Look Under the Surface to Find Reality

Look Under the Surface to Find Reality

“If a battle can’t be won, don’t fight it. “— Sun Tzu

When I was growing up on my parent’s dairy farm, there was a story that I loved.  A farmer had one great field except for the big rock in the middle. For years the farmer plowed and planted and harvested around the rock. One year, the farmer finally decided to do something about the problem so the whole area could be more easily used.

The farmer brought all sorts of equipment to dig out and perhaps break apart the rock. The first tactic was to dig under one corner of the stone to see the full extent of the issue. The result was a shock. The rock was only about 1 inch thick. The problem rock was quickly removed.

However, that story has a counterpoint. In working in my garden, I have often found rocks whose visible area is small but when investigated, are much more extensive under the surface. Those rocks are icebergs! They require considerable time and effort to remove, and digging them out may impact the plantings around them.

When looking at new projects, I always like to look under the surface of the ideas from two angles.

Step one: Look at the value of the project being considered.
Would doing this project make a significant difference? How would it improve things for ourselves or our customers? For the farmer, the value of having that rock gone should have been a compelling enough reason to move to step two.

Step two: Look carefully at the project and determine how much work it will take to get it done.
Some high-value projects are more straightforward than anticipated. The trouble is that most projects are like those iceberg rocks. Taking them on will require time and effort and may have far-reaching repercussions. Look at how big of a rock you are trying to move. Take the time to consider how much these projects will really cost.

Look carefully at both the value and the total cost. For some rocks, continuing to plow around them might be the wiser choice.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

Sunrise in a city very near Death Valley in California

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Create a Frame for People to be Heroes

Create a Frame for People to be Heroes

“Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.”— Oprah Winfrey

Recently, I witnessed two different ways to handle the same challenge.

I attended two meetings. The goal of each meeting was to choose a way forward that would affect many people for a long time. In each meeting, there was a very difficult confrontation between competing ideas. In both cases, the desire was to reach the decision by consensus. The decision would not be made by a leader, or by a majority vote. Everyone at the meeting needed to be able to live with the decision.

Leading up to the meetings, people had not been kind to each other in working towards the required decision. This meant that the meeting was made worse because some of the discussion wasn’t about the merit of the ideas, but more about the hard feelings people were carrying about each other.

Leader #1 handled the meeting in this way. They made sure everyone had a chance to speak. They didn’t allow interruptions. They ensured the agenda was followed. They ensured that the minutes captured the logical arguments for and against each proposed way forward.

Leader #1 ended the meeting with an accurate description of what took place. “This meeting was extremely hard. I am recognizing how strong the emotions are. Although there were many parts we agreed on, for me, it is daunting how many points of disagreement there are. This is going to be extremely hard.”

The meeting ended in silence and frowns. People left feeling dejected.

Leader#2 handled the meeting quite differently. They also followed good meeting facilitation with a clear agenda, note-taking, and ensuring that people had a chance to speak. In addition to this, before someone could talk about their point of view, Leader #2 ensured they expressed what they heard from others first. This made a big change in the dynamic of the meeting.

Leader#2 also ended the meeting with an accurate description of what took place. However, the frame was very different. Leader#2 was smiling and said “The passion of this group is amazing. We all believe so strongly that we can achieve something great together. There are absolutely parts we disagreed on. However, there were even more points we agreed on. I am especially excited about what we are going to achieve next. Every time in the past when we have had this much passion, we have created something amazing. Let’s do some more listening and creating. I look forward to our next session.”

In this meeting, people left laughing and talking. People who had argued with each other during the meeting immediately got together and started brainstorming how to merge their ideas.

Both leaders reflected what was going on accurately. It was the frame that was different. How do you frame your day? How do you frame the challenges your teams are facing?

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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Spring Clean Your Leadership Tool Kit

Spring Clean Your Leadership Tool Kit

Outer order contributes to inner calm.— Gretchen Ruen

We are almost two weeks into Spring in the northern hemisphere. For many, this is the traditional time for household spring cleaning.

It is also a good idea to periodically clean up your leadership toolkit.  Here are four fun ideas for your leadership spring cleaning.

1. Power up your delegation abilities. Took a moment and think about when delegation works for you and when it falls a bit short. What is the difference? Make delegation a conscious choice. Check out this previous blog If Delegation isn’t Working, Consider Newton’s Laws for more details.

