How to Spend a Snow Day

How to Spend a Snow Day

“Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.”— Scott Adams

When I was in school in western New York, occasionally the schools would close because of excessive cold and snow. This was good because my parents really needed all of us to be available to keep the farm going! While the whole area was being shut down, we were out there taking care of cows, making sure the pipes didn’t freeze and finding that all the usual chores took hours longer than usual. We had to keep everything going when the power went out, which it did in almost every blizzard.

I’m remembering that this morning as I am watching the reports of the intense snowstorm descending on our area.

Working in the world of technology has changed how a storm affects me. My work does continue despite snow and ice. With my cellphone providing a hotspot, I can even work through power outages. The difference is that I can stay warm and comfortable while working and enjoy watching the snowfall.

I think it is important to remember all the people for whom blizzards mean extra work, including my sister, who is still out there farming. Stay warm Sis! Stay safe everyone!

During this winter storm, I will be doing my usual work. I will also be out there shoveling and helping my neighbors. I will be sure to call my sister. I hope I remember to be extra kind to all the workers who have to negotiate the weather to get to their jobs at hospitals and everywhere else they are required.

I’ll also make sure I get out there and commit some “random acts of snowmen”.

Whether you live in a snow belt or not, I’m guessing there are some days when nature adds extra challenges. What do you do on your ‘snow days’?

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

Photo by Alan Willett

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Design Is the Fuel of Long Term Speed

Design Is the Fuel of Long Term Speed

“If you think good design expensive, you should look at the cost of bad design.”— Ralf Speth

Great design is the foundation of speed to value for any organization.

Too often, the pressure is on people to hurry up and get something done. People attempt to do good work under that pressure. They quickly get something new created. They get it out in front of people, and it gets used. The team then iterates on that first product and incrementally improves it.

This is not bad, at first. But, sooner or later, the team will struggle. They will get slower and slower as they try to add more features to that initial design.

I have seen this happen to many good teams. Eventually, management thinks they are a failed team.

Exceptional leaders are masters at leading the design process.

  • They know when to do prototypes and why.
  • They hone the ability to switch gears from the prototyping sandbox to the production process.
  • The master the 7+ different types of technical debt.  They know what to do when they have technical debt. They know how to prevent technical debt.
  • They know that great design results in the best speed to customer value.
  • They know that design is where creativity lives.

I have coached multiple teams to make the mindset shift to be masters of design. They increased their speeds by 10x and more.

Becoming a master of design is a core part of the Exceptional Engineer (SM) Experience. You can see some more details here.

One of my mentors often talked about the importance of design. Her mantra was and is, “The key to great products is Design, Design, Design.”  I agree. What do you think?​

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

Photo by Tim Wildsmith on Unsplash

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Plan for Failure: Always Have Alternative Routes in Mind

Plan for Failure: Always Have Alternative Routes in Mind

“Before flights, pilots must get a picture of the weather that is expected over the whole area that may be covered during the proposed flight.”

— Wisdom gleaned from the “Private Pilot’s Handbook of Weather”

“Always know your escape routes” is a frequent mantra when I teach people to drive.

I then engage them in a discussion of all the surprises that can happen while driving. It ranges from unexpected moves by other drivers, deer leaping into the road, larger than expected potholes, and more.

So while driving, I keep asking whoever I am teaching, “Where is your escape route?” I train them to think about what they would do if something went wrong around them. Where would they go? On clear back roads, we practice emergency braking and evasive maneuvers.

The more subtle lesson is to also plan for unexpected events on long trips. If you know what time you want to get there, you need to plan for traffic, accidents, and more. What happens if you have a flat tire on a trip where the roads are busy, and it is snowing. Do you have a spare? Do you know how to change it, or do you have an emergency roadside service? Did you leave ample time for addressing changes in weather and other unforeseen problems?

The larger and more important the projects you tackle, the larger the unexpected events and risks your project faces.

That is why I say to people I am coaching on big work adventures, “If you want success, plan for failure. You are not planning to fail. You are planning on how to get around it, leap over it, or break right through.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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The Year Ahead Will Have Unexpected Twists and Turns. Is That a Surprise?

