How NASA Taught me to Build a Culture of Excellence

Ideally, we all want our colleagues to make no mistakes, or at least get them as close to that as humanly possible. Simply telling them, however, has proven to be ineffective. You want to create accountability in people: “I truly feel responsible for my actions”. If you want your company to really thrive for excellence, you need to build the right company culture, and for that to work you need employee buy-in so you have your team’s commitment.

How do you do that? By becoming NASA!

You cannot manage excellence into people

Here is a typical situation which I have seen happening many, many times: The sales team has a product presentation, during which the client points out a flaw in the product. The sales team raises this issue with their colleagues, and all agree that customers should not be the ones finding the mistakes.

So the decision is made to have everyone focus more on attention to detail. This is then announced to the wider team, either through an email to “team@somefirm.com”, detailing the sales team’s recent dilemma, or in an all-hands meeting, or whatever the communication culture suggests.

And now management expects things to change. After all, everyone should have understood this is important, and therefore they are waiting for results to improve. Only, in many cases at least, they won’t. And while management then starts blaming people for being lazy and for not caring about the company’s success or culture, this very often is not even the problem.

The issue is rather that people quite often simply get no answer to the most important question: Why.

To build a culture of motivation, give reasons.

Changing behaviour starts with providing the bigger picture

Here is a little secret about human behaviour: If you ask someone to do something without explaining to them why they should do it, you might be very lucky and have someone very smart in front of you, who figures out the reason on their own. Very often, though, they add a little sentence to your request: “Because I told you so”.

This does not happen consciously, but subconsciously: falling back to the default reasoning if none other is provided. You give them none, so they assume there is none, other than this being your personal preference. And how much do you think they care about that?

When that happens, you can be almost sure that this person will not fulfil your request out of conviction. They might still do it, either because it does not bother them, or (worse) because they fear the consequences of not doing it.

Whatever their motivation will be, it will never achieve the passion and commitment you can unleash in people if they understand the reason for your request. Bigger picture helps building a team cultureIn our example, the product team will understand a lot better why attention to detail is important if you explain to them how badly it affects their colleagues in sales, how badly they feel in this situation, and how it ultimately harms the whole company’s success.

This may sound like the answer to your problems – but what if your culture simply is not strong enough? What if your colleagues are a little self-centred, or maybe lack the empathy to understand the impact of their behaviours on others?

That is when your company becomes NASA.

Understanding empathy, at rocket speed!

Why NASA, you may ask? What on Earth (pun intended) does outer space have to do with my company and its culture? You are right, this is not about the fact that NASA is all about missions in outer space – but the fact that it is about making decisions in the face of life and death. And this latter fact will help make our point about the importance of company culture. Empathy is the basis for accountability. In order for this to work, you should get everyone in your team together in one room. Then you explain to them that you want them to imagine that their company is now NASA.

To make this as realistic as possible, you can assign people actual roles: Steve here is an astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS), Alice is the pilot of your space ship, Robert works in the control center, and so on. Don’t worry, this is not going to make it insanely complicated, it just helps people’s imagination.

Then, you set the scene and talk about your next mission: sending a new replacement crew on Alice’s space shuttle to the ISS to relieve Steve, and also send much-needed supplies along with it – after all, their current supplies run out in a few months. So Robert should already be doing all the necessary planning!

Attention to detail, at NASA level

And then you give them the brutal, honest facts:

    • The ISS orbits Earth at a an enormous speed of X kilometres per second
    • Timing therefore needs to be precise to the 100th of a second in order for the space shuttle to reach the ISS as planned.
    • It also requires that everything is ready: the technical equipment needs to be in perfect order, the calculations for travel time and route need to be meticulous, and all crew members of course need to be in the required shape for the trip

Even without doing an actual calculation or going into further details (you can of course do it, if you think it helps your team understand), your colleagues will get what you mean when you say:

    • If Steve is not ready for the trip on time because he slipped just a little bit on his preparation, the mission will not happen.
    • If Robert has tiny mistake in his calculations for the space ship’s route, they will not reach the ISS – in fact, they will fail by a few thousand kilometres

Whatever examples you name, the message is simple:

You mess up because you are sloppy, and you put your team members’ lives at risk. Your mistakes can cost lives. Our culture as a team is not just important, but essential.

This is a very, very powerful message.

Implementing the NASA culture

Now that your colleagues understand what lack of attention to detail can cause in organisations other yours, you can add that NASA has only ever been successful because each and everyone in this organisation is aware of their responsibility for each other.

That they are all part of something bigger that can only function if everyone perceives a mistake as not just a personal failure, but as a failure towards their colleagues. This is central to their team culture and individual perception.

And now we finally close the loop and get back to your company and its culture. The example of NASA has helped your team understand that:

  • An organisation is not an anonymous entity, but an interdependent group of people
  • NASA employees do not just act out of mere duty (or fear of losing their job), but because they actually care about their colleagues, and possibly their higher responsibility towards advancing science in general
  • This leads to an extremely powerful culture where every member of the organisation thrives for achieving a zero-mistake score

At this point, your colleagues will understand why you asked them to join you in this little thought experiment – because everyone knows what it feels like to care for another human being. Maybe they just never saw their colleagues the way people at NASA see theirs?

This new level of awareness will help you build the culture you need to achieve excellence in your company. How exactly you go about it, is obviously down to you and your specific situation. However, asking yourself “how would people at NASA do it?” may help you and your team on the way to developing an empathy-driven, passionate culture – passionate about perfection!

How do I know about the culture at NASA?

The obvious question I already got asked by a friend while writing this post. Did I just make some assumptions about their culture, based on the environment this organisation operates in?

No. I was fortunate enough to talk to the last crew of the Discovery shuttle after their final journey. When I spoke to the astronauts and asked them about life aboard the ISS, the feeling of camaraderie and, yes, family amongst them, I got the picture.

Listening to those people who had actually been to outer space, watching them interact with each other, I could really feel it too. :)

Have you ever been through this process of developing such a culture? Share your thoughts in the comments! Got any other questions on how to ignite the fire in your own team? Email me!