Monday, 25 March 2013

Let the chips fall…

There was a collision between the world of Formula One and my world of management this weekend. At the Malaysian Grand Prix, the Red Bull team that has won the constructor’s championship for the past three years found itself, not unusually, coming out of the last round of pit stops with its cars running first and second. What was unusual was that their three-time world champion, Sebastian Vettel, was in second place, with veteran Mark Webber leading.

Within the team there was a prior agreement between the drivers and the team management that they would not race each other after the final pit stop. Up to that point, it was hammer & tongs, but once they got to that last stop they would “settle” in position and ensure they brought the cars home safely.

The agreement was reinforced by a team radio instruction to bring the cars to the finish in their current order. Webber turned down the settings on his engine, going only fast enough to ensure that the gap between the Red Bulls and the Mercedes in third was maintained over the last dozen laps. Vettel had other ideas. Ignoring the agreement, and the radio instruction, he set about taking first place off his teammate.

It may well be that Vettel would have been able to pass Webber even if no team orders had been issued. But as it was, Vettel was racing, and Webber wasn’t. So it’s no surprise that Vettel was able to overtake and ended up winning the race. Webber was a very unhappy and angry race driver during the podium ceremonies.

The body language speaks volumes. Webber's on the left (duh).

The part that interests me is something that team boss Christian Horner said after the race. In an interview he said that Vettel knowingly did what he did, and when asked why the team did not order Vettel to give Webber back the place that he had ‘unfairly’ taken, this was Horner’s reply, "Do you honestly think that if we had told him 'slow down and give the place back', he would have given it back? There was no point. He had made it quite clear what his intention was by making the move. He knew what the communication was. He had had the communication. He chose to ignore it.”

But Horner is wrong. Not in his assessment of what Vettel’s likely reaction would have been to such an order, but rather in his statement that there was no point in giving the order. Before we go any further, I need to say that I’m going to ignore the issue of PR & spin here. I’m well aware that Horner will not necessarily be saying the same things in team meetings as he is saying in an interview. But for the purposes of this blog, let’s just take it at face value.

By saying that there was no point in ordering Vettel to let Weber back in front, since he wouldn’t have done it, Horner is the one who misses the point. It’s one thing for Vettel to breach the agreement in the heat of the moment. But it would have been quite another thing to refuse an order from the team boss. And even if Vettel had taken that option, the team would at least have gained from Webber knowing that they had done everything they could to support him. As it is, you have one driver who is a loose cannon, and the other feeling cheated AND let down by his team.

I see this a lot. People abandon the right course of action because they think they know what the outcome is going to be, and maybe are afraid that it will lead to having to make a difficult decision. Supervisors with a chronically late employee stop giving feedback, instead of escalating the issue. Sales representatives mentally bail out of negotiations because they think the customer has already made up his mind. But we don’t know the future. The supervisor doesn’t know whether the escalation of the issue will lead to an unpleasant confrontation with the employee, or to the situation turning around. The sales rep doesn’t know for sure whether the customer has made his decision, and even if he has, doesn’t know what building the relationship with the customer might lead to in the future.

I think some of it is due to insecurity - if you don’t try, you can’t fail (not true of course - if you don’t try you guarantee failure). Sometimes it may be due to fundamental attribution error (thinking that someone behaves a certain way because that’s who they are rather than because of the specific context that they are in). Whatever the pathology, it’s a terrible way to make decisions.

You have to do what’s right, and let the chips fall where they may. Often the way they fall can be valuable information that guides you in the future.

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