“Adventure isn’t hanging off a rope on the side of a mountain. Adventure is an attitude we must apply to the day to day obstacles of life.”— John Amat

The temperature was below 30-degrees Fahrenheit. The winds were fast and sharp, filled with bits of icy rain. The lake was blown into nearly frozen whitecaps.

Those that know me to know that I much prefer the 80-degree Fahrenheit kind of weather. This was not that! But the cold did not stop me from having a spectacular energizing hike beside our local lake. 

Where I live, we don’t know precisely which days will bring challenging weather to our skies, but we do know those icy days will come. So we are prepared. We make the most of the experience.

Every year has unexpected twists and turns; last year more than any that I remember. This new year will also have its own complexities and revelations.  

As exceptional leaders, I suggest that we be prepared.  

Today I offer one exceptional leadership preparation rule:  embrace the adventure. 

We do our work not because it is easy, but because the work is important.  We do the work to help us hone our own skills.  We do the work because it is valuable to others who benefit from our sweat and expertise. 

Toward the end of our hike, we stood at the end of a pier stretching out into a sheltered cove. The ice had a perfect reflection of the sky. We went on that cold, icy hike to enjoy the experience. We were given a reward equal to the journey.

May everyone have a year with adventures that help your spirits soar accompanied by gratifying rewards throughout.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

Photo by Alan Willett

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Start Out Fast, Pick it Up in The Middle, Kick It In at the End

Start Out Fast, Pick it Up in The Middle, Kick It In at the End

You can get excited about the future. The past won’t mind.
— Hillary DePiano

All my clients and I seem to be engaged in the year-end rush.  There is so much we want to accomplish before the holidays begin.

As we do this, the speakers in the subways of London, England, start to echo in my ears.  “Mind the gap. Mind the gap.” 

And whether boarding a subway or jumping into a new year, that is excellent advice.  Generally, people want to come in the new year with renewed energy and ready to start fast.  The risk is that they forget what they were doing in the final rush before the holiday gap began.  And it takes a while to restart.

They tripped on the gap.  Which is dangerous on a subway and at the very least, an annoying way to start the new year.

My encouragement to everyone is to keep a calm center as we work to close the year-end.

Start setting up meetings for the first week of January that will energize the new year. If you are going to do any work over the holidays, make sure it is work that you love, work that gives more energy to you than it takes.

On your final day of official work before you start the holidays, send yourself an email that encourages you on the key things you want to remember.

I like to be able to start the new year ready to execute the advice my cross-country running coach gave me in college so many years ago.  He was mostly kidding because it is not an optimal running strategy, but I have always loved it.

So as he coached me so wisely, my wish for you is this:

Start out fast, pick it up in the middle, and coming flying into a wonderful finish for your year of 2021.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

Photo by Bruno Figueiredo on Unsplash

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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...

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Reaching for the Stars in Our Minds

Reaching for the Stars in Our Minds

“When you reach for the stars, you are reaching for the farthest thing out there. When you reach deep into yourself, it is the same thing, but in the opposite direction. “— Vera Nazarian

The earth was miles below. Its vivid colors contrasted against the deep blacks of outer space. I suddenly recognized Lake Victoria and the Nile flowing northward from it as they emerged from beneath the cloud cover.

I expect the cosmonauts were not as distracted by the view as I was.  

On Sunday, we spent a long time watching the live feed of the spacewalk to prepare the International Space Station for a new module. While watching, we discussed a few of the miracles we were seeing.

  • The engineers who designed all the equipment being used had to consider how well they would hold together in space conditions. 
  • The engineers had to strip away everything not necessary.  Every ounce going to space is expensive.
  • The parts had to be designed to be repaired by people in those bulky suits.
  • The people there trained very hard to do their jobs and their jobs in those bulky suits are quite complex.
  • When watching the Earth from far above, we can see no borders. I am thrilled to see the multiple nationalities on the space station work so well together.
  • They were successful.

Reaching for the stars starts right here, on earth, in the imagination and creativity of people.

A few weeks ago, we watched the International Space Station pass overhead on a clear night.

Looking up at it inspires me with the belief we can together solve many of the problems that face humankind.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

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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.

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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.

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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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"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...

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"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...

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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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