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Win by going faster: project management lessons from Formula 1

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Can a maker of ice cream or washing powder really learn much about innovation, project management and process improvement from Formula 1? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is a resounding ‘yes’, according to Jerome Evans, Programme Director at PurpleSector. The consultant’s team and ethos are both rooted in the high-pressure, high-performance world of Formula 1, and its clients include food manufacturers, consumer goods makers and pharmaceutical firms.

“We apply Formula 1 thinking in non-Formula 1 environments,” Evans says. “The environment can be anything, but the approach is the same.”

Formula 1 thinking, he explains, is based on five principles: reductive thinking (or the power of simplicity); clarity around the context; quality (not quantity) of data; making progress rather than seeking perfection; and working together.

Beating the competition

PurpleSector’s speciality is new product introduction, and the object of the exercise, just as in racing, is to beat the competition by going faster.

“A typical conversation with a client will be that they have to design and build the next generation of a product, but they think it might take them five or six years, in which time they may well be out of the market because of competition. We show them that they can go much faster and achieve a much better return on investment in a shorter time by doing things in a different way.”

Some of that extra speed comes courtesy of technology such as the use of digital twins for prototyping and testing without the expensive and time-consuming business of actually making anything.

“When you are developing a racing car, you design it, build it, race it and optimise it many times over in the virtual world so that by the time the actual car is on the physical race track you know it’s going to work. We apply that to our clients’ manufacturing environment by making a digital twin and then ‘racing’ that in much the same way,” says Evans.

The human factor

A bit more speed comes from being smarter about data — rather than trying to process thousands of data points just because you can, the trick is to spend time identifying a small number of key data points and then focus on them.

“Most organisations recognise the value of data so they collect a lot of it, but a lot of it can be inaccurate and they don’t always know what to do with it anyway,” says Evans. “We focus on data quality rather than quantity.”

However, the human factor remains paramount. “You can read all the books on project management, and I have — I’m passionate about it. But the books that are more inspiring are the ones on leadership.

“It’s well known that most projects are late, over budget or don’t satisfy the end client. All of them have project charters, Gantt charts and risk registers. You don’t need to be Einstein to infer that those things in themselves do not create a high-performance team.”

The wrong name for what we do

What does create a fast-moving and high-performance team is open-mindedness and agility, Evans says — but not explicitly in the ‘agile project management’ sense.

“You can’t just do agile; you have to be agile. It’s got to flow through the whole organisation. So we need people to be very agile of mind, and we don’t call them project managers, we call them technical project leads. Being a manager implies a degree of maintaining the status quo — it’s the wrong name for what we do.”

The object of the exercise is to build a transparent culture that tackles potential roadblocks quickly and looks to the future rather than the past.

“People tend to discount the value of future time. It can be hard to talk about the future because no one’s been there; it’s a scary place. So difficult problems get kicked down the road. People think they will have time to solve them later, but they don’t.”

That’s a lesson from Formula 1 that every project can benefit from, he concludes.

“There is a culture across the traditional project management community that if you are a day late on a three-month programme, or a week late on a six-month programme, that’s a good result. But in Formula 1 the cars are on the grid at 2pm on a Sunday, and if your car is ready at two minutes past two, you are not in the race. There is nothing acceptable about that.”


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  1. Paul Cooper
    Paul Cooper 29 June 2023, 06:22 PM

    As an avid F1 fan it was great to see this article. Formula 1 is a great benchmark for a rail business as we look to digitise and accelerate the delivery to market of new and advancing products faster than our competition.