To Pursue Personal Excellence, Start with a Focus on Value

To Pursue Personal Excellence, Start with a Focus on Value

“To stand out from the crowd requires you to stand up and stand for what you believe in.”— Gift Gugu Mona

Steve Jobs once said, “We are here to put a dent in the universe.”  When I think about that quite literally, I do laugh out loud.  I don’t think we could even put a scratch in the paint of the universe. But I do appreciate the idea! Exceptional leaders differentiate themselves from the rest when they demonstrate a passion for making a positive, remarkable difference in their parts of the universe, or perhaps better put, their part of the world. 

Here are three keys to creating the “make a dent” mindset.

Focus on value.
To make a difference, we must think beyond tools and methodologies.  The projects we create must have a positive benefit to our customers and end-users.  Before we undertake any project, our thinking must begin with “What is the value to all who will be using or impacted by these ideas?”

Inspire the best in those around you.
Exceptional leaders see every project as an opportunity to do more than creating something. They also view it as an opportunity to build people’s skills, talent, and experience.  This is almost as important as the project itself.  Leaders should use projects to inspire people to bring forth their best selves and their full talent.

Pursue personal excellence. 
Exceptional leaders must know themselves well.  They must know their strengths. They must know their own weaknesses.  They should work to improve. They should bring in others to help.  To make that positive difference, that dent in our part of the world, we must constantly engage in the calm pursuit of excellence.

  1. List item number one goes here
  2. List item number two or the second can go right here just after list item number one
  3. I guess this one must be the third item because here it is just after the second one
  4. And so on with items in this ordered list!
  • List item number one goes here
  • List item number two or the second can go right here just after list item number one
  • I guess this one must be the third item because here it is just after the second one
  • And so on with items in this ordered list!
They find it hard to believe that is possible to deliver defect-free software to customers.  And I am telling them our goal is to deliver near defect-free software to test. I am also working to help them understand that doing work in this was does not sacrifice speed. It is actually faster.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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Time is a Predator

Time is a Predator

Connie drove a silver Camry with rosary beads hanging from her rearview mirror and a Smith & Wesson stuck under the seat. No matter what went down, Connie was covered.”

Janet Evanovich, from the Stephanie Plum book series

The team I was coaching was behind schedule. The good news was that this was an exceptional team, and as such, they knew exactly why. Good teams might know they are behind.  They might even know how much they are behind.

But good teams just work harder. The predator always catches them.

This exceptional team knew that time was going to be a predator.  They knew it would attack all their planning assumptions looking for the weakest points.

So the team made detailed plans with clear assumptions.  They knew how many hours per week each team member was planning to work on project tasks.  They had estimated the size of the products they were building.  They used size to estimate time. They calculated how much the plan might grow because of new customer demands.  They added in time they would need if the risks they expected became real issues.

The time predator struck in two ways.  Because of the detailed planning, they knew exactly where.

First, the customer’s changes exceeded the budget they had estimated by seven percent.  This wasn’t too bad.  They could have handled that without any sweat.

The second way added on top.  One of the products they had estimated was twice the size expected and thus taking twice the time.  As this was only one of many pieces, the time predator wasn’t successful at killing the chance of successful delivery.  Many of the other parts were over-estimated.  So the impact was only an additional 10% total overage for the plan.

This team was committed to delivering to their customer at the time they promised.  This predatory attack got the whole team focused.

They worked with the customer to determine which changes were critical.   

They examined the over-sized product.  On closer analysis, the team found a more eloquent design and were able to cut the size in half. 

With these two changes plus a little extra sweat, the team was able to deliver a high-quality stellar product on time.

Time is a predator.

Are you not prepared? You will be forever running in fear with the deadline eluding you.

Be prepared, and the predator will be your motivating focus.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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"Welcome to Sherwood!" — Robin Hood Father's Day was a delight for me. My family treated me a number of fun things. I was served breakfast in a hammock. I was treated to a delicious cold milkshake at a local ice-cream shop. My daughter and I have a plan to go buy some...

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Find Renewed Energy in the Pause

Find Renewed Energy in the Pause

“It will not always be summer; build barns.”— Hesiod

Our weather pauses near every Labor Day weekend in upstate New York.

