Can a compelling vision make a Formula 1 car go faster?

From our experience working with Williams – yes, it can.

The recent change from family to corporate ownership at the Williams F1 team, reminded me of a project I was involved in at the start of my consulting career.

During my time with @Spence Associates, we worked extensively with Williams F1. As a high-performance business, they demanded the very best from their people and we were retained to help them reach peak performance across a number of business functions.

On one particular occasion, we were asked to work with the Commercial Alliances Team – the group of people tasked with securing the millions of dollars the team needed in annual sponsorship in order to compete. Our specific brief was to improve the negotiation skills of the team in relation to managing global sponsorship contracts.

However, as is nearly always the case when it comes to team interventions, the brief is never really the brief. The REAL issue that needs to be addressed generally surfaces at some point (normally towards the end of day one or beginning of day), and it’s this that needs to be identified by a skilled moderator and subsequently addressed if real performance improvement is to be achieved.

In this instance, a limiting factor to the team’s success was a fragmented and disjointed approach from separate departments within the business – working to separate and sometimes conflicting agendas.

In order to liberate the team and enable them to reach their true potential, we needed to address the disconnect across the various business functions and to do so we had to go back to basics and ask what it is the team was here to do.

The answer was simple, it existed to win Grand Prix races and to do so they had to be faster than 19 other cars on the grid. Winning or losing came down to fractions of a second and success or failure could be one tenth of a second either way.

And so, the one unifying purpose for all the complicated moving parts of a successful F1 team was distilled into one simple question ‘will it save a tenth’?

Whatever it was you were doing or thinking about doing, if you could follow your actions all the way to improving the speed of the car you were on the right track – pun intended.

For the Commercial Alliances team, the connection between their role and the F1 team’s performance was a direct one: more money = more development time, more talented drivers and a faster car. But the same simple but powerful logic applied to everyone in the business. Whether it was IT, engineering, marketing or personnel – your behaviours could be judged against the ultimate outcome of making the car quicker.

The value of a strong company vision or purpose is something often debated and sometimes debased. When it is something only trotted out at team or shareholder meetings, and printed in the annual report, it too easily becomes meaningless management speak.

Similarly, when it is well-intentioned but too abstracted from daily activity it has no intrinsic value. But when, as it was with Williams, it becomes a simple unifying purpose and catalyst for action it is extremely powerful.

In this instance, it was also fulfilment of a commitment made at the start of our relationship with the client. When Sir Frank Williams, the team principal, asked our founder @Doug Spence what he was going to do for the business and his team it was Doug that replied prophetically ‘I’ll make your cars go faster.’ And, for a time at least, that’s exactly what we did.