Manage Your Capacity To Provide the Greatest Value (or Don’t Spill the Beer!)

Manage Your Capacity To Provide the Greatest Value (or Don’t Spill the Beer!)

“As we all know, it’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent.”— John Cleese

While I was in Ireland, one of the stops we made was at the Guinness brewery. One of the delights of the stop was being professionally trained on how to pour the perfect beer from the tap.

One of the key tricks was that you could let the suds run over the edge of the glass. In fact, letting the suds run over was encouraged to make more room for the Guinness. There was an essential caveat to this process. One must never let the liquid beer spill over the edge.

Too many people miss this in their personal planning process. They take on many more projects and commitments than it is possible to complete in the time they have available. Imagine for a minute that the tasks people are taking on are a combination of figurative suds and beer. The beer is the most important value. The suds are the noise or the less valuable projects. The suds may seem urgent at the time, but they are just foam at the end of the year.

The problem for these overcommitted people is that their level of overcommitment doesn’t allow time to sort out the suds from the beer. Beer is constantly spilling onto their floors as they miss what the important projects really are.

The following are three critical steps to help you overcome your overcommitment habits.

  • Estimate the work you are taking on. This is really quite easy to do, although most people complain that it is impossible. Use your previous experience to look realistically at the maximum time the task might take and with that starting point think about the most likely amount of time it will take. You don’t know all the details but you can make educated guesses.  Add up all your quesses.
  • Estimate the actual capacity you have to do that work. Look at your days, weeks, and upcoming months.  Meetings and other overhead already consume how much time in a day?  What major events are coming up that prevent you from doing your project work?  How much time is left?  It is a rare person who finds they have more than 25 hours in a week for doing focused, non-interrupted project work.
  • Learn to say “later” if you can’t say no.  Most people who are overcommitted are surrounded by people who are practicing the same habit of beer spilling. People find it difficult to be very different from those around them. Once you know your capacity, you don’t need to always say “no”, but you can be kind enough to let people know when you will really get it done. Learn to say “later.”

I am certified to pour the perfect glass of beer. I know which suds I can let spill on the floor. I treat my most important projects as sacredly as the glasses of Guinness I learned to pour. Do you?

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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Can Programs Be Poems?

Can Programs Be Poems?

“I knew Peter was well respected by many engineers in Silicon Valley, but I had no idea he was revered!

Peter was a scholar and a gentleman and a positive role model for any engineer he ever met. We miss him.”

— Austin Lesea, in IEEE

I had actually never heard of Peter Alfke until a friend of mine showed me an ode she wrote to his “obvious” idea of “FIFO”  (First In, First Out algorithm) for data queues. When he developed this algorithm, it was not considered obvious or easy.

While reading about Peter and the ideas he made into reality, I realized how many things that were once difficult are now considered quite easy.  And that is because of people like Peter.

Peter died in 2011 after an excellent career. From the stories shared by those who wrote about him, he was not just a brilliant man, but a good person. May we all have the chance to leave such an eloquent legacy.  May we have the chance to solve things that are difficult today, so that those who come after us can tackle even more interesting challenges.

Ode to FIFO

Seems obvious, I suppose
a simple idea
to chain data into a list
like people waiting at the DMV.
But nothing is really obvious
until someone makes it so.
I picture you as a little boy
holding someone’s hand
and quietly noticing the behavior of queues.
All that time in all those lines not wasted
because it showed you how
to make those data snakes
obedient and orderly.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

An example FIFO queue image by aykapog from Pixabay 

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Great Processes Are For The People Who Use Them

Great Processes Are For The People Who Use Them

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” — Charles Mingus

At my last house, we decided to put in a fence between our yard and our neighbor’s.  We lived in the city where everyone had small back yards with no discernible gap between them.  We discussed it with our neighbors, and they thought it was a good idea.  

We were both concerned that it would make our already small yards smaller.  The surprise for both of us was that our respective yards got bigger! Before the fence, we were both staying clear of about four feet of either side of the property line. With the fence, we both gained that unclaimed space.

The creativity to play with our yard was unleashed.  We were able to grow many more flowers and vegetables.

I have worked with many organizations that have successfully grown organically over the years without formal processes. However, once they grew to a point where the work and the organization became more complex, productivity dipped, and successful results became less consistent.

People feared formalizing processes because they would hinder creativity. It would slow them down.  Just as we did, they thought it would make their “yards” smaller.

In complex work, a straightforward process provides benefits similar to our fence.  Here are five benefits of a good process. If you are not getting these benefits, it is not a good process.

The process is awesomely simple.  The best processes appear so simple they are immediately understandable.  It takes work to get there, and it is worth it.

