Organizing a Formula SAE® Team


By Alan Gruner

View further installments: Part 2

When a few university professors got together 20 years ago to start a very informal SAE student design competition then known as Mini Indy, I doubt that any of them expected their efforts would change the world of motor racing and the lives of thousands of young men and women. Today this program, renamed Formula SAE ®, has become the world championship for college engineering students, and the training program for race car engineers and designers around the world. Teams from as far away as Korea, Japan and Mexico travel to the suburbs of Detroit each May for the big event. Satellite events have begun in the United Kingdom and Australia. Each year as many as 4,000 students are members of Formula SAE teams at universities around the world. Nearly 2,000 make the trip to the competition itself.

The impact of this program on these student engineers is significant - even life-changing. Because of their experience, many will be hired into fast track jobs in the auto industry. Others will catch the dream and go to work for the top racing teams in CART, Formula 1, IRL and other racing series. Nearly all will look back on Formula SAE as the most challenging and rewarding of their college experiences.

How strongly does Formula SAE touch those involved in it? Ask Alan Gruner, team captain of the Michigan State team in 1995, and now a systems analyst with an e-business company in California. Alan was so affected by his Formula SAE experience that he sat down and wrote the equivalent of an English term paper on getting started in Formula SAE, then posted his work on the web as a resource for all those future engineers who accept the challenge to get involved. As a result of his Formula SAE experience, he has also become an avid autocrosser.

With Alan's permission, we offer his suggestions from the SAE Motorsports Engineering website. To make this an even more useful resource, we're encouraging others who have gone through the Formula SAE experience to add to Alan's work - to share their suggestions and their stories. Our goal is to make this a living resource to everyone who starts down the road to build a Formula SAE car and make it to the big show. Good luck!

The Motorsports Team at SAE International

Congratulations! If you are reading this it means that you have committed to being involved in some way with the Formula SAE competition. This manual is primarily for students though it will be valuable to other team stakeholders as well. It is recommended that you read through the whole document. All of the topics covered are here for a reason. Most everything here has been learned the hard way.

This manual is being written to help Formula SAE teams organize and successfully complete their car projects. It was originally written to help my old Formula team document the problems that were encountered and solutions that we devised for them. A great deal of knowledge was graduating with team members every year. Knowledge about how to get things done at a university, what are reasonable goals for a team, and where to find resources had to be learned from scratch by incoming officers and team members. This second edition is designed to help new teams successfully launch a new FSAETM program or improve an existing one. It is my hope that FSAETM teams will expand and refine these ideas as they learn more. My aim is to provide guidance in the process issues of organizing people, money and other resources for the purpose of competing in Formula SAE. There are a lot of good books on the technical aspects of vehicle design. I am not going to duplicate the content here.

This document is divided into roughly two sections. The first section deals with how to run the organization and includes topics like fund raising and recruiting. The second section deals with some design lessons learned the hard way, design and construction hints, and preparation for the competition. Reading both sections is recommended as many issues and problems that come up in the project are intertwined.

The information and opinions presented are gleaned from organization management texts and my own experience working on three FSAE cars and managing the construction of one of them during my tenure at Michigan State University. It also comes from stories shared with me by many different teams. Much of this is a subjective interpretation of my experience in the management end of a Formula project. I am human and fully capable of missing something. I expect people will disagree with some of the ideas presented. The opinions expressed are my own and do not reflect those of any organization I am now or have been affiliated with.

Part I: Organizational Topics

Where to Begin
The natural inclination of any FSAETM group is to begin by focusing on what car to build. While it is important to be thinking about design issues and ideas, in the early meetings you will probably not be able to create a definitive plan. Unless you have designed and built complete automobiles before, you should not make definitive decisions yet. There will be plenty of dialog and thought given to the car design without making it a priority yet.

Students usually think the biggest problems will be technical. We embark on an FSAE project with grand visions of a fast, exciting racecar and can't wait to get started designing and building it. What you find out right away, particularly if you are in a leadership position, is that the largest problems to overcome have less to do with actual hands-on design, construction, and driving of a racecar. The three largest problems you will have are membership, money and university bureaucracy. How well you deal with them will ultimately determine how well you can design and build your car. Engineers generally do not like to spend lots of energy on these types of activities; however, this three-headed dragon is going to face you in every job you ever have. To be an effective engineer, manager, marketer or whatever it is you plan on doing, you will have to deal effectively with these things. One of the reasons companies recruit heavily out of the Formula SAE is the experience that students get managing these problems.

