you are a realist and you don’t care whether the glass is half full or half empty, only that the glass is a receptacle to be filled with as much liquid as possible’. Their comment spawned a hypothesis in the Badger’s mind, namely that the delivery and business leaders who have the most success, and also the longest careers, are realists. Engagements with many diverse business and delivery leaders over the years have tended to reinforce the hypothesis.

Being a realist means having a personality with a propensity to take measured risks and take measured decisions. It doesn’t mean never demonstrating optimism or pessimism. Those with an optimistic, glass-half-full, leaning tend to be less risk-conscious, while those with a pessimistic, glass-half-empty, leaning tend to have little appetite for risk at all! During COVID-19, for example, glass-half-full characters might have seen themselves as less at risk and taken less precautions, whereas those with a glass-half-empty outlook might never have left their house at all. Realists, on the other hand, would have taken measured risks based on knowing that the virus’s impact mainly depended on age and underlying health.

The Badger’s seen glass-half-full, and glass-half-empty leaders be successful, but it’s the realists who’ve been the most successful and had the longest careers. Is the Badger’s hypothesis sound scientifically? Don’t know, but he’ll stand by it until a proper people expert shoots it down in flames!


This item contains nothing generated by Bing Chat…

The Badger’s been experimenting for some time with Bing Chat, an integration of the GPT model developed by OpenAI with Microsoft’s search engine. It’s been both fun and thought-provoking. The capability is impressive, which is why there’s been massive interest in the technology in the 6 months since the public release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Many of the Badger’s interactions have made him chuckle, roll his eyes in annoyance, or better appreciate its use for good or evil, but every interaction has, in truth, reinforced why Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, calls on US lawmakers to regulate AI. This capability  has enormous scope to develop further. It’s already engaging the public and changing the way things are done, and it will continue to do so in the future. The Badger, like many, sees many pros and cons, but the primary outcome of his experimentation has been to crystalize the realisation that he must deal with how this impacts his content-producing activities like the writing of the blog you are reading now.

AI is destined to affect the activities and jobs of white-collar workers across a wide variety of industries (see here and here, for example). Indeed, the Badger can think of many functions and jobs that could be impacted by AI-centred automation in the IT industry alone. With perpetual improvement to make the profits stakeholders expect at the core of any business’s survivability, it’s inevitable that AI will speed up the drive for organisations to do more with less people, especially as employing people is expensive. Working in IT or tech industries doesn’t provide immunity from this impact, as BT’s recent announcement highlights. BT is cutting more than 10,000 jobs due to new technology and AI over the next 6 years. For employees in any organisation, therefore, this isn’t a time to stick your head in the sand; it’s a time to scan the horizon, think about how your livelihood might be impacted, and assess your options for countering the threat. All is not completely bleak, however, because AI seems unlikely to replace jobs requiring human skills such as creativity, judgement, physical dexterity and emotional intelligence. If these dominate your job, then the immediate threat is limited.

Experimenting with Bing Chat brings much of the media debate and commentary on AI to life. It’s made the Badger think seriously about intellectual property, ethics, and things like the transparency of content origination in a world where services like Bing Chat cannot be ignored. The Badger believes people deserve to know if any of the content they read online has been generated using a service like Bing Chat or Google Bard. Well, if you’ve read this far, then you can be confident that what you’ve read has been created entirely by a human being. It contains nothing generated by Bing Chat or any other similar capability.

An IT outsource in a pickle…

Bored with his smartphone’s ringtone, the Badger spent a few minutes exploring alternatives only to decide not to change for the time being! Scrolling through alternatives had thus simply been a waste of a precious commodity, namely time. Just as the Badger refocused on doing something useful, an acquaintance called. They wanted to chat informally with, as they put it, a veteran IT professional with wisdom and no axe to grind,about an IT outsourcing contract experiencing some difficulty. The Badger listened carefully to the pickle they described.

Problems started shortly after the contract was signed. Negotiations were apparently difficult due to the strong personalities and egos of the responsible business and commercial leads on both sides. Pressure to get to signature had been intense because both sides had been under enormous pressure from their executive levels. The service provider needed signature to underpin its quarterly results, and the client needed it to meet a much-publicised strategic priority. Now, some months after signature, the service provider and client business leads are perpetually arguing about what’s covered by Transition and what’s covered by Transformation, and payments. The terms and scope of Transition and Transformation are confused because they have been used interchangeably and inconsistently in the contract. The two parties are arguing about the contract wording they negotiated, and distrust and confusion reigns between client and provider staff at the delivery level. What a pickle!