2. Check the fun meter. Are you having fun?  Are those you are leading having fun? Remember the journey is an adventure. Remind yourself and others that setbacks are part of the adventure. Check out this blog Lead the Journey, Not Just the Project for more details.

3. Tighten up your collaboration engine. We are more productive when we trust those collaborating with us. Check on the relationships. Tighten them up. The blog Building a Bridge Over Troubled Waters Takes Collaboration of Sponsors and Teams has more points for that.  

4. Hold your goals high. Refresh your goals – especially the big “why” behind the goals. Valuable goals you believe in help pull everyone forward. The blog Clearly Visible Goals Ensure No One Gets Lost is an especially fun reminder.

We all have more tools in our leadership toolkit than we often remember. Take the time to periodically take a breath and remember to keep them shiny. 

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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Make The Audience Part of a Grand Story

Make The Audience Part of a Grand Story

“This is the power of gathering: it inspires us, delightfully, to be more hopeful, more joyful, more thoughtful: in a word, more alive.”

— Alice Waters

I have observed many all-hands meetings. The mediocre sessions address a distracted audience. The worst ones have an audience who leave with less energy than they entered with. The best ones leave the participants energized and inspired. 

Please note that the last sentence changed the audience to participants. In the best all-hands meetings, even meetings with over 1000 people, the people gathered together don’t feel like they are being talked at. Even if they never have a chance to speak, they feel like they are part of the event, part of the story being told.

The best all-hands meetings I have participated in have the following critical common attributes.

  • Stories are shared about customers and the success they have achieved because of the company’s employees.
  • Stories are shared about teams that have made a positive difference for the key goals of the business.
  • Stories are shared about the work teams are doing that will make a significant future difference for customers and the business.

Scattered amongst the stories may be some cold hard facts about the financial status of the company or a mention of policy changes that people need to know about. However, those items make up a tiny percentage of the overall message. In the best all-hands gathering, those items are just a note in the middle where the speaker encourages employees to please read the company newsletter and make contact with questions or concerns.

The meeting focuses on showing the participants how they are a shared part of the story of the business and where it is going. This doesn’t mean that all the stories are completely positive. The best stories show the barriers that have to be overcome, the troubles that are faced. The best stories sometimes are about failure, but always end with what was learned and how the future will benefit.  

I have attended all hands meetings where the situation was dour. The leaders of the all-hands meeting made that very clear. They also were clear that they were not done and they had conviction that the situation would be improved.

The best meeting end with a renewed look at the inspiring purpose the organization has.

The best meetings end with people inspired to be part of the story of overcoming adversity to achieve a greater good.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

Photo by Gabrielle Claro on Unsplash

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Base your Body of Work on Making a Positive Difference

Base your Body of Work on Making a Positive Difference

“I also believe that it may happen that one succeeds, and one mustn’t begin by despairing; even if one loses here and there, and even if one sometimes feels a sort of decline, the point is nevertheless to revive and have courage, even though things don’t turn out as one first thought.”

— From Vincent van Gogh, to brother Theo, 22 October 1882

I was in awe. I was standing inside the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. 

On Saturday, we went to the “Beyond van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” and I was enraptured. The 30,000 square foot space surrounded us in projections of many of Vincent’s paintings and also shared quotes by him.

The design of the experience was breathtaking. To be surrounded by works of the greatness of van Gogh, to be inside paintings that towered over my head, to be bathed in a beautiful soundscape, filled me with wonder. The event’s design allowed me to experience the vastness of Vincent van Gogh’s body of work. 

Later, I contemplated what the van Gogh experience meant to me. I realized I have five principles guiding the creation of my own body of work.

  1. Learn. I learn from the best mentors I can find. I learn from my mistakes. I learn from my successes. I learn from others, often those who have knowledge and perspectives widely different from my own.
  2. Create. I take what I learn and incorporate it into my work. I do this by writing newsletters, creating videos, writing books, creating courses, and creating learning experiences.
  3. Share. I work hard to share the valuable things I have learned. I publish. I put things out there even when they are not “perfect.” Sharing what I’ve learned opens me to feedback, new knowledge, and further learning. The conversations created by sharing become an integral part of the creative process.
  4. Mentor. I learn so much from mentoring others. Being a mentor is a multifaceted experience that allows me to pass on knowledge, look at issues from new perspectives, support others, and continue to strengthen my learning.
  5. Make a positive difference. Many years ago, I had the experience of teaching a course that the survey forms said everyone loved. Despite this, when I came back a few months later, my clients were not doing anything I had taught them. Over time, I have learned how to share knowledge that fosters change. I strive to create a positive, lasting difference for those I work with.

