Reading the Weather While Leading

Reading the Weather While Leading

“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.”

— Private Pilot’s Handbook of Weather,
by Lt. Col. Gene Guerny and Capt. Joseph A. Skiera,
published 1964

It is fascinating to find wisdom in places that are unexpected.

In our “free room” (where people leave things they no longer need) I found the Private Pilot’s Handbook of Weather. I opened it right to the quote I opened the newsletter with.

I read that and kept reading. Yes, it was about pilots and weather. I kept seeing guidelines for leaders.

Here are the four points for pilots that the booked opened with. (Note: This is slightly paraphrased and shortened for clarity.)

  1. 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.
  2. During the flight, the forecast for flight weather must be constantly checked against actual observations.
  3. When the forecast has gone wrong, a decision, based on an understanding of the weather patterns forming must be made.
  4. No general rule can be applied to the specific conditions that arise.
  5. The pilots must share what they learn with others currently in flight and for future learnings

 

These are all brilliant points of wisdom for any leader.   I am going to keep reading and learning about the weather.  And about leading.

I did notice one significant difference between pilots and organizational leaders.  

Organizational leaders actually can influence the weather.  They can cause storms. They can create conditions for projects to fly in blue skies.

Which leader do you strive to be?

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,

Alan Willett
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“The messenger is just conscientiously doing the job his boss assigned him. And this boss? That would be none other than our old friend Reality. “— Haruki Murakami

It turned out to be a trainwreck of a meeting.

The project leader had prepared well for the meeting. He had worked hard with his team to create a full plan for the project. They had never prepared a plan in which they were so confident. They had based the plan on solid data. They had turned over every opportunity for improving speed and had incorporated the ideas that made sense.  

He and his team had created a plan that was smart and aggressive. They were sure they were making a commitment for a high-quality product they would deliver on time.

The meeting went wrong right at the start.

The project leader was presenting the results of the planning session to the nervous project sponsors who were the funders of the project. This was a critical project for them.

The project leader started with the statement, “I am jubilant about this plan.  It is the best plan our team has ever made. I am confident our project will be able to deliver a high-quality product in 10 months.”

Thus began the trainwreck. 

The sponsors of the project needed and expected the project to be done in three months.  So this opening immediately led them to push the leader for better dates.  They asked many emotional questions. The project leader never got to present everything he wanted to show them.

He left with the action to put together a better plan which he knew was not really possible. He eventually was able to walk all the project sponsors and other stakeholders through the entire plan. It took a great deal of work before they understood the plan and bought in.  He lost precious time with his team while working through the emotions and the plan multiple times.

For future presentations of bad news, he followed my guidance.  

The following is the process pattern on how to provide sponsors with what they will perceive as bad news and give them the opportunity to build a strong bridge over troubled waters to achieve success.

  1. Talk to the main sponsors and stakeholders ahead of the meeting in one on one meetings.  This gives them the opportunity to process the information and be ready with ideas that are helpful to the project.
  2. Always start the conversation with the sponsors’ goals.  The receivers of bad news need to know that you understand and share their goals.
  3. Provide the bottom line in a concise, clear manner before going into details.
  4. State your disappointment that you couldn’t achieve everything in the time period desired.
  5. Take the sponsors through the journey of how you reached the conclusions.  Be clear about the major opportunities for speed you looked into and which ones you incorporated.
  6. Show the data you have accumulated based on previous projects.
  7. Provide options for going faster.  The plan you will have created is based on the resources under your control. If more people or better tools will help you go faster, provide the sponsors with options even if those options are outside their direct control.
  8. Repeat all these steps in the formal meeting.
  9. Work with the project sponsors to build a plan for success.

All important projects have risks and are hard. If they weren’t they would already be complete.

Doing these steps doesn’t remove the difficulty. It does help everyone know they are on the same side working towards success.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,

Alan Willett
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Making Improvements Calls for Patience and Passionate Persistence

“Persistence is a secret weapon for everyone.”— Liu Wen

Many of my clients become frustrated with how hard it is to make change happen. It’s true that it’s not an easy task.

However, you can reduce your personal frustration if you focus on these keys for helping organizations improve.

Focus on the value to the business.
The first and most important step is to focus on the business imperative.

For example, if you are a software development organization, a goal to “improve quality” is insufficient. You must identify the business imperative and work toward it.

This goal could be to dramatically decrease defects so software engineers can move from fire-fighting to building great new products. Such a clear objective is a much more powerful motivator for everyone.

Establish meaningful ways to measure improvement.
To continue the example of a software development organization, many organizations may start to measure “the number of defects per thousand lines of code”. Although this measure is useful, it is not directly meaningful to the business imperative.