The Badger simply said that if the parties at executive level want the outsource to succeed with a sustainable, long-term, mutually beneficial relationship then they needed to intervene and agree a course of action that deals with a) intransigent personalities on both sides, b) changes to contract wording, and c) the removal of any ambiguity about what constitutes Transition and Transformation. The caller sighed and simply said ‘Obvious isn’t it, but sometimes you need an outsider to tell you the obvious’.

Following the call, the Badger deliberated on the fact that he’d encountered similar scenarios more than 20 years ago when outsourcing, in one form or another, was on the rise across the IT industry. Has nothing been learnt since, especially with regard to the distinction between Transition and Transformation? Well, the process, practice, and professionalism of outsourcing has, of course, improved significantly over the last 20 years, but there’ll always be occasional problems because people are the weakest link. Egos, personal ambitions and motives, and pressure within organisations to achieve hard deadlines, can always adversely influence behaviours and lead to the erosion of professional rigour and discipline. Today there’s also another factor in play. A generation of highly experienced IT practitioners is retiring from the industry. There’s thus a heightened risk that the younger generation will make the same mistakes commonplace 20 years ago. But that’s just life…

Science and technology change lives for the better…

In a phone call with the Badger last week, his cousin spoke proudly about their career in oceanographic science and engineering, and of how grateful they were for the science and technology advances of recent decades. His cousin specialised in producing and operating submersibles, and he expressed a little regret that his children had no interest in science and engineering because it was too difficult. We laughed, reminisced about science and technological advances during our lifetime, and jovially agreed that these advances underpinned everything that is good in the world. The conversation subsequently played on the Badger’s mind as he watched the coronation of King Charles III, the first coronation for 70 years, over the weekend.

Life was very different in 1953 when the last coronation took place. Rock and roll was in its infancy, music was listened to on radios or gramophones playing 78rpm discs, and only 10% of UK households had telephones. Central heating was a rarity and coal was the dominant fuel for heating homes. The rationing of petrol and sugar following World War II had just been lifted, the first commercial jet airliner service was barely a year old, and the USA announced it had a thermonuclear weapon. The only way of looking inside the human body was by X-rays, the first vaccine for polio became available, and Crick and Watson announced they had discovered the structure of DNA. In 1953 there was virtually no vandalism, swearing in public was an offence, men gave up their seats for women on buses and trains, and there was only 53 Kilobytes of high-speed random-access memory on the whole planet!

Roll forward 70 years to King Charles’ coronation and life is different due to the dramatic science and technology advances of the intervening decades. As the Badger watched the coronation events, his cousin’s words about being grateful for these advances echoed in his head, ostensibly for two reasons. The first was that advanced science and technology quietly underpinned everything associated with the coronation. The second was that his cousin sadly passed away the day before the event.

The Badger’s cousin was diagnosed with prostate cancer 14 years ago and given only months to live, but he took the opportunity to engage with a scientific research programme using experimental treatments which gave him many more years with his family, the satisfaction of knowing he was helping others, and validation of his belief that science and technology was a force for good. He felt that a good STEM education not only meant that the world was your oyster, but also that it enabled the ability to create things that change lives for the better. He wanted our younger generation to share his belief and overcome any fear that science and technology is too difficult. He was inspirational and will be sadly missed.

Bigbug, AI, and common sense…

After a day of strenuous activity in the garden, the Badger settled down to watch something on the television that wasn’t full of doom and despondency. Nothing grabbed his interest as he flicked through the channels, so he scrolled Netflix for a film that wasn’t full of gory action or Marvel superheroes and came across Bigbug from director Jean-Pierre Jeunet.  Netflix describes the storyline as ‘Humans have ceded most tasks to AI in 2045, even in Alice’s nostalgic home. So, when robots stage a coup, her androids protectively lock her doors.’  Intrigued, the Badger hit play and watched this off-beat, quirky, sci-fi comedy to the end. It proved to be thought provoking.

