What Chris Hadfield, Pomplamoose and Toyota can teach Chief Operating Officers about culture and competitive advantage

You might know of Chris Hadfield for his series of fascinating and frankly, just cool videos he posted from the International Space Station. He’s a real life Major Tom and speaks compellingly here on managing fear and the NASA maxim that “there is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse”.

We see him as finished product, a three time astronaut and legend in his field. What you may not know is that Hadfield spent literally decades doing everything he could to secure his chances of becoming an astronaut. Most importantly, he adopted and then consistently applied a mindset focused on How he would acquire the knowledge and capabilities likely to be valued by NASA.

From just 9 years old, Hadfield continually put himself in learning situations all aimed at maximising his chances of getting selected from the tens of thousands who apply. He learned to fly at 15, gained a degree in engineering, a masters in aviation systems, became a fighter pilot and Top Gun Test Pilot, learnt to speak fluent Russian, how to fly and operate Russian spacecraft as well as American, acquired deep knowledge and skills in geology, physics, orbital mechanics, biology and a whole bunch of other things that NASA think an astronaut might just need in reserve.

Impressive as they are, that long list of accomplishments is only a by-product of his learning culture. Without that conscious choice to dedicate himself to the process of becoming an astronaut I think it’s likely he would have been lost in the noise of the also-rans.

In his fascinating book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield shares life lessons from his experience of striving over three decades to realise his dreams and his take on the mindset necessary to be an astronaut. What particularly struck me was Hadfield’s assertion that:

“You can’t view training solely as a stepping stone to something loftier.
It’s got to be an end itself”

Training for Hadfield wasn’t about hitting items on checklists or just being better than the next guy (of which there were literally thousands). It was about developing a culture of learning that resulted in him being simply more capable and better prepared to handle whatever life and space threw at him (including going blind whilst on a spacewalk).

How he prepared was just as important as What he was preparing for. By combining those two elements he maximised his chances of outperforming the competition.

It’s this principle of being committed not just to the destination, but also the journey itself that is so important in developing and sustaining company culture that delivers performance.

Building great culture at work is about creating ways of working that make it more likely you’ll achieve the desired outcome. Call it weighting the dice or reducing your odds, either way, it speaks to deliberately creating a culture and mindset focused on making your How as much of a competitive advantage as your What. To my mind, that is the true value and purpose of a Chief Operating Officer.

Here’s a quick thought experiment:

When you start a new project, embark on a new initiative, or grandly sign off on that ground breaking product that is the answer to your corporate prayers, what vision do you have in mind?

My guess is, for most, the vision is the end result: what things should be like when they’re finished and executed perfectly. The shiny new thing at the end of the rainbow. Born, perfect in every way, meeting requirements, assumptions, wishes and hopes of everyone involved.

What happens in most organisations is that in the drive to get from A to Z, the need to create and then sustain the environmental conditions that will make the journey possible, gets overshadowed by the temptation to show visible progress. Widgets, products, services, data, results – pointing to something and saying ‘we made it’.

Which brings us to Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn, a pair of Californian YouTube stars going by the name of Pomplamoose. They make videos like this:

Now you’d think that a band with over 100 million YouTube views to their name would consider themselves a success but, again, the principle of How vs What, journey vs destination comes into play.

In this post on Medium, breaking down the losses Pomplamoose incurred during their 2014 tour, Conte had this to say on being asked what it’s like to have ‘made it’:

“The thought of Pomplamoose having ‘made it’ is, to me, ridiculous….the phrase ‘made it’ does not properly describe Pomplamoose. We have not made it, we are making it…and every day, we bust our asses to continue ‘making it’.”

Similarly to Chris Hadfield, Conte’s principle of approaching Pomplamoose’s work as a process, busting ass to continually apply a level of passion and creativity, once more speaks to the power of cultivating and maintaining mindset in building high performing culture.

If you watch their videos, you can see the manifest joy in the act of producing by the expressions on their faces. You can see it in the exuberant attention to detail and technical complexity. 100 million views for Pomplamoose would not have been possible without their commitment to a culture of How.

It’s why despite losing $11,819 on their tour, they’d do it all over again and choose to think of the loss as investment in their brand and a learning experience.

They have not made it, they are making it.

The idea of choosing to be perpetually in a state of ‘making’ it’ is familiar because it’s a presumption of continuous improvement rather than settling for a win that only qualifies on paper. Which brings us nicely to the Kaizen gorilla in the room once more, Toyota.

There is a saying from Toyota, “Monozukuri wa hitozukuri,” which roughly translates as “making things means making people.” It derives from one of the two pillars in Toyota’s Way, Respect for People (the other is Continuous Improvement) and builds on the assumption that one should try and provide opportunities to use the brainpower of all the people in the enterprise, not just the people with fancy titles.

To give yourself the best chances of building great products and services, you need to also build the mindset and culture of the people involved in doing the work.

The competitive advantage of a culture of continuous improvement at Toyota is not in their ability to secure X% reduction in this or Y% increase in that – it’s in creating a working environment where people habitually engage their brains and contribute to How the company operates. The improvements aren’t mechanical, they’re by-products of the embedded culture expressed by the people operating in it.

In an environment that gives weight to building mindset and appropriate culture, you’ll get improvements in X and Y naturally, passionately because the processes of shifting X and Y are the levers and exercises that allow and inspire people to practice great operational mindset.

And that’s what’s missing from most change programmes and projects and depressingly, most companies: the recognition that to secure the best possible chances of achieving your aspirations, you need to build not only things, but also the environment that allows people to shine – your culture.

The journey matters and if fostered well, delivers learning, engagement and fulfilment along the way. I believe that building culture is what you should be trying to deliver as a Chief Operating Officer, it’s your purpose and should be part of your vision.

Fostering mindset, acting with discipline, being consistent with values, consciously choosing how to behave – you need to build an environment, a culture of processes, habits, behaviours and consistently disciplined thinking that makes it hard for you to fail.

Get it right and you secure the kind of competitive advantage that significantly increases your chances of going into space, becoming the biggest car company in the world or losing $11,819 and laughing it off.

Sounds like a vision to me!