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.

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…

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!

Communications networks; one day the unthinkable will happen…

Almost two years ago the Badger wrote an item entitled ‘Connection lost, please move your unit closer to the meter, text which appeared on his home energy monitor when wireless connectivity to his domestic smart meter was lost. Today, the energy monitor and smart meter are in the same locations, the energy suppliers are the same, but energy has become a precious and expensive commodity due to world events. The Badger, like many, has been using his monitor in recent months to influence his energy usage, and he’s noticed that the ‘connection lost’ message has been slowly rising in frequency.    

Is the monitor faulty? Investigation suggests not. After eliminating possible sources of wireless interference, the Badger thinks the message might be triggered as a consequence of remote update activity associated with the smart meter and its communication network. It’s no big deal in the scheme of things, because powering the monitor off and on after the message appears usually re-establishes normal function. The message, however, has prompted the Badger to wonder more expansively about the wisdom of life that has digital communication networks at the heart of everything we do.  These days we seem to take things labelled ‘smart, ‘online’, ‘live’, ‘digital’, ‘streaming’, ‘driverless’, ‘cashless’, and ‘AI’ for granted and forget that they are all critically dependent on unseen communication networks.  What if catastrophe befell these networks? It’ll never happen, you might say, but have you given any thought to the impact on yourself or your family if it did? Probably not.

Our dependence on such networks is ever rising. Today, for example, the Badger cannot just turn up at his local community swimming pool, pay cash, have a swim, and pay cash for a post-swim coffee. A visit must be booked and paid for online in advance, and all refreshment and retail services at the pool are cashless. The Badger and the pool operator are thus already completely reliant on the unseen communication networks that are the ‘critical infrastructure’ of modern life. Most people assume that a truly catastrophic failure of this infrastructure is unthinkable because governments and enterprises know their importance and have policies, processes, and plans in place to mitigate the risks.  However, this assumption may be erroneous because, as events in recent years show, the unthinkable happens and plans may never be quite what they seem.

So, if you have a few minutes spare then give some thought to what you would do if a catastrophic network failure rendered everything ‘smart’, ‘online’, ‘live’,  ‘digital’, ‘streaming’, ‘driverless’, or ‘cashless’ unusable for weeks or more.  The Badger’s no doomster, but a life totally reliant on digitally connected services feels akin to placing all your eggs in one basket. That’s never a good idea because, as sure as eggs are eggs, one day the unthinkable will happen and we will all have to cope.    

Exploding batteries…

A note in a Christmas card this week was not only a reminder that the imminent festive and New Year holidays aren’t always jolly occasions for some people, but also that our modern lives depend on rechargeable batteries. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, household devices, DIY tools, gardening equipment, and electric cars all have a battery at their heart, but do we fully appreciate the risks of having battery powered devices in our households? Probably not. We tend to take their safety for granted because they are certified to comply with requisite safety standards.

The Christmas card and the note therein was from a cousin. It conveyed Christmas greetings, and also information that the battery in their mobility scooter had recently exploded causing a fire and attendance by the fire brigade. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but smoke damage has rendered their home uninhabitable for the next six months.  The Badger phoned his cousin, who has poor mobility due to advanced cancer, and was impressed by their insistence on looking forward with positivity rather than dwelling on events and their new circumstances. The first thing they said was a line from the movie Forrest Gump, namely ‘My mama always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’’  Their objectivity and optimism was remarkable given their health and the stress of having their life turned upside down before Christmas.

A security video shows the mobility scooter, unplugged, not being charged, unused for a number of days, and covered by its standard weather-proof cover, simply burst into flames when the battery exploded! The fire brigade are now using this as part of their campaign to raise awareness of the potential fire hazards associated with rechargeable batteries in, for example, e-bikes, e-scooters, and …mobility scooters used by the infirm.

As we approach Christmas, the Badger’s intent here is not be alarmist,  but simply to make three points. The first is to not only encourage you to be aware of the risk that comes with the use and storage of equipment with rechargeable batteries, but also to raise the profile of related fire brigade safety campaigns. The second is to reinforce a point the cousin made in our conversation, namely that Christmas is not really about material things, it’s about people, community, and looking forward rather than dwelling too much on past tribulations. The third is simply to wish all readers a happy and safe Christmas and New Year, and to encourage optimistic thoughts whatever your personal circumstances. Oh, and there’s one final thing. After the Badger finished talking to his cousin, he felt overwhelmingly relieved that Santa’s sleigh for delivering Christmas presents to children across the world is powered by magical forces, and not by batteries that could explode!!!

A retrenchment to globalisation…

IT offshoring to India gained momentum in the late 1990s helped by improved and lower cost telecommunications, the policies and actions of the Indian government, and a few major corporations who opened operations that tapped into the country’s huge young, lower-cost, graduate-level workforce. At the end of the 1990s the Badger was part of the due diligence team for the purchase of a small software product company in Bangalore. The purchase was a strategic investment to establish a presence in India that could ultimately grow into an offshore outsource and software development centre. Visiting India for the due diligence hammered home to the Badger that the true globalisation of  IT work was inevitable, and that India would a force to be reckoned with for outsourcing and software development.

Globalisation – the spread of products, services, and manufacturing etc, across borders producing ever stronger economic interdependence between nations – has been underway for the last two centuries driven by transportation and communication advances. The internet and digital technology, however, has accelerated it exponentially over the last 20 years, but the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on global supply chains, for example, has highlighted that globalisation may have gone too far. It now looks inevitable that the pandemic, continued advances in digital technology and virtual connectivity, and changes to the world order due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict,  will trigger some retrenchment to globalisation as businesses and nations rebalance their risk and dependence on others.