Things are not forgotten. When working with many people or work involving multiple steps, it is easy for something to be missed. A good process provides clear guidance for getting things done and ways to ensure they have been done well.

New people can be productive quickly.  Newcomers often struggle when joining an organic, informal organization. A well-developed process enables new people to contribute to the organization’s creative work quickly.

Results can be measured.  A good process enables the measurement of the work. This is an excellent benefit because everyone can better understand the work and how it contributes to the business outcomes desired.

A good process will adapt and change.  Ultimately a good process is never a static process. It is practical, used, and improved. The process owners can prove that it has improved because a good process enables measurement of results and improvement over time.

One last note. We put a gate in our fence so we could easily go between our yard and our neighbor’s. Although good fences might make good neighbors, we found that shared cookouts make great neighbors. Whether you are working with fences or creating processes, the people using them are the most important part of the equation.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

Image by Tim Hill from Pixabay 

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New Ideas Need Nurturing Even When They are “Great”

New Ideas Need Nurturing Even When They are “Great”

“I like to think of ideas as potential energy. They’re really wonderful, but nothing will happen until we risk putting them into action.” Mae Jemison

In the springtime, I will often take a longer way home when I am out in the car doing errands. I do this so I can drive by cows that are also enjoying the spring.  I very much enjoy seeing the newborn calves being taken care of by their mothers.

Newborn calves are up walking amazingly quickly, but they still need care and protection. When I was watching a new calf in the field last week, it was on shaky legs, and the mom-cow was taking good care of the youngster.
The shaky legs calf reminded me of a struggle one of my clients was having.  They had put a new idea into the organization that they believed everyone would quickly adapt.  My client was surprised when everyone was ignoring it.  The idea seemed so simple and had such clear benefits.  Yet nothing was happening.

The idea couldn’t even stand up on its shaky legs.

I gave guidance that the idea needed at least three steps of care and feeding.

  1. Engage people in the idea you are presenting.  Ask them to give examples of how it won’t work.  And then ask for ideas of how it could work.
  2. Challenge one of your more receptive people to pick a small project they could try the idea on.   In doing so, ask them to define success or failure for the outcome of their experiment.
  3. Offer as much help to the project trying your idea as they will accept.

These steps may seem simple and obvious because they are.  However, too many people introduce new ideas and let them flounder without the proper nurturing.

When I drove by that cow field yesterday, those newborn calves were now running and jumping.

My client’s ideas had also now found their legs and were on the way to a healthy future.

  1. List item number one goes here
  2. List item number two or the second can go right here just after list item number one
  3. I guess this one must be the third item because here it is just after the second one
  4. And so on with items in this ordered list!
  • List item number one goes here
  • List item number two or the second can go right here just after list item number one
  • I guess this one must be the third item because here it is just after the second one
  • And so on with items in this ordered list!
They find it hard to believe that is possible to deliver defect-free software to customers.  And I am telling them our goal is to deliver near defect-free software to test. I am also working to help them understand that doing work in this was does not sacrifice speed. It is actually faster.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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Make the Exceptional Choice

Make the Exceptional Choice

“The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.” — Padmasree Warrior

Do you feel the pressure of needing to do more and faster?

Some days, even weeks, do you feel like you are being flung from one fire to the next and are more like the pinball than the flippers?

A rare few leaders have mastered the mindset and skills to control their work and their speed to achieve great things, including the work-life balance they desire. More than that, they make those around them better. These leaders lead from start to finish and look like the world-class marathoners who win and look as if they could do another marathon right that moment.

For the last thirty years, Julia Mullaney and I have been debating, researching, discovering, and applying the X-Factors that give those leaders the exceptional difference above others. A quick summary of those factors is here.

  • Make commitments they keep or beat.  There is magic these leaders have. Everyone trusts them to deliver what they say they will deliver. They lead with a calm, get-it-done attitude. This contrasts dramatically with projects which constantly go from one crisis to the next.
  • Deliver solutions that work.  These leaders have command of effective quality methods that ensure they deliver solutions that work. It is critical to have a deep understanding of multiple methods in order to ensure that quality is a driving force in the development of solutions.  With this knowledge, these leaders know which methods to apply in each situation to get to high-quality solutions with speed.
  • Work on the right products at the right time. Lots of leaders are rushing, they might even look fast, but they often don’t have an answer to the question of “Where are you rushing to?” The people with this X-Factor know how to focus the best speed to the most important value. They lead people in designing solutions to drive value that scales rapidly over time. They do not tolerate technical debt that slows teams down.
  • Make those around them better. These leaders relentlessly work to create fun and productive work environments. More than that, they help make their stakeholders and clients better at what they do. They and their teams are inspiring role models to the organizations around them. 