The most important concerted action for an FSAE team to start with is finding SPONSORSHIP! The best idea and design will remain just that unless there is money to pay for them. The point of the FSAE competition is to build an actual functioning vehicle. Money and material donations are what make it happen. Ideas and strategies for securing cash, material, and service donations are discussed in detail in the sponsorship section.

The second activity that needs to be undertaken is developing and implementing a recruiting and selection plan. By the time an FSAE car is built, tested, prepared, polished, documented, presented and raced, several person years worth of volunteer student labor have been spent to make it happen. All the work that needs to be done will not happen without people to do it.

The last thing that is crucial to begin from the very first meeting is the learning process. To build a competitive car means that you will have to develop a working knowledge of subjects like vehicle dynamics, heat transfer, material science, mechanics and fluids in excess of what is required to pass your classes. Furthermore, many of you will develop managerial skills that exceed what's taught in many MBA programs. You will have to be reading and consulting with experts continually to get where you need to be.

Running an FSAE project is expensive. To build a brand new car from scratch can take $60,000 in cash, materials and services easily. This kind of support won't come from membership dues and selling T-shirts. A sponsorship campaign needs to start as early as possible, preferably near the beginning of the calendar year before the year you intend to compete.

What often happens is that one or two people get stuck with the task of approaching sponsors at the beginning of the academic year. This works, but is not the most effective. People can quickly get bogged down. Important opportunities slip away because there is not enough time for one or two persons to pursue them and pass classes.

A system for organizing and dividing the workload among a larger group is important. Spreading the sponsorship work gives people an appreciation of how much work is involved raising the money. Until you do it, you do not understand how much work is involved. It is common that contributions of the people involved in fund raising and sponsor relations are under-appreciated by the team.

Let me start by defining what I mean by sponsorship. Sponsorship is donations of cash, materials, parts, services and technical expertise to your FSAE team. To run a successful sponsorship campaign, you will have to become salespeople for the team. Some of you may not be excited about the prospect of being a salesperson; however we all constantly try to persuade people to support our ideas or join in what we are doing. This is no different. You are trying to get people excited about the project you are working on. It is fun once you've done it for awhile.

Sponsors are looking for something in return for their donations. Treat them as valued customers in a business. Deliver what they are looking for and they will keep coming back to sponsor the team in the future. It will also put each of you on the team in a position to obtain things that will really matter to you later, like great jobs, high salaries, and interesting work.

Sponsorship takes various forms. The easiest type of sponsorship to get is material and parts donations. For many parts and material makers, sponsoring student projects is a good deal. A number of the FSAE students will be making supplier decisions for their employers after graduating. Sponsors get to create a positive image of their company in your mind and familiarize you with their product line. For companies with new products to promote, FSAE provides a forum to get their stuff on display in front of students and auto industry people as well. The FSAE event is sponsored and organized by a consortium of GM, Ford and Chrysler. The competition is crawling with designers, engineers, researchers, purchasing managers and executives of these three and their first tier suppliers. Companies also like to help out because students have a reputation for using things in new and inventive ways. (They often don't work, but that isn't the point.) This can help stimulate interest in new uses for existing products. Often this kind of donation is relatively painless for sponsors. When I started working on my first Formula car in 1994, it was made from pre-impregnated carbon-fiber cloth. I was told it was about to be scrapped because it did not pass the inspections to be certified for military aircraft use. Instead of scrapping it, the sponsor gave it to the Michigan State University Formula team to build a racecar. It was more than adequate for the job and the sponsor got a rolling billboard for the product. In another example along the same lines, I'm told there is a Formula team in the northwestern United States that builds its cars with large amounts of machined aluminum because Boeing lets the students to go through their scrap bins.

A harder type of sponsorship to procure is services like machining, welding, or painting. Most companies and professionals are busy. The time they spend with you is time that they are not getting paid for. However this doesn't mean people won't help. This project is pretty cool. Often that is enough to get people involved. Their motivations are similar to those of part suppliers. Helping you out creates a positive image of the company among ambitious aspiring engineers and managers, it familiarizes you with their services and capabilities, and the car gives a chance for their handiwork to be displayed in front of potential customers.