Millennial or Generation Z digital natives will easily relate to the film’s backdrop of a society in 2045 based on automation, AI, and robots, because much of the technology portrayed – AI, drones, sophisticated sensors, the Internet of Things, machine learning, driverless cars, and so on – is a progression of what exists today. Indeed, Bigbug’s 2045, only 22 years away, cannot be deemed unrealistic when digital technology has already revolutionised life in the last two decades. While watching the film, the Badger wondered why we would tolerate the development of a society where AI and robots could dominate, control, and potentially destroy the human race. The answer seemed quite simple; humans are fickle and predominantly focused on the short term and convenience.

There’s no doubt that the pandora’s box of AI-centred systems is already open, and open letters signed by people like Elon Musk, and danger warnings from Geoffrey Hinton, the godfather of AI, will not change that. The genie is out of the bottle, and it’ll never go back in. Its simple common sense, surely, that if we create systems with the potential to be more powerful than humans then we must be clear on how we retain control over them? Unfortunately, common sense seems a bit thin on the ground these days. History shows that action to constrain and control the use of new technologies normally happens retrospectively, and AI seems to be no exception as we realise that it could, to put it provocatively, become a self-inflicted, weapon of mass human destruction!

The Badger found Bigbug’s technology-centric world of 2045 unattractive, but not outlandish. No one can predict the future, but it’s a certainty that AI-centred technology is rapidly changing human life as we know it, and presenting risks for our longer-term existence. The Badger thinks that we should never allow ourselves to become subservient to any technology that can lead to the decline and eventual eradication of our species. Surely that’s only common sense and the time has come to deal with the AI elephant in the room…

The Uk cellular national emergency alert test…

The Badger was untangling a tape strangling a vintage cassette player when last weekend’s first cellular UK national emergency alert test happened. When the alert sounded on his smartphone, it made him jump because he thought he’d broken something in the cassette player! Within a second or so, however, the Badger realised it was the alert test.

The merits or otherwise of the new emergency alert system has had extensive coverage in UK media and on social media, but the Badger thinks it’s a useful public safety facility, if used wisely, given the dynamics and tensions of today’s world. The Badger learned during his IT career that for systems like this to be truly successful, the discipline, processes, and motives of the people controlling its use are as important as the system’s capabilities, engineering, and robustness. Will those in charge use it wisely? Time will tell, but if there’s a false alarm event like that in Hawaii in 2018 then public distrust of systems and those who control them will reach levels that are off the scale!

The alert test was also a reminder that communication networks are the unseen plumbing of today’s digital world. As the Badger cogitated on this point, his landline phone warbled. He automatically picked up the handset without looking at the caller display showing a UK landline number that’s not in his address book. ‘Hello, are you the homeowner and responsible for the computer at your address?’, an Indian lady asked. Scam, the Badger thought before answering with ‘Who are you, who do you work for, and how did you get this number?’ The lady just repeated her question, and the Badger terminated the call. The phone immediately rang again, this time the caller display showed a UK mobile phone number that isn’t in his address book. It was the same lady who cheekily asked, ‘Why did you put the phone down?’ The Badger answered, ‘This call is being recorded’, and the lady terminated the call. Checking the two caller numbers using Who Called Me confirmed that the calls were not from a reputable telemarketing source.

So, here’s the thing. Public suspicion and distrust of emails, social media content, and telephone calls continues to grow. We are relentlessly bombarded with spurious contact and content, and so it’s unsurprising that many are rather dubious about a cellular National Emergency Alert System. Other countries already have similar systems, and the Badger feels the new system is ‘technology for good’ and has a role in the UK public safety landscape. If the first real National Alert to his smartphone, however, is to warn of a nuclear attack, then the Badger’s realistic enough to know that by the time he’s read the message and decided whether its real or the result of hacking by bad actors, it’ll be too late…

When ‘Smart’ technology dominates mindsets, smart decisions are unlikely to be made…

The Badger’s kitchen is undergoing some long-overdue renovation. Units and cooking facilities have gone, a brick wall has been knocked down, and electrical and water infrastructure is being changed. There’s some weeks to go before completion, but the Badger’s already adjusted to the new normal that a renovation imposes. The team from the local family business doing the work are very professional and doing a great job. In fact, their ‘can do’ attitude, teamwork, and focus on what needs to be done – rather than on the clock – reminds the Badger of the ethos of the project delivery teams he worked on during his career in the IT industry.

