Want your product teams to function with the focus of Formula 1 pit crews? It’s magical when you stop wasted time, avoid wasted decisions, and perform at elite levels as a product team.
First, here’s what a great F1 pit stop looks like (23 people changing 4 tires in 2 seconds)
Mesmerizing. While product teams have a lot more variability in most of their work, I’ve learned key lessons for product teams from studying formula 1 pit stops. These lessons illustrate why sprints help product teams perform at elite levels.
1. Everyone knows their role
All team members know their role, what is within their control, and what others depend on them for. No one is standing around wondering what’s going on or how they can contribute.
Key question: Can you describe your role? What are you accountable for?
2. Flow is important
Knowing the goal, knowing the process. These are important to get and stay in a state of flow. The perfect pit stop is fluid compared what most of us experience when we need to change a tire — lots of awkwardness, pausing and wondering, obvious that we don’t do this often, etc.
Key question: Where aren’t you fluid? What could you do to better get into flow?
3. The driver isn’t the star
This is about a team functioning as a single unit. Support is critical. HR, IT, marketing … all support functions are critical to building great products. If a pm or dev has to take half a day to fix some benefits issue or has a computer issue that IT can’t get to because they are backlogged, that impacts the team. Just because someone is the driver doesn’t mean others aren’t critical to making sure everything runs smoothly.
Key question: Do you support your support team?
4. Focus on the right thing at the right time
Practice is critical. Everyone knows their job and knows what needs to happen. Sprints give you stability and clear process so that you can focus on the unknown.
i.e. If you spend hours doing releases, you’re wasting time. There’s a better way (please read any post/book on devops). It’s like you’re a pit crew from the 50’s (see the video below).
Key question: Are you wasting time on a process that happens weekly or monthly?
“Fewer things, done better” was our mantra at LinkedIn. Easy to say and very hard to do. One key ingredient of great pit stops is only doing a few things. Limit what you’re doing to increase speed and accomplish the goal (get back out on the track). They used to refuel, but no longer do. Removing that step was a major piece of getting to the 2-second pit stops of today.
Key question: What can you stop doing?
A woodsman was once asked, “What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?” He answered, “I would spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.” Let us take a few minutes to sharpen our perspective.
— Anonymous Woodsman (not Abraham Lincoln) (source)
Toyota made its system great by working on the system. Spending more time on infrastructure is key. That’s what formula 1 pit crews have done exceedingly well. They have the right tools, right training, right communication, etc. Everything has been planned and tweaked. And if someone said “hey, I think I know a way we could do this better,” I am sure everyone would take a second to listen.
“Poor preparation is a lousy excuse for a last-minute selfish frenzy. That frenzy distracts us from doing it right the next time.”
Also related to preparation, great teams use retrospectives. The best retrospectives are small (only the members of a close team) and many times have only the team, not leaders attending. Why? You have to make it safe to bring up flaws. That is a very difficult environment to create. But done well, will yield meaningful improvement in the team.
Key question: What could you prepare that would give you power during performance time?
7. Make it visual
The main job of management is safety.
These guys are controlling. The crew member at the front is watching everyone do their jobs. He is there to address any problems and control the traffic light. This is similar to the decider in a sprint – they control the light and signal to the rest of the team when needed.
Key question: What could you make visible that is currently assumed or hidden?
8. Know evolution can happen
This video shows formula 1 pit stops from the 50s to 2017.
In 1950 the announcer says “Just 67 seconds!” Amazing to think that the best times today are more than 30 times faster. 30x improvement over time may seem crazy, but here’s what Mark Zuckerberg said about the best engineers.
“Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good. They are 100 times better.” (NY Times)
Marc Andreessen pointed out something similar —
“The gap between what a highly productive person can do and what an average person can do is getting bigger and bigger. Five great programmers can completely outperform 1,000 mediocre programmers.” (HBR)
While something may seem great today, there are major breakthroughs to be made. In 20 years, we will look back on how many product teams function today and laugh at the clunkiness of it all. The best product teams today are already making exponential gains in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.
This is why growth mindset is key. If we are fixed in our thoughts about what we can do, we may stop at a 67-second pit stop and think we are great. Don’t stop improving.
Key question: Is there something you’re already doing well that you could improve more?
9. Failure hurts
This is what it looks like when done poorly.
For product teams, we have to be careful talking about failure. Even with elite teams, most product ideas won’t create the results you’re looking for. You actually want a decent failure rate when coupled with a healthy learning and testing culture. That means you’re getting closer to knowing what works.
The failure you want to avoid on product teams is failure of process. Not that an idea didn’t work. But that it was just executed poorly. A little process, adhered to, can take away the clumsiness of not having a clear problem statement, not involving all functions early enough in the process, getting a top-down edict to build something that’s “already been vetted”, or solutioning too early.
One last look at what this can be when done well
It’s magical when you stop wasted time and wasted decisions, and perform at elite levels as a product team. Hope these questions are helpful to you and your team.
If you really want to geek out about this, watch this full breakdown of a pit stop —
Want help getting the most out of your design sprint? Sprintwell has years of experience facilitating design sprints at companies like LinkedIn, Medallia, SoundHound, Springs Global, and Resolve, which is led by Dr. Tom Frieden – former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We also teach and mentor at the Stanford d.school, General Assembly, and 500 Startups.
Co-Founder and Partner, Sprintwell
I lead product, technology, and operations at Sprintwell. We help teams discover insights, design prototypes, and deliver with confidence and agility. Former Director of Product at Degreed and Product Manager at LinkedIn.