How to get results in the ultimate agile environment

Ferrari pit stop

Over time I have become more and more interested in the way different Formula 1 teams are managed, and how much team culture influences performance. This was first sparked by some agile training I received several years ago.

For those not involved in software development, agile software development is an approach aimed at allowing development teams to respond effectively to new information. Since the original agile manifesto was published in 2001, it has spawned its own ecosystem of related methodologies and techniques.

One common approach is to work in iterative sprints — short phases of work, typically two weeks long. At the end of each sprint, you deliver something. Then you reflect on how it went, plan the next sprint, and begin the cycle again.

The person training me in agile happened to be a Formula 1 fan, like me. He drew a comparison between agile software development, and the development of a Formula 1 car:

“A team of engineers works hard to develop a cutting-edge car throughout a season. Every two weeks they have to deliver an updated version of the car, and race with it. They can’t move the deadline. At the end of the grand prix, there is a result. Everything they learn at that grand prix needs to be considered for future rounds of development. Formula 1 is the ultimate agile development environment.”

Ever since then, I have been fascinated by how a team’s internal management processes may affect its performance.

Transformation at Brackley

Mercedes F1 cars at the Austrian Grand Prix (original photo by Lukas Raich,

The current success of Mercedes is a fantastic example. From the ashes of the disastrous Brackley-based Honda project, Ross Brawn — perhaps F1’s greatest ever design manager — set about fixing the team organisationally.

Then, when Honda pulled out of F1, he dipped into his own pockets to buy the team and run it under his own name. Immediately, they moved from the back of the grid to being the front-running team.

Mercedes were so impressed that they bought the team, and continued to follow Ross Brawn’s path. Brawn himself left several years ago now, but the able management of Toto Wolff has seen the team continue to refine and improve its approach.

The big beasts Williams and McLaren

When Mercedes took over Brawn GP, it removed its backing from McLaren, which has gone in the opposite direction.

Almost too much has been said now (including by me) about the decline of Williams and McLaren, once-dominant Formula 1 teams now both languishing at the back of the grid. But here, Mark Hughes offers a new perspective on how internal issues at both teams have led to them being deluded about how competitive they could be.

Both teams have been in decline for 15 years. But for various reasons, it has only become clear this year just how bad the situation has become.

The actual physical limitations of the cars of both teams this year originate in the internal processes and attitudes. At Williams, the analysis of the data produced by the simulation was crucially weak in a way that had not been broadly recognised up until then…

At McLaren, the proud history and recent difficulties with engines perhaps allowed many of those there to retain the belief that they were still operating at the cutting edge… The team’s estimation of what was a competitive lift:drag number was wildly out of date.

Adrian Newey’s lessons

Adrian Newey’s book How to Build a Car contains many fascinating insights about the difference in culture between different teams. With Adrian Newey having worked for both Williams and McLaren, his book is a crucial read for understanding their decline. Both teams clearly have their flaws, in subtly different ways.

Williams is an old-school engineering company, rather set in its ways, and traditionally reliant on its figurehead leaders. Those leaders were sceptical of the younger Adrian Newey’s ideas (despite the fact he was clearly having a positive influence on the car’s performance). Williams has since failed to adapt to the more modern ways of working that have taken hold in F1 over the past 15 years or so.

Meanwhile, McLaren attempted to adapt, but did so by adopting a matrix management structure that is now widely regarded as flawed. No-one could take full responsibility. Blame could always be somewhere else. That frustrated Adrian Newey, whose ideas ended up being squashed by committees.

Adrian Newey’s solution was to go to Red Bull Racing. At the time Red Bull had its own cultural issues from its time as Jaguar Racing, with the famous political problems that project faced.

But the team itself was new enough, and Adrian Newey had the faith of his bosses, to make the changes he saw were needed. Changes that neither Williams nor McLaren felt were needed. Red Bull Racing’s subsequent success speaks for itself.

Nimble Force India

I’m also fascinated by the example of Force India. This is a nimble, agile team that regularly punches above its weight. That a small independent team with a relatively small budget can routinely outperform big beasts like Williams and McLaren says a lot.

It’s not that it can be plain sailing for Force India. Over the years, this team has had its fair share of eccentric owners and managers — from Eddie Jordan to Vijay Mallya, via Colin Kolles. Yet, this is a team that gets its head down with limited resources and gets results year after year. There appears to be a culture there of just getting stuff done.

Of course, there is no right or wrong answer. Mercedes have of course been helped by the fact that their continuously evolving management processes are married up with seriously large budgets. And Force India, no matter how much bang for their buck they get, will never be consistent front-runners in their current position (although Lawrence Stroll’s exceptionally large wallet may see that change!).

But I’m sure there are lessons for the wider world on how different Formula 1 teams are managed.

See also: Mark Gallagher, who is another source of interesting insights into how lessons from motorsport management could be applied to other businesses.

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