Before approaching anyone about advice or services, remember his or her time is worth money. You must do your homework ahead of time so you don't waste time or materials. Be clear exactly what you are looking for. Typically technical help is given and services are performed during downtime from paid projects. You have to be ready to accommodate odd schedules and delays.

The hardest type of sponsorship to get is cash donations. Treat your cash donors like gods. Unlike parts and materials (which can be donated out of existing inventory), technical help (which is a matter someone taking time to talk), and services (which can be performed during downtime from paid projects), cash comes directly out of someone's pocket. Small companies are generally cash poor and cannot afford to contribute. When organizations have cash, it is watched carefully by accountants. Someone high-ranking must authorize donations.

Every college and university is supported to some extent by tax dollars and tuition. However the rest of its money comes from contributions, endowments, and research projects. The same people in industry who are in a position to help you with your Formula car support much of the research your professors do. Every university has professionals and offices dedicated to fund raising. Ask for help.

Funding is a sensitive issue in any organization. It is important to start with your faculty advisors and work as much as possible through your department (ME, EE, MSM, etc.). These people are also vital to your project. You do not want to embarrass them or step on toes at the university. If they don't have time to help directly, they are often aware of who can help you design sponsorship proposals and develop strategies.

When asking for help with your fund raising campaign, remember that no one is going to do this for you. The actual legwork of identifying, contacting and following up with potential and returning sponsors is going to have to be done by the team. You are looking for people who can guide you and save you months of trial and error.

There are some bare minimum things that you will need to begin your campaign. First you need a budget that reflects the total cost of the project. Be sure to include entry fees, food, transportation and hotel accommodations in the budget. The next things you need are attractive pictures of a car to include with funding proposals. Prints are expensive for this purpose. Color copies work well. People like to see what their money will be spent on. If you have not built a car yet, create a drawing of one. Group photos of the team with a car are also good, assuming the team is more than 3 or 4 people.Once sponsors have committed cash, materials, or services and you've actually received them, about 60% of your fund raising work is done. You need to maintain a good relationship with your sponsors so you will have their continuing support. You need their enthusiasm for your project, future contributions to the team, and even job offers for team members. It takes an ongoing effort. Sponsors will tell you one of the biggest frustrations of contributing to student groups is that once a contribution has been made, they never hear from anyone again until the next request for more donations. Start a newsletter for your sponsors and other interested parties. The newsletter needs to go out regularly, at a minimum of every quarter. It should be short. Most of the people you are sending it to are busy and have a lot to read. Two or three pages are good. The newsletter should include, but not be limited to, updates on the progress of the car, announcement of new sponsors, and exciting things happening at the university. The point is to maintain contact with them over the course of the project and make them want to stay involved. You should also start and maintain an interesting World Wide Web site for the team, updated with new content fairly often to keep people coming back to look at it.

A good sponsorship campaign doesn't just happen. It takes time and practice. Often when a member gets to the point of being a good fundraiser, he or she graduates and the knowledge is no longer available. The team can benefit from having one or two sophomore or junior students involved each year who can carry forward the team's collective knowledge about fund raising. It is wise to keep organized and detailed records of which companies were approached, who you talked to in each company, and what results were obtained. Don't make future teams go down the same dead ends. If some organization or person cannot or will not contribute, make note of it. It makes the team and the university look stupid if the same questions and/or requests come each year no matter how many times someone says no.

Recruiting, Selection and Retention
The most powerful tool that you have for recruiting new members of the team is an existing car. Many people have been recruited by parking a car in the lobby of a school's engineering building with a sign announcing the first meeting. This is one of the simplest and most effective methods. You can enhance the effectiveness of this display by putting out brochures about the car that outline the program including membership information and names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of the team leaders. People who want to get involved can't necessarily make it to the first meeting. Don't exclude these people by saving membership information for the first meeting.

