Formula One – Agile To Survive

As we approach the revised start of the 2021 season, Netflix has released the latest Formula One: Drive to Survive. Aside from me being a huge F1 fan, why do I mention it here? Because I think there’s a lot we can learn from the pinnacle of motorsport, whether they call themselves agile or not.

Teamwork One thing people often point to are the pit stops because they are a great example of team coordination. When a car stop in the pits, about 16 people pounce and change all four tyres in under three seconds. (Click on the image to watch Mercedes do back-to-back pit stops.) That takes a lot of practice as well as a lot of trust in the rest of your team, not least that the driver will stop exactly on their mark. It might feel like dev teams are always working on something different, so how can you practice, but think a little more abstractly and you’ll see there are many common activities e.g. how do you react when a critical bug is detected? The F1 teams start by practising pit stops with a stationary car and work up to full speed rehearsals; your team could do dry-runs to exercise their mental muscles so they are prepared for performing under pressure.

Plan then adapt It’s good to make a plan but you should expect to have to adapt as situations change. There have been so many examples over the past year, but one big one from F1 was the 2020 calendar: on March 11th all the teams, cars, marshals, safety crews, track workers, vendors and everyone else needed to make a Grand Prix happen (and the fans, of course) were in Melbourne for the Australian GP. The next day a member of the McLaren team tested positive for COVID-19 and they decided to withdraw from the race weekend. On Friday 13th, the sport’s governing body (the FIA) announced the race weekend was cancelled and the fate of the rest of the 22-race season was unclear. A lot of effort must go into planning the huge, international events (with about 300,000 fans attending each) and all the logistics of moving hundreds of team members and many millions of dollars of equipment from one race to the next… but then all of a sudden the plan has to be scrapped! Trying to create a new schedule whilst balancing various COVID restrictions, track suitability, media constraints… well, if you think sprint planning is hard, spare a thought for the F1 organisers 🙂

Never give up Sergio Perez had to pit after an incident on lap 1 of his penultimate Grand Prix (having been effectively fired by Racing Point for the next season) and rejoined in last place. He fought back and managed to get a midfield car up into the points, then other teams had problems, and suddenly he’s leading the race. He won his first F1 Grand Prix and subsequently gets signed by Red Bull (which is a step up from where he was). F1 is very strange because sometimes teams will announce the drivers for next season in the middle of this season, so some drivers have to compete in maybe a dozen races for a team that has already decided to replace them – weird! Fortunately companies rarely act this way, but there may be times when a team member (or maybe even the whole team) feels demoralised; it’s important to remember your goals & objectives, to think about why you chose to do this job. It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to be at their best every day (especially given the current COVID challenges) so it’s important to support each other through the tough times.

There are probably many other ways in which F1 demonstrates agile traits, or maybe your favourite sport has agile elements – please leave a comment with your observations.