These exceptional factors (X-Factors) do not happen by birthright or by accident.  These leaders made a choice that made them stand out from the crowd.  They choose to master these skills to provide the best value to the world,

We have developed an offering that enables people to make that exceptional choice to master these X-Factors.  Check out a description of the offering by clicking here.

I would love to talk about more with you.  
Write to me at [email protected], and we will set up a time.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

Photo by RUN 4 FFWPU from Pexels

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Are Your Third Rails Running Invisible Trains?

Are Your Third Rails Running Invisible Trains?

“If you don’t change your direction, you may end up where you are heading.” — Lao Tzu

Third rails are used to provide electric traction power in some train systems. Useful as they may be, these rails present an electrocution hazard and can cause death if touched.

Have you noticed that there are also third rails running through many organizations?  There are boundaries with such perceived danger that no one will cross those lines. If a policy or way of doing things is so powerful that it is unquestionable, it can prevent an organization from changing course even when a new direction is necessary.

Some organizational third rails are unspoken. For example, I was asked to help an organization where all the projects finished late to their schedules. I asked the group of 20 senior managers if it was okay to build a plan where a team could finish early. The whole group looked startled until one person stood up with a shaking voice, “It depends on how early!”  Even though they wanted more predictable schedules, it was scary for them to make their schedules realistic.

In other organizations, I have seen people struggle with tools that were not providing the value they needed. The tool was originally useful but had become less so as the business changed.  When I asked about alternative tools, I received looks of fear and quick changes of the subject. The tool was a third rail that everyone knew not to touch!

Third rails are powerful forces in organizations, just like they are for trains. They have often been useful sources of power until the organization experiences the need for a change.

The good news about organizational third rails is that they are just a metaphor. When you actually grab onto them and deal with them, they lose their power.  In both examples I provided, I helped the leaders grab the third rails, drain them of their power, and get better results for the organization.

Does your organization have any third rails that are running invisible trains?

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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A Conflict is an Opportunity to Create Something New

A Conflict is an Opportunity to Create Something New

The strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire.”— Anonymous

What do you do when there is a spark of conflict that looks like it could become the hottest fire?

In last week’s newsletter, I promised to provide a new frame on the challenge of how to make a conflict useful.

Many people view conflict as undesirable, something to be avoided, and absolutely something to get out of as soon as possible.

Many people are missing out on a wonderful opportunity.  When there is conflict, there is passion.  When the passion is in opposition, there is heat.  The heat of conflict can be used in at least three ways.  

It can be destructive, where people try to outshout each other. The protagonists ignore each other, don’t recognize each other’s moments of truth or moments of useful ideas.  This leads to the destruction of the trust each person has for the other.  It can lead to a logjam delaying the outcomes needed.

It can be handled by each party, avoiding the center of the conflict.  They will quickly compromise. They will work to ignore the center of where the heat of the argument could be. The outcome is likely to be better than the logjam in the first situation. However, it is also almost certainly weaker than the third option.

The third way is the best. Frame the conflict as an opportunity to use the heat to create something new!  Here are a few of the vital things to do to make this ideal a reality.

  • View this as an opportunity to get to know the other protagonists better.  Their experiences are different from yours. Their goals might be different from yours.  They might know something you do not.  The first step is to truly hold the view in your own mind that this is not a conflict where someone wins and loses—this an opportunity for everyone to learn.
  • State the learning goals to the others you may be in conflict with.  Say, “This is a terrific opportunity for each of us to learn!”
  • Ask what goals the other people’s approach is achieving. Ask why they think that approach is the best way to achieve that goal.  Ask what experiences they have that has led them to their beliefs.
  • Reflect back on what you heard. Make sure you understand them before trying to be understood yourself.  (Yes, that is one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits!)
  • Ask if they are willing to listen to your goals and why you believe your approach has merit. It is advantageous to ask permission first.  That gives the other people the opportunity to know that it is your turn to share and their turn to listen.
  • Look for ways to merge the best aspects of each idea.

At the very least, when you use this approach, you will know the other people much better and why they have the ideas they do.

At the very best, you will have forged together a new, stronger idea.  

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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Flip Problems into Opportunities with a Clear Value

Flip Problems into Opportunities with a Clear Value

“If a problem can’t be solved within the frame it was conceived, the solution lies in reframing the problem.”— Brian McGreevy, Hemlock Grove

When encountering a problem, do you take a moment to put a frame around it?

Exceptional leaders are especially good at framing.  They do this by mastering the art of establishing a clear frame around the problem. They have developed an innate sense of what goes inside the frame and what belongs outside the frame.

