Go Faster — How to apply F1 racing principles to boost your team's speed

May 6, 2024
7 min read
Photo by shawnanggg on Unsplash
Simple rules...thrive in a complex world.
Donald Sull

If you aren’t into F1, watch Drive to Survive on Netflix. You will be.

If you are, you will know it's a high-octane chess game with engineers, strategists, and drivers working in a coordinated cacophony. All in pursuit of speed.

In an effort to go faster, mass is critical. F1 cars are aerodynamic sculptures of speed: grams shed by stripping paint; metal zippers replaced with fabric fasteners, heavy steel swapped for lightweight carbon fiber.

F1 is a festival of physics with a singular obsession: winning.

The teams that compete are small and agile; eighteen hundred people would be equivalent to a medium-sized business—a tenth of the staff of Workday or Intuit. Salaries—for some drivers and team principals—are up there with the CEOs of Netflix, Microsoft, and American Express.

Budgets and revenues are huge. Scuderia Ferrari, the most storied F1 team, pulls in $243 million per year in sponsorship. The cars are 300+ kph billboards; the teams' iconic brands worth billions of dollars and netting millions in operating profit each year.

So, how can teams whose #1 job is speed help your team go faster?

Six lessons, each engineered with winning in mind, can be drawn.

  1. Do less (weight saving).
  2. Set higher standards.
  3. Run with simple rules.
  4. Help people get better.
  5. Decide, and make sure it’s decided.
  6. Prioritize little rituals.

#1. Do less (weight saving).

The weight loss that adds speed to a Formula 1 car is built from a clear constraint: every surplus ounce adds fractions of a second in lap time.

At work, we don’t see a direct tie between weight and speed, but it exists.

Every extra minute in a meeting, every meeting that could be an email, every wasted conversation adds delay. Delay leads to missed opportunities. Missed opportunities lead to missed revenue. But we’re more used to extending deadlines and pushing out dates than bringing them forward—why?

Because we do too much.

In companies large and small, the “to-do” list is long. More priorities compete for scarce resources, more pet projects, more legacy, more technical debt, and commitment debt that we owe—all extra weight. Every line item in a spreadsheet, every “extra” priority, every additional KPI—all slowing us down.

Get rid of busywork:

If it isn’t part of your strategy, why are you doing it? Get rid of it.

If it doesn’t filter through your OKRs, stop doing it.

Ruthlessly prioritize; aggressively stop doing.

It’s hard; you might do it once, feel good, and then slip. Put rigor in your regimen. Speak in threes. Simplify. Take weight from your slide deck. Use AI to clarify and shorten emails before you send them. Focus on fewer in a meeting rather than a laundry list.

When people and teams struggle to perform, take things off their plate. Cut meetings and cut meetings short. Start presentations with clear objectives. Put outcomes before problems. Glorify effectiveness over busyness.

Bring everything back to your objectives and key results—they are your formula for winning the race.

[Image: Headline: #GO FASTER by doing less. Image around this idea—If it isn’t part of your strategy, why are you doing it? Get rid of it., If it doesn’t filter through your OKRs, stop doing it. Ruthlessly prioritize; aggressively stop doing.]

#2. Set higher standards.

There’s a story about Toto Wolff, the team principal of Mercedes-AMG Petronas. He was unhappy about the state of the bathrooms trackside in the Mercedes garage, so he hired a full-time “hygiene manager” who travels with the team. Wolff showed him how he wanted the toilet scrubbed, “how to wipe the floor, how to put the soap bottles with the front facing forward, how to sanitize the handles, and so on.”

I’ve heard a similar toilet story about Jack Plating, a former Chief Operating Officer at Verizon. To hear him tell it, he found an employee bathroom in a mess on a store visit, took off his jacket, and started scrubbing.

Both lavatorial stories point to higher standards: they send a message.

Frank Slootman was a teenage toilet cleaner. Now, he is the Chairman and CEO of Snowflake, with a track record of accelerating companies like Data Domain and ServiceNow.  “Try applying insanely great as a standard and see how far you get.”

Higher standards are a pursuit of better.

Your standards must directly link to your mission, vision, and purposeyour strategy. Everything aligns with that—see rule #1: Do less (weight saving). Then, communicate, communicate, communicate.

Establish a rhythm of “doing” aligned with your strategy.

Rally the team around your objectives. Adopt a sense of urgency and intensity. Move fast, then move faster.

#3. Run with simple rules.

Simple rules are a way to manage complexity through simplicity.

Simple rules translate strategy; they are straightforward and memorable, help raise standards, and, most importantly, are applied at the point of need. At fassforward, we have some—“touch a client every day” and “don’t compromise on the deliverable.”

Simple rules play a dual role—steering people and strengthening culture.

First proposed by Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt in the book Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World, they come in different flavors:

Boundary rules clarify what is in and out; what is acceptable and unacceptable.

Prioritizing rules help with trade-offs and frame the allocation of resources.

Stopping rules tell you when to stop, avoiding the pursuit of sunk costs and white elephants.

How to rules are a simple ABC guide to stuff done.

