What can Formula 1 teach us about culture? - Kathy Varol

What can Formula 1 teach us about culture?

continuous improvement

I’ve never followed Formula 1, but I recently got hooked on the Netflix series Drive To Survive, and the unique organizational culture that propels the sport. There’s a lot about teamwork and collaboration that can be learned from the pit.

In Formula 1, over the course of nine months, ten teams, and 20 drivers compete in 21 races across the world. Even though the spotlight is often on the drivers, it is what happens behind the scenes that make a successful F1 team.

After champagne bottles are popped, all drivers head back to their race teams for the post-race debrief. A typical F1 team has 800 people when you include the head office, communications staff, and factory workers. The post-race debrief lasts about two hours and is just one of 50 meetings in a typical race weekend focused on reviewing, learning, and improving.

For each race team, one simple question serves as everyone’s guide: “Will it make the car go faster?” With this clear purpose, F1 teams have a huge amount of organizational clarity that enables speed and agility. At the end of every race, the team knows if they improved or if they didn’t.

There is not much time between races. Typically two weeks but sometimes less. Improvements to the car must be developed, tested, and implemented in time for the next race. Every week the teams make approximately 1,000 changes to improve the car’s performance. It’s a sprint from 3D printing, to wind tunnel testing, to carbon fiber production that’s shipped to the next race in time for the practice run.

The collaborative approach required to produce these F1 cars is astonishing, and a masterclass example in project management. Not only does the car need to be produced on time, every time, but it also has to be done with a critical emphasis on safety and reliability.

Formula 1 also has a remarkable culture that can be shared best through an example. It is race day in Bahrain, and the driver—Kimi—pulls into the pit lane. Approximately 20 mechanics work simultaneously to change all four tires in two seconds. The moment the new tires are attached, Kimi’s light turns green and he presses the throttle. But this time something goes wrong with the left rear tire. His car hits a mechanic, breaking his leg.

Kimi’s race is over. He scores zero points. Since there are only 21 races in the season, you could say 5% of his season was wrecked because of this incident.

Did the mechanic responsible for this mistake get fired?


Finding a scapegoat is easy. But F1 teams understand that it’s rarely one person’s mistake. One of the reasons Formula 1 reaches such a high level of performance is its no-blame culture.

They create an environment where everyone is trying to find ways to do things better, rather than blaming each other for things gone wrong. It’s best to learn from all the factors that lead to a failure, in order to prevent it from happening again.

F1 teams realize that if people are not allowed to make mistakes, people will play safe. They won’t push to the limit. In a sport where tenths of seconds matter, successful teams need everybody striving to “make the car go faster.”

To create a culture rooted in psychological safety, one that benefits from continuous improvement, you cannot punish failure. When you punish failure, people will hide failures and the entire organization loses the opportunity to learn and become better. As racing engineer Rob Smedley says, “When you have a blame culture, people spend 60–90% of the effort covering what they have done rather than doing anything positive and understanding the problem, making the car go quicker or making operations slicker.”

People playing it safe also no longer push the limits of innovation. This plays-safe culture will hurt the long-term competitiveness of your company.

People want to do a good job. As a leader, it’s your job to help them succeed. Two important factors in an organization are simple clear goals, and clear feedback to people. These two elements turbo-boost employee engagement and organizational success.

A purpose like “make the car go faster” gives an aligned direction across your organization.

Imagine your organization. What would happen if one person’s mistake resulted in the loss of 5% of a year’s revenue?

If your answer is they would be automatically fired, you probably aren’t nurturing a culture of collaboration and continuous improvement.

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