To date, these British workers are far from being culturally lazy or workshy! Far from it, they are hard-working and take great pride in doing a good job. From the outset they focused on getting the requirement, design, and implementation plan right, and now they’re delivering with a ‘do it right, do it once’ attitude, great attention to detail,  and great engagement with their client. The parallels with the Badger’s IT project teams of yore are heart-warming and satisfying. The Badger’s also learned that they are unfazed by ‘Smart’ technology and the digital world!

Yesterday the team lead said something the Badger didn’t expect. They said that ‘when ‘Smart’ technology dominates mindsets, smart decisions are unlikely to be made; smart decisions are made when your mindset has ‘Smart’ technology as just another useful tool in the kitbag’. They contended that the UK government’s recent ‘Smart’ Motorways announcement illustrated the point claiming that poor decisions were made years ago because a fixation with ‘Smart’ technology pervaded the mindset of politicians. It’s a valid point of view, even if you disagree, especially when the team lead asserts that if motorway hard shoulders were a necessary safety feature decades ago when traffic volumes were much lower, then they must surely still be a necessary safety feature today!

The Badger’s renovators are not against ‘Smart’ technology. In fact, they’re pro-technology and use it extensively as a tool. Their smartphones, for example, are as important as any other tool in the toolbox because they provide immediate on-the-job connectivity with their suppliers for the disparate items needed for work to progress. They’re far from workshy, lazy, or technology phobic. They’re lions working hard to make a living in a world with a fair share of donkeys who, for example, once thought it was sensible for junctions 10 to 16 of London’s orbital M25 motorway to be an ‘all lane running’ Smart motorway. That was never a smart decision and always a silly idea, likely driven, as the team lead asserts, by mindsets fixated with ‘Smart’ technology. Fortunately, long overdue common sense has ultimately prevailed; it’s no longer going to happen and M25 road users will be safer as a result.

Being moved to a new system shouldn’t mean the services in a customer’s account go backwards…

Two emails from the Badger’s energy provider made him cogitate on his account being moved over a year ago to a new billing system. The move has resulted in less functionality in his online account than with the old one. If companies want customers to engage with them using online accounts and smartphone apps, then surely a transition to a system that provides customers less online functionality when logged into their accounts indicates that something’s awry behind the scenes?

The first email notified the Badger that his energy bill was available in his online account. The second, entitled ‘We need your help’, was a request to answer a few questions related to customer satisfaction and customer service. The Badger logged into his account to look at his bill. He sighed, just as he has on each login since February 2022 when his provider moved his account to their new system. The Badger’s been with this provider for some years, and it used to be easy to track energy usage and cost trends, payments, and to see local comparative information in a useful customer-friendly way. Given the climate crisis, the need to reduce fossil fuel usage, and the pandemic, these facilities were particularly useful. Sadly, being moved to the new billing system meant these facilities, which require access to historic data on the old system, were no longer available. Prior energy data was not migrated to the new system. The move effectively meant becoming a new customer on a new system providing only rudimentary online services for meter readings, bills and payments.

There’s been no change in the rudimentary facilities in the Badger’s online account since being moved to the new system. Instincts honed from decades in the IT industry have driven the Badger to think that the energy provider’s move to a new billing system has proved more problematic behind the scenes than expected. If this is the case, they will never admit it! Moving from older systems to new ones is always a challenge for any company. It’s always difficult to effect the transitions that a company needs to make for its own purposes without upsetting some customers, but if customer online account services go backwards and stay that way for a year or more, then either the change hasn’t gone as planned or the company is disdainful of its customers – or both.

After logging in this time, the Badger decided that his days as a customer with this provider are numbered. He answered their ‘We need your help’ email with some clear points, but it will make no difference. Why? Because as one of the big six energy suppliers to UK customers, their perpetually mediocre customer service scores imply that customers are not really a high priority. So, who’s the Badger’s provider? Look here and see if you can guess…

Problematic underperformers – the dog must wag the tail!

As the first day of a conference broke up, attendees moved to the venue’s bar to network, gossip, and share thoughts about the day’s sessions. A young project manager, however, sat alone in the venue’s lounge looking as if the world rested on their shoulders. The youngster smiled weakly and raised a hand in recognition as the Badger walked by. ‘Why so glum?’ the Badger asked before sitting down in an adjacent chair. ‘An underperformer is proving to be a problem that’s jeopardising the success of my project’ came the morose response.