Coordination rules synchronize and connect disconnected activities or efforts.

Timing rules tell you when to take an action or make a decision.

Formula 1 pitstops are a symphony of timing and coordination rules—necessary to arrange a crew of twelve around a car and driver: a front and rear jack operator, four tire carriers, four wheel gun operators, and someone holding a fire extinguisher. Pitstops are the sharp end of a synchrony of tire-swapping that wins or loses races. Done well, four sets of rubber are replaced in a remarkable 1.8 seconds.

Do you have simple rules to help you go faster?

How do you know what is and is not in bounds for your team? Can you rapidly allocate and prioritize resources? Do you have rules to help people stop doing? Those rules, and others, must be a translation of your strategy, spoken of repeatedly in simple, concrete terms, to shed weight and allow people to move with speed.

#4. Help people get better.

Unlike Formula 1, it’s not machines that you want to go faster; it’s people.

The goal of your team and a Formula 1 team is the same—to continuously improve. The mechanisms for improvement are the same: analysis, feedback, coaching, space, and practice.

Modern F1 cars are networked, connected intelligent machines with hundreds of sensors. Instrumentation provides terabytes of streamed data from car to crew. That data is feedback; pored over to eke out fractions of a second in lap time.

During the race, the drivers see and hear only a limited amount of that data—precisely what they need to know. Each car and driver has a race engineer who filters feedback, providing vital information to the driver when he needs it. The race engineer will let the driver know who is behind, who is in front, and who is closing on who. The driver signals clearly. “Shut up and let me drive,” or tenser variations during the race.

Off-track, the race for speed is more urgent. Engineers, designers, and drivers all seek tiny improvements. Drivers work on their reaction times and physical strength. Aerodynamicists fight a war with physics to lower drag and increase downforce.

As leaders in business, we must first improve ourselves. We have to provide hearable, useful feedback. We have to be able to coach and build capabilities and confidence in teams. We have to use data to cut through noise and provide clarity and direction for our people.

Most importantly, and echoing a driver’s request to “shut up and let me drive,”—we have to create pools of stillness instead of swirl. Space and time for our teams to focus, do their work, and improve themselves.

#5. Decide, and make sure it’s decided.

Data doesn’t make a decision. You do. The best in F1 know this.

Toto Wolff; “you need the right balance between data and gut feeling.”

For each race, the team, car, and driver go in with plans. You’ll hear it in the comms chatter between driver and engineer: "Tyres are dead, I think plan B,” or “Looks like plan A.” As a fan, you don’t know what plan A or B is—you just know the team had a run plan on when to pit and which tyres to use in which stint.

When the time comes, the decision to change tires comes from the race engineer—with feedback from the driver, input from race strategists and reams of data, and guidance from the team principal. The race engineer, not the driver, makes the call to “box, box, box”—the signal to pit.

In F1, what decisions to make and who makes them are clear.

In business, this is much more confused: requests for control disguised as requests for decision rights. Pocket vetoes pop up; hidden agendas appear, blinking in the cold light of day. A new strategy or plan is met with a mute, “this too shall pass.”

This swirl is fed by the hobgoblins’ other rules battle. A backlog of work—because you didn’t do less—allows favorite projects to be chosen and critical ones to stall. Standards aren’t clear, and in the fog, a well-meaning workforce clings to “how we’ve always done it.” There are no simple rules to prioritize resources or guide choices. Or—perhaps worst of all—the decision is clear: people want to do it but don’t know how. People are not getting better.

Decisions are better framed as what, not who.

Make the decision-making criteria—the context—clear and explicit. How does the decision align with the strategy? What were the options considered? Why was this path chosen?

Ask team members to verbalize their commitment and make clear the course of action, who has what task, and when it’s due.

#6. Prioritize little rituals.

Decision-making is a ritual.

Too many meetings have big “what” and “why” conversations. Great ideas are floated. Options are explored. Strategy and tactics align. And a decision is reached. But it stalls after that. Or it’s slow-walked among a dozen other priorities.


Because we didn’t do less. We have too many other options. We didn’t set—and agree—on higher standards. We don’t have simple rules to help us move quickly. For that, and a host of other sins, there is a cure—little rituals.

Drivers have pre-race routines, practicing reflex ball drills with their trainers. Crews repeatedly rehearse pit stops to improve speed and coordination. At Mercedes, the entire team comes together, and team photos are taken at victory celebrations—when a driver and car reach the podium. But there are no celebrations and no photographs for fourth place.

Little rituals are small, repeatable practices done in groups that improve collaboration and coordination. They build culture, strengthen mindset, and reinforce patterns of work.

In your team, it could be a daily or weekly stand-up; shout-outs that applaud others’ contributions; tech tips during staff calls. Meeting wrap-ups: action item reviews document what needs to be done, who is responsible, and when it is due. In our workshops, we have a little ritual of a two-word checkout—two words to describe participants’ experience at the end of the session.

The little rituals build habits. The habits build cohesion, and cohesion builds speed.

Not as fast as Formula 1, but faster.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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