The previous weeks were full of hot weather with periodic thundershowers.  Now our land is taking its annual deep breath as the tail end of summer meets the leading edge of autumn. The wind energizes the woods and the animals in them. I take in deep breathes and can smell and almost taste the forthcoming fall season.

It is also a natural time for my clients to take a pause and look ahead. These are three of the steps my best clients are taking with me. 


Celebrate what was accomplished so far.  This summer was chaotic for all my clients.  Many of the things we wanted to get done were not possible. Yet, in the first step, we focus just on the positive of what did we get done.  Where did the chaos make us stronger?  What new ideas do we have that energize us?

Look ahead to the turn of the year.  We ask two questions.  What are the most valuable things we can accomplish by year-end?  What do we need to do to ensure that we start 2021 with a strong foundation?

Develop a realistic plan that energizes us as much as the winds of fall approaching. Developing a plan that we are confident we can meet is a challenge. There is much to do that was leftover from the summer.  The challenges of 2020 are still with us. Yet, we are making plans that each person knows they can accomplish.


Growing up on a farm, this time of year was always the height of harvest. Yet, when the winds of fall came, we also started to prepare for the next growing season.  

May you enjoy the changing of seasons.

  1. List item number one goes here
  2. List item number two or the second can go right here just after list item number one
  3. I guess this one must be the third item because here it is just after the second one
  4. And so on with items in this ordered list!
  • List item number one goes here
  • List item number two or the second can go right here just after list item number one
  • I guess this one must be the third item because here it is just after the second one
  • And so on with items in this ordered list!
They find it hard to believe that is possible to deliver defect-free software to customers.  And I am telling them our goal is to deliver near defect-free software to test. I am also working to help them understand that doing work in this was does not sacrifice speed. It is actually faster.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

You may also like:

Endurance Is Not Always a Virtue

I have seen leaders show great endurance in leading marathon projects. They are putting in marathon hours. The sweat sheen on them and their teams is obvious, even heroic.

Do You Need a Win?

A client wrote to me recently with a note that said simply “I need a win.” Have you been there, where it feels like you have faced a sudden losing streak and quite simply there is a need for a win? I have. I expect Elon Musk is looking for one with Tesla.

The Reader’s Edge

The exceptional leaders are voracious consumers of information. They listen to audio books, they read books, they seek out others to hear their stories. The things they read spans multiple genres, time periods, and cultures.

ANNIVERSARIES ARE IMPORTANT MARKERS

"Ritual is important to us as human beings. It ties us to our traditions and our histories." — Miller Williams, Poet My wife and I just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. Even though real work of building a life together happens in the minutes and hours between...

LEADERSHIP ON FATHER’S DAY

"Welcome to Sherwood!" — Robin Hood Father's Day was a delight for me. My family treated me a number of fun things. I was served breakfast in a hammock. I was treated to a delicious cold milkshake at a local ice-cream shop. My daughter and I have a plan to go buy some...

SUDS MAY SPILL, BEER SHOULD NOT

"I have never had to face anything that could overwhelm the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with. " — Sonia Sotomayor One of my best clients and I were enjoying the start of our day at a local coffee cafe. We covered a range of topics and one...

PERSISTENCE, PREY, AND IDEAS

"Language is the means of getting an idea from my brain into yours without surgery. " — Mark Amidon The Washington DC zoo has this very interesting roulette-style wheel located just past the cheetah exhibit. You spin the wheel to find out if you caught your prey, your...

ANTICIPATE INFLECTION POINTS

"A strategic inflection point is a time in the life of a business when its fundamentals are about to change. that change can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights. But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end." — Andrew Grover There are a wave of...

PATIENCE, PASSION, PERSISTENCE, PROGRESS

"Even though it is not always easy… being a planetary scientist is one of the coolest jobs on the planet!" — Elizabeth (Zibi) Turtle   Imagine exploring Titan! And to be clear, I am not referring to the planet Titan of Thanos (Avengers), I am referring to a...

Making the Leap

Paradigm leaps take need, courage, and sweat. You will notice a different look and feel to the newsletter this week. Earlier this year, I became unsatisfied with a few key things and decided to make some changes.