A car in the lobby of the engineering building should not be the only recruiting method. It only attracts people who see it. In a lot of colleges, this limits the team to juniors and seniors in engineering disciplines. This is a good group to have, but it is important to get freshmen and sophomores involved also. As was alluded to earlier, a fair amount of knowledge and experience graduates with senior members every spring. For the good of the organization, you need to have people around for as many years as possible. To recruit freshmen, universities often help. They hold student organization fairs during their welcome week. To participate takes some preparation. Generally these events are planned over the summer and the prime locations at the fair go to the groups that have someone on campus in the summer. Contact your student life or equivalent office for details on how to get involved.

Another good place to find members is other student organizations. SAE is unique; only a few organizations do a lot of hands-on work. Ask other organizations like SWE, IEEE, and NSBE if you can make a short presentation about the project at one of their meetings.

The majority of people working on the project will be mechanical engineers. This is appropriate because much of the work falls into the mechanical engineering realm. However it is worth getting a diversity of engineering and other majors involved. At a minimum you want to have a cadre of electrical engineers. The electrical system usually is not very complicated for the average EE, but it can be very complicated for an ME. It is also fairly common to want to explore electronic control systems for various functions like shifting. People with non-engineering majors can make valuable contributions too. Logistics management majors from your business college are trained in finding suppliers and costing out manufacturing processes. Accountants are a valuable addition to any team. Some person(s) needs to make sure the project stays on budget and crunch all the numbers for the cost report. You might as well take advantage of accounting systems developed for this purpose and bring in students who want experience in this field.

You also want to recruit graduate students. They have access to things that are not available to undergraduates, are generally resourceful and reliable, and are likely to have a few years of work experience. There is no substitute for work experience. If you can involve a grad student who is working for the team faculty advisor, it can be a good deal for everyone.

Once you have gotten a group of people together, you need to retain them. This is one of the hardest jobs of leadership. No matter what you do, you are going to have a lot of turnover. The project is demanding. Many people cannot sustain the effort due to academic or other life commitments. Some people don't like it or don't want to work hard. Others don't feel welcome and quit. One common problem happens when a number of experienced members, returning from a previous team, have an established close working relationship which leaves new people feeling left out. This is often seen at early work sessions and driving events. The old hands tend to dive in and do things while the newbies hover at the edges. Another thing that discourages new members is that the hands-on fun stuff usually isn't ready to start at the beginning of the school year. What does need to be done at the beginning of an academic year is grunt work like cleaning work areas and sorting parts. If you can get your new members to share in these chores, they will begin to feel included in the project and team spirit will begin to develop between new and returning members. The time when your new members will get excited about the work itself is when you start designing and building stuff.

One key to retaining people is to give them some realistic expectations up front. They need to know that in the early stages there is grunt work to be done but it gets more interesting. They need to know that a high level of personal commitment is expected. More than 10 hours per week is normal. They should also know that shoddy work is not going to be accepted. A "D is for diploma" attitude won't fly.

Another key to keeping people is to have fun. Unless you are starting completely from scratch, one of your first activities as a group should be to take the old cars out and run them around a parking lot. Once you have gotten a taste of what these cars can do, it is hard to walk away. When someone comes back from his or her first drive, s/he is usually grinning from ear to ear and ready to work.

Don't take your old cars apart. You need them as recruiting, retention, and motivational tools. You also need them as driver training tools and test beds for new ideas. If you are starting from scratch, try to cut a deal with a local go-cart track for seat time to gain driving experience. Also, contact your nearest SCCA chapter and find where autocrosses are being held nearby. In many autocrosses you can take your street car out for runs around the course. Remember the rules say you are designing your FSAE car for these nonprofessional autocrossers. Learn as much as you can from them.

The last key to retaining members is your group process. Since this is a volunteer group, all members need to know their ideas are getting a fair hearing, even if the decision is to do something different. Nothing drives people away faster than feeling ignored. You have to be careful not to let a few people dominate discussions.

The officers of the group, Project Leader, Chief Engineer, Treasurer, Secretary, or whatever titles your team uses, are generally chosen by election. When selecting for other key posts, you may want to use another method. Finding effective leaders for the different subsystems groups is vital to the success of the project. The leaders have to be extremely hard working, have excellent people skills, and be knowledgeable in the areas they are leading. The chassis group leader needs to understand structures. The power-train leader needs to understand engines, fluids, and heat transfer. To find this kind of knowledge requires screening. Possible methods include having the elected officers screen qualifications and select the subsystem leaders, or creating requirements for the positions and letting the members vote to choose between those who meet the qualifications. However you do it, you need people who can work closely with each other. Personality conflicts among the leadership are extremely detrimental to the team as a whole.