This contemplation made me realize some new things. Van Gogh’s body of work is not just his paintings; it also includes all the people he has inspired.

What is the body of work you are creating?

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

This puzzle was one of the features of our 30th wedding anniversary party. The puzzle was completed at 3:00 am as a wonderful close to a great event.

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You’ll find I’m full of surprises.— Luke Skywalker

Despite how much we complain, there is a joy to working on urgent items. They give us a ready excuse for not working on the hard things.  

We might shout, “Oh, I can’t work on the crucial long-term work. This crisis must be dealt with quickly!”  

We might even picture ourselves as the hero, with the wind blowing through our hair while wielding a lightsaber as we handle this desperately important thing. (Okay, maybe you haven’t, but I have.)

Someone listening might wonder who we were shouting our complaint to. The answer is that we are almost always shouting to ourselves. Urgent tasks are almost always just an illusion of urgency. The urgent work crisis is seldom like a medical crisis where life and death require rapid actions.

Instead, consider the following three ideas to deal with your next urgent crisis.

  1. Wait. Often the crisis will dissipate like morning dew if we wait it out while working on the important items.
  2. Delegate. If this is not something that will disappear and is essential, how can it help your long-term goals? One of your goals should be growing leaders for the future. Delegate this urgent crisis and mentor the person to success.
  3. Combine. If this is not an easily solved crisis, it is almost certainly related to your longer-term goals for your organization. Use the crisis to accelerate your long-term goals. Work to determine how to combine this crisis with your work. Use this combo to move faster towards your significant achievements.

I can feel the wind in my hair again. Grab your lightsaber. Let’s go after those big goals.

I can feel the wind in my hair again. Grab your lightsaber. Let’s go after those big goals.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

 

 

Photo by Studbee on Unsplash

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Everyone Makes Mistakes

Everyone Makes Mistakes

“I have learned all kinds of things from my many mistakes. The one thing I never learn is to stop making them.” Joe Abercrombie

About 23 years ago, I did a course in software development where I tracked every mistake I made. It was shocking and disheartening. I made too many mistakes. And I found that those mistakes were costing me too much time. The rework disrupted my days and ate up a significant amount of personal time.

So when I saw the data, I did the natural thing. I tried harder, much harder, to stop making mistakes.

At first, I was shocked that trying harder did not make a difference. In the course, we normalized the data against both size and time. My rate of mistake-making did not change when I tried harder. It was only when I saw the experience of all the people in my cohort that I felt better about this. Everyone in the class was making mistakes at similar rates. And everyone was complaining that trying harder did not work.

Over the last 23 years, I have been able to study data sets of many thousands of people with over 30,000 data points about mistakes, or what I now usually call defects. I can tell you without a doubt that everyone makes mistakes. They make mistakes at a similar rate, and simply trying harder not to make mistakes doesn’t make a difference.

The following are three of the many things I have found that make a difference in reducing rework, increasing speed, and having more fun building great things.

  1. Track the major types of mistakes that get into your work products. You can learn from them.
  2. Create checklists for the types of mistakes you make. The lists must include the errors you make most often and the most expensive ones.   You will find that using these checklists helps immensely in finding the mistakes before they leave your personal workspace.
  3. Find inspectors who will be thorough and brutally straightforward. Each of my projects has improved immensely as I benefitted from the feedback of the toughest reviewers I could find. I looked for reviewers who would give honest feedback for my books, not those who would try to protect my feelings. They did a good job. And it made my books better.

In the Quality Deep Dive experience that is coming up in February, you will learn how to implement each of these techniques and many other ways to master methods that improve your quality and speed.  

It is also good to know you are not alone. I am Alan Willett and yes, I do make mistakes.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

Sunrise in a city very near Death Valley in California

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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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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...

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Are You Prepared

Are You Prepared

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”— Mark Twain

Last night, it snowed about 7 inches. The snow was not a surprise, and we were prepared. I was out at daybreak, clearing pathways for all to enjoy.

