When I finished watching Episode 4th Season 2nd of “Formula 1 Drive to Survive” on Netflix, I didn’t quite know if I had just watched a great episode about high-performance motorsport or participated in a Product Management keynote in the style of Mind the Product conference. A brief disclaimer: I’m not even a fan of F1, and I rarely follow any Grand Prix on TV.
I was always impressed by the stories of product teams achieving extraordinary results. From start-ups that started in a Silicon Valley garage to those of more earthy and closer teams. What does make an extraordinary team impact the results and make its users fall in love with its products constantly?
Innovation and transformation
I admire the transformation and that set of variables that — structured in such a way — make a losing team a winning team. That is when success is neither circumstantial nor coincidental but sustained over time and essential. Innovation, creativity, and reinvention are part of the nature of those teams and the creative process.
Mercedes Benz was a losing Formula 1 team until 2014. If we look at the championships in those last 25 years, we can see the difference between Mercedes and teams like McLaren, Ferrari, or Red Bull, to give just a few examples.
Since 2014, the German team has won the last 7 Constructors’ Championships consecutively (from 2014 to 2020). Pandemic included. Mercedes is the third team with most Drivers’ Championships with 9 (1954, 1955, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020). It is also the third team in history with the most victories in both previous items, only behind Ferrari and McLaren.
The results are impressive. In an indisputable, precise, and undoubted way, the stopwatch is the device that helps the team and the pilot measure the number of seconds it takes to travel X distance as can be, for example, the conversion rate or retention rate for us and our products.
In the summer of 2012, the team began the transformation by making several changes: on the one hand, Niki Lauda was hired as an advisor to the Mercedes Board and at the same time Toto Wolff, as Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team. The mission was clear: to sustainably lead Mercedes to success. That same year, Niki Lauda signed Lewis Hamilton to join as the team’s primary driver. He was the best driver of his generation and left McLaren to be part of Mercedes’ change.
Nothing very different from what Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer tell us in No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention (2020) when they talk about the density of talents. “When all members are excellent, performance skyrockets and employees learn from each other and motivate each other.” (…) “Our main objective would be to do our best; we would hire the best and pay the best salaries in the market.”
Learning from results
In 2013, things started to change. Not overnight, but iteratively, just like Quarter after Quarter in a product organization. Mercedes started to become a more competitive team that fought in every race for a place on the podium. Although it was far from reaching its objectives, the experiments that were the competitions that year helped generate learning for the team and change the trend. In the words of Niki Lauda: “Winning is fine, but you learn more when you lose.” Lean Start-up in its purest form.
“The most difficult moments, the most painful situations, are the ones you learn the most from.” It could be a quote from Eric Ries, but it is from Niki Lauda himself.
In May 2019, Lauda died at the age of 70. It happened a few hours before the Monaco Grand Prix. He was the mentor, coach, spreader, counsellor, and motivator of that German team. Lauda could make things happen. “I feel we lost the heart and soul of Formula 1”. That day Mercedes and Hamilton won the Monaco Grand Prix.
It is a sum of extraordinary results that transform an ordinary team into one out of series.
We see it often with our product teams as the sprints progress. We see it in product teams of top-tier companies and as well in stories like this.
That same year at the German Grand Prix, the Mercedes team, at home and before the race, was celebrating its 125th anniversary. But at the same time, it was just another race, worth 25 points like any other. On the day of the pre-qualification, Hamilton woke up with a 40-degree fever due to a virus that affected him physically and mentally. Despite the adverse conditions, he achieved pole position. It was the 87th pole position of his career and the fourth of 2019.
The average time for a car to pit in F1 is 2 seconds. Hamilton’s pit stop lasted 58 seconds that Sunday at the Hockenheimring Grand Prix. The race was finally won by Red Bull Team, where the Dutch Max Verstappen; Hamilton finished 10th.
In a sort of Retrospective Meeting, the team, in a context of intimacy, transparency, and sincerity, told what we do in our retros after a bad sprint or a bad Q in terms of product OKRs: “We lost because we weren’t good because we weren’t we did enough.” Tom Wolff: “When you screw it up, you want to identify the person. That’s how the human mind works. But we don’t blame ourselves. We blame the problem and not the people. It sounds easy, but it’s not. When we make mistakes, we all make them.”
How companies can build extraordinary teams
Unfortunately, there aren’t magical recipes to do that. But the good news is that we can learn from successful companies or great examples like this one of Mercedes Benz’s team.
One of the most important things is helping the organizations create an environment where people can reach their potential, and we can achieve that goal by working in our culture. A good start is to write a culture deck, where we make a statement of our main principles and values. This tool will be handy to align our team and the rest of the teams under the same principles. There are plenty of those decks that can help you build yours, like the famous culture deck of Netflix, but my favorite is Hubspot’s culture code if I have to pick one.
F1 is a hyper-competitive market, with a lot of intensity and pressure where you are judged every day. Ultimately the same happens to those of us who develop digital products, that our users are the ones who judge us every day, both us and our products.
“It’s easier to chase than to lead,” says Lewis Hamilton ending the episode. We all want to achieve a world-class product, but the challenge is, in addition to being a benchmark in our environment, with our teams, our colleagues, and our competitors, it is to lead, to be better every day.
The Mercedes team is made up of 1,600 people. The strength of the team is in each of those 1,600 people. As product team leaders, we try to provide a framework for each to perform at their best from their role and get better every day.
As I’ve commented at the beginning of this post, I was always impressed by product teams’ stories achieving extraordinary results. You can find many of them in start-ups or large organizations, in high-tech companies like Amazon, Spotify, or Netflix, or why not in teams like yours.