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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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

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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. 

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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,


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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

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The Key to Speed is the Focus on Value

The Key to Speed is the Focus on Value

“Gravity is the universal force of attraction acting between all matter. Gravity is measured by the acceleration that it gives to freely falling objects. At Earth’s surface, the acceleration of gravity is about 9.8 meters (32 feet) per second per second.”
— From, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

When clients tell me that they have to go faster, I often ask them, “faster to where?”

The point of my question is this – speed doesn’t matter if you don’t know where you are going. The focus must always be on speed to the most important value for your customers and your organization.

There is an attribute to this focus that is equally important.  A focus on value actually creates a force of gravity for everyone working on the project. The more important and compelling the value, the more fun it is for everyone to work on the projects that bring that value to customers.

Here are three factors to consider when inspiring people to work on projects in your organization.

Value to customers.  Be clear about what the project will do for your customers. How will the project improve the customer’s situation? Will it make your customer’s business more successful? Will it help their leaders feel more in control?  The more clearly and concisely you can tell the story, the more gravity that value story will create.

Value to the organization.  The story of value should also include the good for the organization. Yes, more profit is likely to be good for the organization.  Consider also whether the project brings interesting customers for everyone to work with.  Will the projects make people proud of their contributions?  Is the project a building block to even more exciting projects later?

Value to the individuals.  Is the project a challenge for the people working on it?  Will it help them build more skills? 

The more valuable a project is, the higher the gravitational pull of the project will be.  It will bring out the best in the people working on it. They will enjoy the thrill of speed to value.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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The Power of Teammates

The Power of Teammates

Create An Environment of Support And Accountability

We encourage each other. It’s what teammates do.
— Bashir Abdi, Bronze medalist 2020 Tokoyo Olympics

I saw many inspiring moments while watching the Olympics this year. One moment that stood out above them all came at the end of the men’s marathon race.

Eliud Kipchoge ran the perfect marathon with poise and a smile.  Three men battled for the two remaining medals of silver and bronze more than one minute behind Eliud.

I have run many races myself, including marathons and ultra-marathons. I know what it feels like when I have nothing left and when I can no longer pull out some more speed to get ahead of that competitor next to me.  Watching the marathon, I saw Bashir Abdi in that situation I have felt before.  He was on empty, and I believed he would not be able to medal. He was in the late-race collapse of legs and will.

And then I saw something amazing.

Abdi Nageeye from the Netherlands slowed and kept urging Bashir to not give up. While looking over his shoulder, he kept encouraging Bashir to give it his all.

With pain on his face, Bashir was pulled by his friend’s words and was able to pass the other competitor from Kenya. He finished the race with a grimace, a bronze medal, and finally, a smile. He gave a long embrace of thanks to Abdi Nageeye.

Watching this made me think of how difficult it can be to bring creative projects across the finish line. One of the greatest jobs we have as leaders is to create an environment of support and accountability where teammates reach out and help each other across the finish lines of success.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

Photo by Lance Grandahl on Unsplash

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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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"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...

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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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