The Stories We Tell Drive Our Culture

The Stories We Tell Drive Our Culture

“The engineers of the future will be poets.”— Terence McKenna

I recently visited the farm where I grew up. My sister and her family run the dairy farm now. My brother does crop farming. The farm has been going since 1837; 184 years of family farming.

My visit reminded me of how the stories we lived on the farm while growing up still inform me today. Here are three of the stories that formed my growing years.

A Civil War Marriage
While looking through many old papers, we found the wedding certificate of my second great-grandparents.  They were married less than a year after the end of the US Civil War. Even in the midst of our national storm, they found love and hope. The farm where my second great-grandfather was born carried on with him and with his descendants.

A fact I just discovered, they were married on January 6, 1866 – exactly 94 years before the day I was born.

Today’s picture is of those ancestors in their later years at our family homestead.

Best Innovation Of The Century
I once was reflecting with my mother on the exciting innovations she had experienced in her life. There were people that walked on the moon, television that we watched them on, and now telephones that rival the Star Trek communicators.

I said, “What was the best innovation for you?”

She paused awhile and then said, “Well, I remember so well having to go the outhouse in the winter, sometimes in the middle of the night. I just remember how awful cold it was when the draft blew up my nightgown. Indoor toilets are the winner for me.”

Lucky to Have You
I remember one day when my Dad was teasing my Mom.

Dad: “Dorothy, were you there when I almost died from spinal meningitis?”
Mom: “Yes Fritz, I was there the whole time.”
Dad: “Were you there when I almost died from that motorcycle accident?”
Mom: “Yes Fritz, I was there the whole time.”
Dad: “Were you there when I almost died from that heart attack?”
Mom: “Yes Fritz, I was there the whole time.”
Dad:  “Dorothy, you are just bad luck!”

My Dad grinned ear to ear and they hugged each other with such grace.

***
Hope. Belief. Practical wisdom. Humor. Love.
Great values to learn from, to live with.

What values are we imparting with the stories we co-create with our peers and with the teams we lead?

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

Photo of The Willett Farm family home in the 1880s.

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The success of a vision is determined by its ownership by both the leader and the people.John C. Maxwell

“How do I know if the team has taken ownership of the challenge they have been given?”

When I have been asked this question, I know that I have not done a sufficient job of conveying what it looks and feels like when a team has taken full ownership.

The simple answer is that the team is demonstrating repeatedly that they know more, care more, do more about the mission they have been given than you can.        

Here are five examples of what this behavior looks like to management that has given ownership to teams.

  1. The team has made a commitment to their own schedule.  The team didn’t just accept the request to be done in some amount of time. Instead, the team estimated all the work in detail. The team came back to you and said when they could accomplish the task even if it was later than your wishes.
  2. When there are schedule troubles, the team works to solve the problems without involving the management team. When there is team ownership, the team keeps a close eye on the commitments they made.  When there are problems, the team’s first reaction is to figure out how to make sure they can get back on track.  The best teams inform management of the corrections they have already made.
  3. When the team can’t solve problems, they ask for what is needed.  When the team cannot solve problems themselves, they bring options to management.  They will explain the problem, all the actions the team has taken to correct the problem, what ideas they have for how management can help.
  4. The team looks out for the long-term benefits of the organization.   Sometimes teams under pressure will take shortcuts. Those shortcuts may get a task done quickly but also incur technology debt. The technology debt will cause future delays in work.  The best teams do not make these types of decisions lightly. They will involve management in decisions that affect the long-term outcomes of the organization.
  5. The team puts in the extra effort to finish projects with style.   The teams with the most ownership ensure they cross the finish line of the project with style. They ensure customers are engaged and ready. They have project data recorded for future reference. 

Teams with great ownership thank their management for the opportunity to excel.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


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“It is no use saying “we are doing our best.” You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”— Winston Churchill

In my consulting, I have seen some organizations working long hours but not achieving the organizational mission. In their minds, they are giving their “best-effort” because they are working so hard. Often, they are also doing very high-quality work.

However, on examination, they are not doing what is necessary.  The following are the keys to getting your organization to do just “their best” but to do what is necessary.

Set clear, motivating goals.  When JFK proposed “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth by the end of the decade,” he put out clear, easily measurable goals. This enabled everyone in the organization to evaluate their effort against this challenging goal constantly. Does your organization have clear, measurable goals for people to strive for and measure themselves against?

Rationally manage risks. It is key to create an environment where there is no fear about raising risks and issues. Your organization should consistently measure activities against goals and safely speak about where the risks are. The most important piece of this task is to take appropriate action when it is required.

Eliminate unnecessary activities.  One leader wrote to me about how he did Épée Fencing in college. He found that the more he eliminated extraneous movements, the better fencer he became. Removing the extraneous made more room for the necessary. The same is now true of his organization.

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The leaders with whom I discussed this topic all agreed. This attribute of the exceptional leadership mindset is a subtle one that needs constant attention. It is necessary!

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


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Sometimes you make the right decision, sometimes you make the decision right.Phil McGraw

“This is so hard. I have two excellent job offers, and I don’t know how to choose!” 