The current level of globalisation has made us all extremely and rapidly vulnerable to events anywhere in the world. Globalisation will, of course, not disappear, but the Badger’s in no doubt that in the current decade we will see some retrenchment to address the vulnerabilities that have been exposed. A trot through the programme of events at this week’s 2022 World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos shows that deglobalisation and the impact of ever more advancing technology permeates most of the sessions, either directly or covertly. The WEF at Davos claims to have achieved much over the past 5 decades, but most people – including the Badger – are hard pushed to name any of its achievements and consider it to be a talking shop for global elites in the world’s most expensive country. However, when those attending Davos are discussing globalisation, then you know there’s something to worry about and change is ahead!

Over the last 20 or so years, the small software company purchased in Bangalore has grown into the broader capability envisaged in its original strategic goals. Since change is perpetual, however, it is not immune to retrenching globalisation or technological advances that enable IT work to be done economically without offshoring at scale. No sector is immune to retrenching globalisation, and this decade is already unfolding to be one of huge change on all fronts. Hold onto your hats, it’s going to be a bumpy ride…  

Serious internet failure – never say never

For the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, everyone was together recently to celebrate the Badger’s grandson’s second birthday. It was a memorable occasion. All the adults, however, felt a little chastened by the suffering of Ukrainian  families with children at the moment. As the toddler opened presents, the Badger felt not only uneasy about the world he will grow up in, but also uneasy that his life will utterly depend on the internet. At just two-years old, the toddler is already powering-on the Badger’s tablet, swiping its screen, and watching the Teletubbies on YouTube! The little one will only know of life before the internet from stories told by his parents and grandparents, books, and content from the internet itself. Well, that’s just the way it is. Progress is progress, and those born this century are already full-blown digital and internet-reliant natives.  

The toddler went off for a pre-bedtime bath towards the end of the party, and the  Badger, resting on a comfy sofa, began to muse on how the little one’s generation would cope if there was a dramatic, prolonged, serious failure of the internet in the future.   Conventional wisdom has it that the internet has no single points of failure, and is too big, too decentralised, and has too much in-built redundancy to fail. The prevalent view is that a serious interruption that impacts our lives for a prolonged period will never happen. As the Badger began to doze, he remembered what he had learned during his IT industry career, namely to ‘never say never’, to expect the unexpected, and to remain cool, rational, objective, and focused when the unexpected happens. He concluded that it’s not a question of if, but when such an internet event might occur.   

Reflections on failure of the internet pop up regularly over the years – see here, here, and here, for example. All they really do, however, is reinforce the ‘never say never’ point. In complex computer systems and networks there’s always scope for unexpected human actions and technical events to have unforeseen and dramatic consequences. The Russian threat to vital undersea cables that carry internet traffic between Europe and North America (see here, here, and here) illustrates , for example, why ‘never say never’ is a sensible position. If Mr Putin has gone ‘full tonto’ and the Russian Navy performs a coordinated attack on these cables then the internet’s resilience and fault tolerance, and our life routines, will be tested like never before.  

The Badger’s grandson, about to go to bed, climbed on the Badger’s lap and shouted, ‘wake up, grandad’. Everyone laughed. The Badger opened his eyes and made a mental note to teach his grandson some of the self-sufficiency life skills needed to function without the internet…just in case he needs them in years to come.    

Chips with everything…

Did you know that what’s printed on the tubs of butter you buy at the supermarket relies on microchips to control the curing of the ink? You probably didn’t, but it’s true.  It’s a simple example that there’s ‘chips with everything’ in today’s world. While media headlines concentrate on how the global computer chip shortage impacts things like games consoles, cars, and smartphones, it’s worth remembering that the shortage has a much broader impact.   

It’s easy to believe that current supply woes are wholly caused by the pandemic, but that’s not the case, as many articles analysing the causes illustrate, see here and here , for example. US-China trade tensions are a factor, for example, and so are the decisions made by major corporates in some industry sectors when the pandemic hit.  On the latter, many swiftly cancelled orders with chip suppliers who understandably compensated by prioritising sectors where orders continued to flow. As current delays to new vehicle production in the auto industry illustrates, many companies now find themselves further down their supplier’s priority lists than they perhaps expected now that things are slowly opening up.   

The pandemic has, of course, had some direct impact, but rational and objective observers will conclude that the event has starkly exposed a serious consequence of the globalisation and extended supply chains that have become the norm over the last twenty or so years.  Over just two decades the number of key semiconductor fabrication companies has essentially reduced to just three, namely Taiwan’s TSMC, South Korea’s Samsung, and Intel. When the two Asian firms have more than 70% of the fabrication market from facilities centred in the Far East then we shouldn’t really be surprised when a disruptive event puts the supply/demand equation out of balance. There’s little doubt that many country leaders, politicians, and corporates will already be considering whether the developed world’s heavy dependence on globalised supply chains has gone too far. Global trade’s important, and it has been for centuries, but it seems likely that there’ll be some strategic retrenchment towards a better local/offshore balance in order to mitigate strategic risks over the coming years.

For years we’ve been told by health professionals that eating chips (fries) with everything isn’t healthy, and most people in developed economies are more informed today about the importance of a healthy diet than previous generations. Analogously, we need to appreciate that a life regimen that relies on ‘chips with everything’ for the goods, devices, appliances, and facilities we use every day in the modern world isn’t good for us either. Chips as part of a balanced diet or in a balanced every day life are, of course, perfectly acceptable, and so perhaps a shortage of computer chips isn’t such a bad thing if it helps us return to a better balance in the way we live.