Culture eats everything for breakfast

I came across a piece on the Autosport site which featured the team principal of Racing Point, Otmar Szafnauer, reflecting on how, despite the fact that they have a wealthy team owner – Canadian Lawrence Stroll, whose son Lance drives for the team – they haven’t been able to transform this new investment into performance on the track. “People often say that, ‘well you’ve got all the money in the world now. It doesn’t matter’. But it’s still it’s not about money. Without the money you can’t do it. But with the money it takes time.” Naturally it takes time to make the investments, recruit new staff, learn how to use new facilities, all the soft skills that are needed to get the hardware to work. But I then happened across a piece in F1 Racing from over ten years ago (written, incidentally, by Bradley Lord, now Head of Communications at Mercedes AMG F1) on how the small budget team of Force India (their name before they became Racing Point) had achieved a remarkable performance in the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix, with Giancarlo Fisichella starting in pole position and finishing second in the race, hard to imagine that today with the big three teams dominating the results.

Lord’s article (F1 Racing November 2009) is insightful because it digs far deeper than the usual team principal + driver quotes, it uses most of the word count getting insights from those involved in the operational side of the organisation – Chief Operating Officer (COO), designers, windtunnel manager, spares co-ordinator, mechanics and even the truckies. What comes out so strongly is the power of the small team culture and that how being the underdog energises the team and most importantly, allowed them to develop more out of the limited resources they have, as emphasised by Simon Roberts, then COO: “There is an innate British culture of the underdog and it’s great, I really enjoy it. This team has a fantastic history and we’ve got back to being a bit of a giant killer.” Over the next few years Force India became the team who consistently out-performed its budget, often beating those with significantly more resources, it’s interesting to think how such a culture would react to suddenly being awash with cash, probably not too well. At the time this article was published another team, Toyota, were about to withdraw from F1. It is generally recognised that between 2001 and 2009 the team with the largest budget and newest, most comprehensive facilities were Toyota. And yet in that entire period Toyota did not win a single race.

So why is this? Why do teams on minimal budgets sometimes outperform those with far greater resources? And why do those with vast financial wealth often struggle to turn these riches to performance on the track? The answer is organisational culture. There’s no such thing as a good or bad culture, the question is whether or not it’s the right culture to drive performance today and in the future. The problem is that cultures don’t change very fast, and often the culture of the team is the one that worked ten or twenty years ago, not the one they need today. Currently I believe that Mercedes have the strongest organisational culture to help them achieve a record seventh successive drivers’ and constructors’ world championship in 2020. A fundamental part of a successful culture in F1 is a no-blame philosophy which supports innovation and ensures constant learning from every possible source to find those precious tenths of seconds every two weeks or so. Teams with huge budgets often find themselves struggling to avoid building silos and maintaining a clear focus as to how to drive performance on the track in the long run.

Of course it has to be about both, if you don’t have the resources you can’t get the job done, so there has to be a minimum budget from which it is possible to be competitive, but above that threshold, if the culture isn’t right then you’re not going to be able to transform financial resources into results. To borrow from Peter Drucker – culture eats everything (including strategy and money) for breakfast.

 

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