Agile management, agile leadership: The secret of making better decisions, faster

From iterative development to worker empowerment, motorsport teams are the epitome of Agile management technqiues. Here's how two digital leaders are using faster decision-making processes to create a competitive advantage.

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A flat organisational hierarchy is the key to sporting success.

Image: Envision Virgin Racing

Many modern managers are keen to adopt the principles of Agile leadership, but for some executives it's already the accepted way of working in their industry – and it has been for many years.

"I genuinely believe that Formula One is the epitome of Agile," says Graeme Hackland, CIO at Williams F1, who explains to ZDNet how the structure of his racing team is defined by the iterative sprints and decentralised decision-making processes that characterise a successful Agile business.

"Our whole organisation is built around the car and that is always an experiment – the car that runs in free practice is different to the car that runs in a test and it's different to the car that starts qualifying. Every race, the car is changing," he says.

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It's a similar story over at Envision Virgin Racing, where Sylvain Filippi, managing director and CTO of the Formula E racing team, says that Agile principles, such as iterative development, a flat organisational hierarchy and decentralised leadership, are – quite simply – the key to sporting success.

"We constantly evolve the car and the way we work," he says. "In any sport that's highly competitive, you tend to run that culture. If you don't, then you're unlikely to be successful."

While most modern business leaders now recognise the value of Agile management, Filippi says it's surprising how many best-practice lessons can still be passed from motorsport to other industries.

Most crucially of all, he says the single-minded focus on a single business objective makes it much easier to create an effective Agile approach.

"It's all about performance and winning in our sport," says Filippi. "That creates, by definition, the focus that you don't really find anywhere else, because the outcome is so clear. It's in all our interests to do well together."

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Filippi: "We constantly evolve the car and the way we work."

Image: Envision Virgin Racing

While Harvard Business Review recognises that a focus on business outcomes is critical to adopting Agile principles, that's not always easy in a multinational businesses where it can be tough to gather thousands of disparate employees behind a common goal.

And while agility might be critical for sporting success, that doesn't mean it's easily achieved. Filippi tells ZDNet he's spent many years building a strong team, with great heads of department who are empowered to make big calls.

"Most of the time you trust them to get on with it," he says. "I'm more of an orchestrator – you cannot micromanage a race team because there's just too much going on. The pace and the volume of work being achieved every week is just mind-blowing."

Hackland has similar experiences at Williams F1. Employees are empowered to take decisions and their confidence to make those calls in the factory or out on the track is a crucial component of success.

"The engineer who's sitting on the pit wall doesn't have to ask the CIO if we should pit," he says. "The decisions that are made all through the organisation don't feed up to one single individual. Everyone is allowed to make decisions up or down the organisation."

As well as being empowered to make big calls, Hackland says a no-blame culture is critical to establishing and supporting decentralised decision making in racing teams.

That kind of culture will be familiar to executives in other sectors – it's common to hear talk of 'learning by failing'. But while many business leaders like to talk about not blaming people for mistakes, it's often the case that people are jumped on when they make an error.

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Hackland: "We have to be able to operate at speed."

Image: Williams F1

That blame game would be a shortcut to disaster at a racing team like Williams, says Hackland, who says that every failure has to be accepted and learnt from. He returns to the example of the pit crew and their confidence to make split-second decisions.

"If they think, 'If I make a mistake here, I'm going to be removed from the pit crew', they'll tense up and the pit stop will be slower," he says. "They have to know that all the practice that they do and all the experimentation they do is because we believe they're the right person for this role and we accept that at times mistakes will be made."

When things go wrong, the team runs an after-action review, which covers why certain things happened and how the team can try and make sure those mistakes don't happen again. Those kinds of review aren't confined to race day – they run across all operational activities of the Williams team, including the IT department, says Hackland.

"We have to be able to operate at speed; there's no point everything coming to the CIO for decision making. I've put in place a management group, who also have a group of supervisors and managers who report to them. And each person knows they're empowered to make decisions," he says.

Racing teams, therefore, are tightly connected teams of empowered individuals who work to make creative calls quickly. Filippi says even the external organisations that Envision Virgin Racing works with – including technology partner Genpact – sense that vibe and work to take that feeling of agility back to their own operational environments.

"They try to pick up how that good side of competition triggers excitement, productivity and creativity," he says. "These are things that can translate to many businesses, but of course it's much easier said than done. It's much easier for me to do that in a 40-people team then in a billion-dollar company with 100,000 employees."

While that might be the case, CIOs will not be able to swerve the requirement to adopt Agile management. All tech chiefs must ensure their workers are confident to make big calls. With advances in technology sponsoring disruption in all sectors, the ability to make decisions quickly will be critical to competitive success in the long term, says Hackland.

"I think organisations are having to become much more Agile in terms of the leadership and the decision-making process – and that's what Formula One teams do," he says. "You have to devolve decision making down your organisation. If everything has to be filtered up to an individual, your decision making will be too slow."