That Moneyball Moment

That Moneyball Moment

“When used correctly, data is not the enemy of Intuitive Creative Thinkers; it is a powerful friend.”— Leena Patel

I had that Moneyball moment.

I was recently talking with a leader responsible for complex systems development efforts. We were discussing metrics that are valuable to their organization.

As I often do when having this conversation, I recommend that the leader check out the book or the movie Moneyball. I was asked, “Why would you recommend a baseball movie?”

A partial answer is that the manager I was speaking to likes baseball. More profoundly, Moneyball is a movie about the use of statistics to understand the deeper parts of the game. It’s a movie about leaders who are brave enough to use that more in-depth understanding of the game to win more games. It’s about how to lead your teams to success with better data.

In the movie, there is a moment where the manager of the baseball team wants to get a player from another team. The manager of the other team is startled. He asks, “Why this player? He does not get a lot of hits.”

Our statistics thinking manager answered truthfully, “Well, yes, that is true. But he does get walked a lot. I like players that get on base.”

I wanted the complex systems development leader to watch the movie for this very reason. Because this leader had just expressed how impressed they were by one of their developers who was so fast, they always got their software into test before anyone else.

A different developer I was advocating for was perceived as slow at getting software into testing.

My rationale was simple. “Yes, that is true, but unlike your “fast” developed, the slower developer’s software is always the first out of testing because there are few, and often, no problems to address. I prefer people and teams who are first to the customer, not first to test.”

The leader I was working with now understood what I mean when I say we look for the Moneyball moment.

We look for examples like “first to the customer with a useful product” is a great measure of success.

Do you have useful indicators that lead to your teams winning?

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

You may also like:

Endurance Is Not Always a Virtue

I have seen leaders show great endurance in leading marathon projects. They are putting in marathon hours. The sweat sheen on them and their teams is obvious, even heroic.

Do You Need a Win?

A client wrote to me recently with a note that said simply “I need a win.” Have you been there, where it feels like you have faced a sudden losing streak and quite simply there is a need for a win? I have. I expect Elon Musk is looking for one with Tesla.

The Reader’s Edge

The exceptional leaders are voracious consumers of information. They listen to audio books, they read books, they seek out others to hear their stories. The things they read spans multiple genres, time periods, and cultures.

ANNIVERSARIES ARE IMPORTANT MARKERS

"Ritual is important to us as human beings. It ties us to our traditions and our histories." — Miller Williams, Poet My wife and I just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. Even though real work of building a life together happens in the minutes and hours between...

LEADERSHIP ON FATHER’S DAY

"Welcome to Sherwood!" — Robin Hood Father's Day was a delight for me. My family treated me a number of fun things. I was served breakfast in a hammock. I was treated to a delicious cold milkshake at a local ice-cream shop. My daughter and I have a plan to go buy some...

SUDS MAY SPILL, BEER SHOULD NOT

"I have never had to face anything that could overwhelm the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with. " — Sonia Sotomayor One of my best clients and I were enjoying the start of our day at a local coffee cafe. We covered a range of topics and one...

PERSISTENCE, PREY, AND IDEAS

"Language is the means of getting an idea from my brain into yours without surgery. " — Mark Amidon The Washington DC zoo has this very interesting roulette-style wheel located just past the cheetah exhibit. You spin the wheel to find out if you caught your prey, your...

ANTICIPATE INFLECTION POINTS

"A strategic inflection point is a time in the life of a business when its fundamentals are about to change. that change can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights. But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end." — Andrew Grover There are a wave of...

PATIENCE, PASSION, PERSISTENCE, PROGRESS

"Even though it is not always easy… being a planetary scientist is one of the coolest jobs on the planet!" — Elizabeth (Zibi) Turtle   Imagine exploring Titan! And to be clear, I am not referring to the planet Titan of Thanos (Avengers), I am referring to a...

Making the Leap

Paradigm leaps take need, courage, and sweat. You will notice a different look and feel to the newsletter this week. Earlier this year, I became unsatisfied with a few key things and decided to make some changes.