I have always appreciated the Mark Twain quote noted above, but the sentiment always seems incomplete. You see, in my mind, worrying is just the first step. The next step is to consider whether this is a worry you should do something about. You should ask, “How likely is this worry to become a reality?” If it has some reasonable chance of coming true, you should ask, “How much of an impact will this worry have if it comes true?” With those answers, we can decide if and how to act.

In Ithaca, in the winter, it is going to snow. We don’t know when or how much, but it will. So we don’t worry about it, we prepare.

Exceptional leaders are the same as anyone else. They do worry about lots of things they needn’t. The difference is that exceptional leaders always ask questions and listen to the answers. They prepare to face their worries based on how likely it is that those things will occur.

I have a quality challenge for the leaders of significant projects.

Are you worried about quality issues coming up? If not, what is the “weather history” you have that shows that they are unlikely to happen? I don’t expect people in Miami, Florida, to have snow shovels. Have the projects you have led been like Miami with no snow?

The good news about risks to quality is that there is a big difference between quality issues and snowstorms. I don’t know how to prevent snowstorms, but I know how to prevent quality problems. If you want to know more about that, let’s talk!

It is good to keep those pathways clear of icy spots.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

Photo by Alan Willett, while looking out my window this morning.

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Notice and Appreciate the Small Things

Notice and Appreciate the Small Things

“Stop and take your time to notice things and make those things you notice matter.”— Cecelia Ahern

Recently I found myself going a bit too fast through my days. My expectations were growing beyond the hours I had in a day. Leading with speed doesn’t mean frenzied activity. I know that, but I was headed that way.

Then I received a couple of small gifts that brought me back to myself.

First, my daughter gifted me a coupon that said she would make me some lunch sandwiches on demand. She had noticed that I was putting in some long hours and knew that some consistent nourishment would help. Indeed it would. She makes fantastic sandwiches, and I was delighted. 

Second, I received a birthday wish from a gentleman from Brazil. In his message, he thanked me for a talk I gave 16 years ago that he said helped him. These two gifts helped me become aware of the many other gifts around me.

As leaders, we are almost certainly often aware of all the things we should be doing. Many of us do have too much to accomplish in any one day.

Yet we will create more lasting value if we slow our minds enough to be aware of the good things around us. This is especially true if we take the time to notice others who are helping us create this world.  

After I received that note from my Brazilian friend, I took the time to send messages to others. Take time to provide the gift of being noticed and appreciated. It helps us all to create the future we desire.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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Mindful Enjoyment of the Holidays

Mindful Enjoyment of the Holidays

“A toast! To the road! May it lead to adventure and carry us safely back home.”— John Varley, Wizard 

December can be a busy time of celebrations, as well as a time of closing out one year and ushering in the new. For many of the exceptional leaders I know, finding ways to stay energized through this season takes a little effort.

I have three things I am doing that I will also recommend to others. 

Enjoy the outdoors wherever you are.  
I prefer temperatures between 80 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  Yet here in western New York, the temperatures have often been in the 20s with quite a brisk wind. It may not be my optimal weather, but getting out for a walk or a run is still refreshing. Because I live in a place with fairly low light pollution, the dark skies are full of stars.  Occasionally, I get to see the International Space Station pass overhead. Delightful!

Do some work you enjoy.  
I can’t think of any leaders I know who completely shut down their thinking about work during this time.  I certainly don’t.  Perhaps this is due to my upbringing on a dairy farm where days off just don’t happen. However, I know that when I do work during the holidays, I focus on work that I love doing.  I will be doing some writing for one of my next books.  I am very much looking forward to that.

Read something familiar that brings you joy.  
I decided to read John’s Varley’s Red Thunder again. It is a delightful space yarn where some teenagers meet an ex-astronaut. Together they get the far-fetched idea that they can build a spaceship to Mars.  I have heard sci-fi authors say that excellent science fiction requires one bit of magic; the rest has to be hard science. This one fits the bill.  Red Thunder is one of my favorites of Varley’s works.  It makes me smile every time, and this time seems to be the best of all the times I’ve read it.

My next newsletter will be in January 2022. I wish everyone an enjoyable holiday time and a delightful new year.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

You can buy Red Thunder directly from John Varley in his shop.

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...

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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

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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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