More meaningful would be to track how much more time people are spending in construction activities as opposed to problem chasing activities.

Avoid improvement traps.
Often improvement efforts fall into traps. For example, the “methodology” trap. There are a number of good methodologies available to software development organizations including various Agile methods, such as SCRUM, XP, the Team Software Process, and others.

However, many organizational improvement efforts fail because they pursue the dogma of the methodology. The key with any improvement is to understand the organizational culture and make the right changes that lead to the necessary breakthrough.

Involve others.
Exceptional leadership always involves others. The key is to be clear about the what and the why of the business imperative and to encourage others to think about and do measurable experiments on “how” to make dramatic breakthroughs.

Be Passionately Persistent and Patient.
Do not expect change to happen overnight. For many leaders, this key is often the most difficult one to master. Yet when it is mastered, you will be more likely to show your joy at the small improvements along the way. That joy is contagious. Others will join you!

Change does not have to be difficult or complex; however, it does require doing something differently. What you have been doing has most likely made you and your organization successful in the past. So change can be scary, but it is often needed.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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“Fast but calm, focused and consistent; it’s a delicate balance to maintain. A mental space to cherish.” — Innocent Mwatsikesimbe

In the past few weeks, I have spoken with several different leaders who are feeling overwhelmed. It’s easy to get to a place where you start work on one item only to feel a bit (or a lot) stressed about the other dozen things you are not doing.

If you are in this place, I have a leadership mindset exercise for you this morning. The goal is to move a step above the fray of activity and above the stress. To do this, I suggest you answer the following questions:

  1. What are the kinds of work that give you the most energy and gratification?
  2. What on your list of things-to-do provides the best long term benefit to others?

You have a choice to move something forward a mile or many things a few inches.

I suggest moving something forward a mile. From your answers, schedule a block of time for yourself that you will treat as sacred. Having that time today is good, but it can be later this week.

Use that time to move that one thing forward a mile or even two.  

What happens to other things? They are delegated, moved forward a small step, or perhaps even ignored.

Many leaders can see a large number of possible actions and feel an urgency to tackle them all.  Exceptional leaders can see all those possibilities and then prioritize the most meaningful activities above the rest.

I started this practice personally about 20 years ago. Over time, it changed from being a reaction to overwhelm to being a proactive step which allowed me to focus not on activity, but on the value I bring to others.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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“Deadlines are great for customers because having one means they get a product, not just a promise that someday they’ll get a product.”— Jason Fried

There is a certain level of anxiety that bubbles up for people when they set deadlines for a project. For a number of clients, I see their anxiety turn into fear, not only when setting said deadlines, but actually while working towards them as well.

Fear not.

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The deadline is associated with a significant meaningful goal.  
If the deadline is arbitrary with no reason behind it, the deadline will have no power. It will be paper thin and make very little sound when it goes floating into the past on your calendar.  Missed deadlines that cost revenue, prestige, or are in any way personally painful will have the power and impact you need.

Fit within the laws of physics.
Giving an impossible deadline, even if meaningful, should be an obvious exercise in futility. I am fine with aggressive deadlines, even deadlines that are frighteningly hard. In fact, I like those. But remember to make commitments you can confidently keep.

There is a plan to achieve.
I love creating scary deadlines, as I just mentioned. However, I am not satisfied until the team has a plan that I believe in – and more importantly, one they believe in.

Powerful, meaningful deadlines are great tools to help people achieve amazing things.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,

Alan Willett
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Commitment Requires Collaboration

“No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it.” — H.E. Luccock

I have seen senior leaders wishing that teams had more commitment to the senior leaders’ objectives.

I have seen team members wishing that senior leaders were more committed to helping the project they are working on to be more successful.

Commitment requires collaboration.

Here are recommendations for each party of a commitment.

For those making requests, I suggest the following three actions.

  1. Be clear and concise about what you expect.  I have seen senior leaders present a 100-slide powerpoint deck about a project and believe that they were communicating their objectives. The team on the receiving end of this data dump had no idea what was desired.
  2. Prioritize.  Be clear about the order of your priorities.
  3. Ask the team to bring you options for achieving your desired outcomes.

For the teams receiving these requests, I suggest the following actions.

  1. Develop a high confidence plan that achieves the top priorities that you can commit to.
  2. Provide options.  Don’t shrink from providing options that go outside your circle of control.  If you believe buying widget x will help you achieve the objectives, provide that as an option.
  3. Ask for specific support, such as tools or additional expert coaching, that will help you achieve the objectives faster and better.
After taking these actions, you can confidently make a mutual commitment to achieving the best results.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,

Alan Willett
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