Improving How to Learn and Adjust Improves Everything Else

Improving How to Learn and Adjust Improves Everything Else

“If you really want to be great at something you have to truly care about it. If you want to be great in a particular area, you have to obsess over it.”— Kobe Bryant

I have always enjoyed shooting free throws. It is immensely satisfying when the basketball goes swish through the hoop without touching the rim. 

However, there is another reason that free throws are rewarding. Shooting a sufficient number of free throws provides immediate objective feedback to me on my form. I know that if I fall below a 90% success rate my form is off. I know that I need to pay more attention and figure out what I am doing wrong.  I know I need to learn and adjust.

I also know that when I make those adjustments, the rest of my game across the whole of the basketball court improves.

The same is true in any of the engineering projects my clients are running.  One of the most potent things I teach is how to learn and adjust. Here are three of the critical steps.

1. Define success.  It is easy to define a successful free throw.  It goes in. However, I often make the criteria higher to improve my focus. Sometimes I define success as nothing but net.  For engineering projects, consider that success can be defined as very low rework in testing.  For the highest bar, aim for no defects to be discovered in testing.

2. Track and review the results.  You cannot learn if you do not know how you performed. Many teams don’t track data. Some of the teams that track data don’t review the data. The key is to review the results against what you defined as success.

3. Learn and adjust. If I am missing free throws, sometimes it because I am on my heels.  Sometimes, I don’t have the proper followthrough. Sometimes it is that I have lost focus. In engineering, teams need to determine the vital attributes that lead to success. They need to make the necessary small adjustments that will ensure the results on the other side are matching the results desired.

I love the feeling of the basketball hitting nothing but net. I equally love it when my clients have entirely successful projects.

Do you have the steps in place to have your teams learn and adjust to achieve success?

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

You may also like:

Endurance Is Not Always a Virtue

I have seen leaders show great endurance in leading marathon projects. They are putting in marathon hours. The sweat sheen on them and their teams is obvious, even heroic.

Do You Need a Win?

A client wrote to me recently with a note that said simply “I need a win.” Have you been there, where it feels like you have faced a sudden losing streak and quite simply there is a need for a win? I have. I expect Elon Musk is looking for one with Tesla.

The Reader’s Edge

The exceptional leaders are voracious consumers of information. They listen to audio books, they read books, they seek out others to hear their stories. The things they read spans multiple genres, time periods, and cultures.

ANNIVERSARIES ARE IMPORTANT MARKERS

"Ritual is important to us as human beings. It ties us to our traditions and our histories." — Miller Williams, Poet My wife and I just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. Even though real work of building a life together happens in the minutes and hours between...

LEADERSHIP ON FATHER’S DAY

"Welcome to Sherwood!" — Robin Hood Father's Day was a delight for me. My family treated me a number of fun things. I was served breakfast in a hammock. I was treated to a delicious cold milkshake at a local ice-cream shop. My daughter and I have a plan to go buy some...

SUDS MAY SPILL, BEER SHOULD NOT

"I have never had to face anything that could overwhelm the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with. " — Sonia Sotomayor One of my best clients and I were enjoying the start of our day at a local coffee cafe. We covered a range of topics and one...

PERSISTENCE, PREY, AND IDEAS

"Language is the means of getting an idea from my brain into yours without surgery. " — Mark Amidon The Washington DC zoo has this very interesting roulette-style wheel located just past the cheetah exhibit. You spin the wheel to find out if you caught your prey, your...

ANTICIPATE INFLECTION POINTS

"A strategic inflection point is a time in the life of a business when its fundamentals are about to change. that change can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights. But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end." — Andrew Grover There are a wave of...

PATIENCE, PASSION, PERSISTENCE, PROGRESS

"Even though it is not always easy… being a planetary scientist is one of the coolest jobs on the planet!" — Elizabeth (Zibi) Turtle   Imagine exploring Titan! And to be clear, I am not referring to the planet Titan of Thanos (Avengers), I am referring to a...

Making the Leap

Paradigm leaps take need, courage, and sweat. You will notice a different look and feel to the newsletter this week. Earlier this year, I became unsatisfied with a few key things and decided to make some changes.

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