The youngster explained that a person on a team on the critical path of the project was seriously underperforming, proving impossible to manage, and putting at risk the timely completion of contractual deliverables. The person had apparently been troublesome from the outset, but their team colleagues were now vocally grumbling because this individual was always late for work, always left on time at the end of the day with their work unfinished, and always blamed others for their poor productivity and low quality output. The individual also complained about everything! Performance management processes were in progress, but the person was using every nuance, ambiguity, and avenue for defence in the system to frustrate their execution. The young project manager asked if the Badger had any thoughts.  

The Badger stated that a rule of thumb which had stood him in good stead throughout his career was that ~10% of individuals on a project were underperformers.  Most were good people who were either in a role unsuited to their talents, or juggling with challenging personal or family situations, or both. Most did not poison a team’s spirit or damage overall output. A small proportion of underperformers, however, were truly work-shy individuals, with poor capability and often obtuse personalities, and somehow they had slipped through in the company recruitment processes. These individuals often distracted management, poisoned morale, and destroyed team spirit and the productivity needed for a team and project to succeed. The Badger said that he’d learned that these individuals must be dealt with by those in leadership positions in line with formal processes, but swiftly and decisively if positive project dynamics were to be preserved.

The youngster whined that diversity, harassment, and anti-discrimination policies made their ability to take swift, decisive, action more difficult. The Badger shook his head and simply reinforced two points, namely that a) their primary responsibility was to deliver to their client on time, to budget, and in line with their contract, and b) that allowing a poison apple to infect the fruit in the whole barrel was a leadership failure!

Later that evening the youngster bought the Badger a drink in the bar and said they’d made some phone calls and removed the problematic individual from the project. ‘I’ve learned’, they said, ‘that leadership involves decisions, judgements, and the dog wagging the tail, not vice-versa!’  Quite!

Computers, systems, satellites and…potholes!

A couple of weeks ago, the Badger’s saw OneWeb’s announcement that it was to launch the 36 satellites completing their first-generation Low Earth Orbit constellation on the 26th March 2023. Earlier this week the launch from a Space Centre in India took place successfully and the Badger mentally cheered all the engineers and computing professionals involved. This achievement has computers and  ‘systems’ at its heart, and this fact coloured the Badger’s thoughts as he left home to walk to the local shops. By the time he returned, however, positivity about computers and ‘systems’ relating to satellites had been replaced by gloom about ‘systems’ for fixing potholes on roads!

The route to the shops means navigating a T junction between a busy side road and a main thoroughfare. The approach to the junction is heavily potholed for about 30 metres. The surface, which has many of the different types of crater set out in the RAC’s Pothole Guide, is a danger to pedestrians, cyclists, motor cyclists, and car drivers alike. It’s been this way for a very long time, making it a wonderful  example of the pothole blight  infecting UK roads. Reports to the County Council have led to monthly visits by a repair crew who only patch a small number of holes every time.  

As the Badger walked by, a repair crew was patching a few holes again, and a lady was demanding to know why some holes were being patched but others, equally dangerous, were not. The workmen told her that ‘the central computer’ produces their worksheet and that they only fix, and get paid for, what’s on it. ‘Don’t blame us, blame the computer’, the workmen asserted bluntly. The Badger walked quickly by, thinking that the ‘system’ – the overall combination of process, people, IT, contracting, finance, quality, and compliance – was the problem, not the ‘the computer’.  

On returning from the shops, the repair crew and the lady had gone. A few potholes had been patched, but after three visits by a repair crew in the first three months of this year the road remains a danger to road users and pedestrians, especially at night. On reaching home, the Badger cogitated over a coffee and concluded two things. The first was that if motor vehicles are required to have annual MOT roadworthy tests, then road surfaces should also be required to have some kind of regular safety certification. The second was that for a country that has a computer and ‘systems’ pedigree that can put and operate satellites in space, it’s ‘systems’ for the repair of potholes on its roads are shameful. Although computers get conveniently blamed for many things in today’s world, it’s worth remembering that ‘systems’, which are much more than just computers, are more often the culprit.