Total Competition by Ross Brawn

Total Competition book cover

Total Competition by Ross Brawn with Adam Parr

Total Competition carries the sub-title ‘Lessons in strategy from Formula One’. The book, for the most part concerns the career history of Formula One designer, technical director and team principle, Ross Brawn. The amount of Formula One related content is unfortunately a bit too high to recommend this book to anyone who isn’t interested in the sport. And this is a shame, because although I doubt the book’s premise of being about strategy, I did find it to be one of the best I’ve read on the subject of leadership.

I should mention that Adam Parr is really the author of this book and he doesn’t hide that. He will be known to F1 fans as a former CEO of Williams, but he had a long history of management outside F1 before that. The book is based on a series of conversations Parr had with Brawn, which the intention of them becoming this book, after Brawn left the Mercedes F1 team in 2003. After his time at Williams, Parr decided to exercise his interest in strategy by writing a doctoral thesis. I think it’s an obsession with Sun Tzu and others that let to him framing his discussions with Brawn as being about the strategy of Formula One. But even as they are discussing strategy, it’s clear that Brawn’s thought process is more a philosophy than it is a strategy. I thought even Parr’s own summary in the final chapters failed to make the connection.

More positively, it is Ross Brawn’s approach to management that is the highlight here. As I had recently been promoted to a team leadership position at work for the first time, this is a subject of special interest to me. It’s clear listening to the way Brawn ran the organisations he was in charge of, he was a really great manager to work for. Some of the things that stood out to me:-

  • Brawn would always invest time in forming positive relationships with sporting officials. This was so that if there was a sporting decision that could go either way, it would be more likely to go his way. This may sound a little underhand to some, but it really is just good behaviour to form good relationships whenever you can. If it pays off, so much the better.
  • He integrated the teams working on different parts of the car, the chassis and engine, as closely as possible. Everyone agrees that teamwork is important, but it can easily fall by the wayside if people don’t spend time together.
  • When moving to a new team, he didn’t take a group of staff with him. He would take time to asses the people in their current positions because first impressions are not always true. Someone who might look weak is actually good, but just needs help with one thing.
  • When joining Ferrari, the factory had a culture of blame. Brawn put an end to that straight away. If a part failed on the car, no matter what the consequences were, the person who made that part wasn’t to blame. It was the system that allowed that part to get on the car that had failed.
  • Similarly, when a mechanic made a mistake during a pitstop and released the car too early, the mechanic was devastated. Rather than ignoring the elephant in the room, in the post-race team meeting he told everyone that it was unavoidable to occasionally make a mistake and that everyone should tell the guy it was OK and help him get over it.
  • When they needed to start developing a new car before the end of the current season, Brawn would assign specific people to that project. Them he would make sure there were no distractions for them at all from the current season’s activities.

There are many other great examples, but the point of this review is that I think you should read the book. In following these principles, a polar opposite of some famous business leaders, he won world championships with three different teams. And if he hadn’t been forced out of Mercedes he would have won three more. So the learning here is that making a good positive environment for your employees doesn’t harm competitiveness at all.

One last thing:The book ends with some discussion of the future of Formula One. In particular it talks about the problems caused by Bernie Ecclestone’s deal-making and the problem of Ecclestone himself. Deal making that contributed to both Parr and Brawn losing their jobs in F1 (due to different situations). I was reading the paperback edition that was printed in June 2017. Since the hardcover edition was published in 2016, Liberty Media bought the Formula One commercial rights holder and sidelined Ecclestone. They also appointed Brawn to the position of Managing Director of Motorsports, giving him responsibility for improving the governance of the sport. So it looks like justice has been served to some extent.