Most people react to this kind of statement with a laugh and a remark of, “Oh, it must be rough to have to choose between two great things.”

Whether you have to choose between two bad options or two great ones, it will be stressful.  What many people don’t realize is that this stress is not the same as the momentary overwhelm one might feel when making a short-term choice like “What should I choose off a restaurant menu where everything looks so good?”  The pressure in big decisions comes from people’s sense that their personal ‘train tracks’ are diverging and will take them to significantly different future places.

When you face a choice that leads to divergent paths, consider doing the following thought experiments.

1.  What is the future you would love to see for yourself?  Or your product, your company, or all of the above. The choices you are facing will help you envision the future.  But also, stand in the future and consider what excellent outcomes you think could come from the choices you make.  Write them down.  Highlight the items that bring you the most excitement.

2. Consider both the risks and rewards of the choices.  Weigh them.  What possible negative consequences do these choices contain? What would the impact be if those risks came true? Also, consider how likely those risks are for each path.  Do the same for the potential rewards.

3. Talk to the people who are joining you on the journey the decision will invoke. Big decisions rarely involve just you. The people who are on the ‘train’ with you will have their perspectives.  Talk to people outside the train as well. They can sometimes see farther ahead than you can.  

4.  What is the absolute deadline for making this decision? I’m not particularly eager to procrastinate on big decisions. However, there are times when waiting longer can reveal the final information you need.

5.  In the end, be decisive.  Eventually, you must choose.  Exceptional leaders choose without regret or guilt. They move boldly into the future.

Now that you made the decision, roll up your sleeves, get to work, and make the decision right. 

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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“It always seems impossible until it is done.”— Nelson Mandela

The abruptness of the season change this past week caused an automatic reaction in me.  

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This change of season is a signal for me to look up and look out at the approaching end of the year horizon for my business and the businesses of my clients.  

2021 has been a challenging year for many leaders.  The ongoing pandemic and all its associated repercussions are a continuing underlying stress. They also create many barriers that prevent business as usual. 

Here are three things to do to inspire your teams and yourself to find the right rhythm to finish 2021 with style.

Celebrate how far you have come. Look back at the last eight months.  You may not have achieved everything that was planned, but I am certain that much has been accomplished.  This has been done while leaping over tremendous obstacles. Take a moment to recognize these accomplishments for yourself and for those you lead.  

Re-motivate on your goals for year-end.  Consider the goals you and your teams had at the start of the year.  Are they still possible? Have you already over-achieved? Whichever way they fall, work together to update your goals. Define what you want to accomplish in 2021 and how you want to start 2022.  

Update your plans for September to lead into a magnificent final quarter of 2021. I love the Nelson Mandela quote. So often I see people with intentions I thought were impossible.  People have seen my big ambitious goals and thought they were unattainable. The thing is, they are impossible until we aspire to them. They cannot become a reality until we put a plan in place and work relentlessly to make them possible.

Enjoy the change of seasons. Let’s work to keep moving forward and doing good in the world.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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When Sparks Fly, Use The Heat To Forge Stronger Ideas

“When sparks fly, some truly great ideas come to light.” — David Heinemeier Hansson

Even on the small screen of the video conference, the body language was clear. The teammates were about to engage in an argument based on some firmly held beliefs. The sparks were going to fly.

At points like this, the two most likely outcomes are opposites. The heat of friction can be of a destructive nature, burn a hole in the relationship, and make a bigger chasm between the positions. Or the heat of friction can be used to create something new and better while bringing a higher level of trust between the protagonists.

I teach people the following steps to ensure that the positive outcome is the most likely outcome.

  1. With joy, say, “I can tell by the heat of responses there is something significant here!”  I encourage people to adopt a positive attitude about conflict and treat it as an opportunity to learn more about the people and the topic. In other words, it is not about winning. It is about learning.
  2. Explore and listen.  Each person should question the other to understand their position fully. What are their goals, and what are their worries?
  3. Find the common goals.   The listening exposes shared goals. Take a moment to note all the shared goals. Now, it becomes a discussion about different pathways to find the best approach.
  4. Allow the heat to spark new ideas.  By this point, many new ideas and approaches have emerged. Fan the flames. There will be more ideas than before.  There might even be more arguments than before.  Now is the time to change the pace.
  5. Take a break.  I personally have found this approach to be most valuable. My arguments with my colleagues have typically been quite robust. We are all quite passionate about our ideas because to us they are so important!  The break allows the ideas to come together, merge, and create new ideas.
  6. Re-engage, Re-combine.  By the next morning, we often find we have new ideas and that they are coming together.  They are better ideas than we started with.

The video conference I was in turned out to be very fun. The protagonists did have an excellent fight with their ideas. And they did so in the way I outlined above. The robust discussion had improved the ideas.

When you are about to engage in your next fight about ideas, take a moment to rub your hands together and say, “Okay, let’s have some fun.  Let’s use the heat to forge stronger ideas.”

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

Photo by Sandeep Singh on Unsplash

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"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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