Consider the case where a leader finds that their systems integration team released a version of their product into the testing phase but that the product testing team is finding a very high level of defects that need to be addressed,

I have seen many good leaders in this type of case apply pressure on the team. They focus on getting those problems fixed as soon as possible. They hold various meetings to triage the problems. 

The only framing they have done is an implied hurry-up.

The exceptional leader takes the time to frame the problem properly. After seeing the testing problems, the best leader creates the frame that the team can use the mistakes made as information to improve their speed to value. 

With that frame, the leader has created the impetus to fix the problems and learn from them. The leader will put actions like these inside the frame:

  1. Discover the root cause of the defect.
  2. Fix the defect.
  3. Inspect other parts of the system for the same or similar defect.
  4. Identify how to catch that type of defect before entering the test phase in future development efforts.
  5. Identify ideas for how to prevent that mistake from happening in the first place.

I have seen the “hurry-up” framing of this situation lead to the same high re-work situation repeating itself over and over again.  The “learn-from-it” frame leads to very different behaviors. Teams with “learn-from-it” framing get better with every release.
You may think at first glance that this is simply saying that we shouldn’t call things problems; we should call them opportunities. Look closer. The frame may do that on the surface, but the deeper meaning is always embedded in the next part of the best frame. It is an opportunity to do what? That is the key.

For example, many people view the conflict between people as a problem. Instead, I frame it as an opportunity.  That is an incomplete frame.  Here is your thought experiment for the week.  What is a conflict between two people an opportunity for?  

I’ll explore that more in next week’s newsletter.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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Stay Focused on the Value to Be Gained

Stay Focused on the Value to Be Gained

Stop looking for solutions to problems and start looking for the right path.” — Andy Stanley

“I don’t have time to work on prevention. I have too many emergencies to deal with.”

Those words are a common refrain that I hear from good leaders. The step they need to take to be exceptional is to get a higher view that allows them to do their work differently and lead for the longer-term gain.

The first thing in their way is that dealing with emergencies is typically one of their greatest strengths. These fire-fighting leaders are responsive! They let everyone know that they are taking immediate, decisive actions.  Even if the problem exists at many organizational levels below them, they take personal responsibility and direct action to help solve the problem.

These actions are often respected and recognized by everyone around them. That emergency was solved.

However, the causes of the emergency are typically still there. Here are three key things that can help get leaders out of emergency mode.

  • Make it a habit to do useful root cause identification. When dealing with the sudden emergence of a problem, immediately start asking how the problem came about. If something was lost, was it misplaced?  If it was misplaced, was it because the storage system was flawed? If flawed, how?  Most of the time, leaders have to do “fire fighting” because of multiple small failures. Underneath those small failures is often a larger problem. Make it a habit to look deeper.
  • Ensure that those you lead master this root cause identification habit.  When people bring you a problem, insist that they also bring a simple, quick analysis. The simple analysis should include what they are doing about the problem and where they need help.  It should also include a first pass at identifying the root cause of why the problem exists now.
  • Do the work to eliminate the root causes. The habit of seeing the root causes is useless unless action is taken. Take the time to take action.  When the problem is outside your circle of control, it is more difficult, but that does not remove your obligation to help.

I am often treated with the complaint that there is no time to work on the root causes. This is why I encourage people to get above the immediate fire. Sit on top of a mountain. Look to the horizon of the value you provide. Your time is a priority call. The exceptional few choose not just to stamp out a small fire every day. They choose the big value route.  

How are you spending your day?

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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Leadership Value is Measured in the Improvements of Those You Lead

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.— John Quincy Adams

I have recently been engaged in discussion around an important question. “How do I know that my leadership is valuable? What are my measures of success?”

During this discussion, I received a note from one of the people I worked with in South Africa.  This is work I did ten years ago.  The part of the note that stood out for me said, “I will never forget the positive impact you’ve had in my life.”

That note is the biggest part of the answer.

Good leaders are successful at ensuring projects are delivered, that services are provided, that people get their jobs done.

Better leaders deliver projects on-time and on-budget. They make sure that the services provided delight to the customers of those services. They inspire the people they lead to do their jobs with high quality.

Exceptional leaders have an even higher purpose. They help those they lead to make improvements in the context of their work. They work to recognize the individual gifts and talents of the people they lead. They aspire to help the people they lead to improve their mastery and confidence in those talents.  Exceptional leaders nurture the individuals they lead in order to make a positive impact on their lives.

So, how do you measure the value of your leadership?

  • Did you deliver to the commitments you made? 
  • Were the services and products delivered under your leadership valued and used?
  • Most of all, did your leadership uplift the skills, confidence, and abilities of those you lead? Those kinds of results are the true gold.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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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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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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