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Lessons From Ford v Ferrari

In the recent movie Ford v Ferrari, we see Ken Miles talking to his son about running a perfect lap. This is brought out again in the movie as his son watches his dad race and exclaims that he is running a perfect lap. While the two scenes in the movie may or may not be historically accurate the concept of running a perfect lap is a good one for understanding how to lead innovation.

In the movie Ken talks to his son about what it takes to run a perfect lap including the limitations of the car, the track and hints of many others. In his desire to run the perfect lap he must be aware of everything that goes into running a perfect lap and balance all of them for the best result. If he overtaxes the car, he runs the risk of parts failure. If he ignores the laws of physics, he risks a crash. If he times a gear change wrong, he loses precious seconds. His desire to run the perfect lap must fit into the reality of the situation. Any change to any aspect of the situation like weather, wind or engine temperature changes the nature of the perfection he is searching for.

Ken’s pursuit of running the perfect lap isn’t just in the moment of execution. It extends to the preparation for that moment as well. The movie gives ample time to showing how Carroll Shelby and his team, including Ken, work tirelessly to improve every aspect they have control over to build the best racing car they can. In other words, how can we positively change something about this car that will increase our ability to run the perfect lap. Their preparation pays off as the car they build proves to handle the stresses of the race better than many others. Each incremental improvement they make to the car adds up to a better machine for the job.

There is a school of thought that pits perfection against innovation claiming that the pursuit of perfection somehow inhibits innovation. In reality, however, innovation is all about finding a better way of doing something. Likewise, perfection is about finding the best way of doing something. Therefore, perfection is really the goal of innovation. The problem with innovation and perfection isn’t that they somehow inhibit each other, but rather that our concept of perfection isn’t flexible enough to account for every aspect of the situation. The enemy of innovation is not perfection, but the idea that we somehow know what true perfection is.

When we get locked into a narrow concept of what perfection is, we fail to ask the question “could this be better?” or “could something else be better?” In the movie the team was struggling with how to get more power so their car could perform better. They had to balance power with weight. Their car wasn’t perfect because the engine didn’t have enough power. They needed a more powerful engine, but the only way to have more power was to have more weight. When they decided to change the engine for a heavier powerful engine the problem changed. It was no longer about power it was about weight.

The real enemy to innovation is not perfection but fear. We are trained from youth that wrong is bad creating a perfectionist society where fear of mistakes and errors are epidemic. Rewards for being right come in the form of grades, compliments, promotions and accolades. No wonder when the student is finally ready to enter the work force, they equate correctness with achievement. What they might not consider is that almost every super successful person has made their share of mistakes along the way. In fact, many will say the mistakes were an important part of their climb to success.

The path to perfection is littered with mistakes. Thought of correctly, mistakes are steppingstones to victories. Each mistake brings with it added knowledge that then can be used to find a solution. The fear of making a mistake brings with it a hesitation to try new things or think of new ideas.

In our research study of more than 4,500 teams we’ve seen first-hand how the pressure to always be right slows a team’s progress toward solutions. In the study we had teams of a wide variety of backgrounds try to solve complex problems in a limited amount of time. We tracked each team’s progress and then compared it to the relationships within the team. Teams of coworkers tended to be more hesitant to express ideas for possible solutions than teams of friends or teams of people who didn’t know each other. This hesitancy translated into significantly lower performance. When questioned about hesitating almost all of them said they didn’t want to be wrong in front of their peers. Below is a chart showing the success rates for the different groups.

Chart showing completion rates in research.
Team performance percentages

One of the key contributors to Corporate teams performing much lower than others, was the pressure to not appear dumb to their associates by giving an incorrect idea for a solution. Groups of friends and even groups of strangers tended share their ideas with less hesitancy resulting in much higher success rates.

Like Ken Miles, each of us need to find our perfect lap. It is the pursuit of perfection that builds the innovator in us, but we need to not lock ourselves into a narrow vision of what our perfect lap might look like. We must remain open to the idea that our perfect lap may change, and we need to adapt to that change. There may be many mistakes along the way. We can learn from those mistakes and use them as steppingstones to our victories.

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