One of the unfortunate facts of life is that people are forced for many reasons to drop out of the project or cannot be around at a crucial time. It is critically important that for each key position and on each subproject there be someone ready to step in and take over. This is called succession planning. For each key person, you need to identify someone who can replace him or her. Make sure the person you have chosen is working closely enough with the key person to know the strategy, the overall plan, and what has to be done next at any given time.

In classes we are generally given clearly defined problems that include all the data needed to solve them and that have narrowly defined ranges of "right" answers. On this project you will be continually presented with problems that are ambiguous. There will be many solutions that will work and no "right" answers. You will not have all the information you need. This is where you start learning real engineering and management skills. If you don't know something, you have to go learn it. The real world is ambiguous; start getting comfortable with it. Engineering is not a science. It is the art of finding solutions and making good choices. Science only provides the paints and brushes you will use.

Goal Setting
Goal setting is an area where many teams get themselves into trouble. Typically they make plans that are far too ambitious for the available resources. It is easy to do. By the time students fully understand the enormity of the project, they graduate. One of the reasons for this manual is to impress upon all the new people just how big a project this is. The Big 3 (Ford, General Motors, Chrysler) and their competitors (Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi, Volkswagen, Renault, Fiat, Hyundai, Kia, etc.) take a minimum of 22 months to bring a new or revised car to market. This is 22 months of full time work by large teams of experienced engineers and technicians who have been building cars for a long time. Many of them are world leaders in their professions. The OEMs also invest several billion dollars in the process.

Some of you may be thinking, legitimately, that you are not trying to build something as complex as a normal production car. While an FSAE may be simpler in terms of the number of parts, the process of creating it is the same. The main difference is that design compromises are all biased toward dynamic performance.

Depending on how well organized you are, you will have 9 to 18 months and a few thousand dollars to build a new car. Furthermore, you will be doing all the work with part-time student volunteers who are learning the processes as they go along and whose top priority must be to pass their classes.

The vast majority of professional race teams buy chassis, engines and other components from professional vendors who have been designing and building them a long time. They then spend thousands of hours and ungodly amounts of money testing and tuning what they have purchased to make them competitive. The people testing and tuning have also been doing it for a long time. This is not to discourage you, but to help you understand how much is involved in racecar design, construction and tuning. The good news is you are competing against other colleges and universities and not against professional race teams. The money, talent and other resource constraints of these other schools are similar to yours. They will have to pull off just as many miracles to get to the competition. The challenge you face is to do the best job you can with what you have.

The first step is to establish goals up front and put them in writing. It is easy to have people with very different ideas about the goals trying to build a car together, and this can and does erupt into destructive conflict. Making a list of goals that everyone agrees to helps diffuse these conflicts. It also helps to keep the team focused. It is very easy to get off track when you get into the details of the project. Revisiting the written goals periodically helps keep it all in perspective.

FSAE attracts people with different goals and motivation. Some students will want to build the most technically advanced (a.k.a. the "coolest") car, cost, time and other considerations be damned. They will want a carbon fiber monococque chassis, turbo-charged engines, complex electronic control systems, and aerodynamic wings, basically all the tricks and gadgets of Formula One or Indy Cars. They see it built by inexperienced students in nine months with a few thousand dollars. Other students want to get their hands dirty and learn by doing. They are satisfied with overcoming the challenge of something technically demanding like FSAE. Among the last group, which is usually dominant, are those who want to win.

Each of these goals is legitimate and can lead to a satisfying experience. However, you must decide as a group what you want as a team. Building a top-ten contender takes a different commitment of time, money and other resources than being the team with the first fuzzy-logic-computer-controlled-metal-matrix-composite-self-lubricating muffler bearings.

Absolute Necessities
To run a Formula SAE team, there are many things that are nice to have. It would be great to have all the resources of Chrysler Technology Center or GM's Milford Proving Ground. Things like big offices, brand new workstations with the latest design tools loaded, a staff of dedicated fabricators and technicians waiting to turn your latest drawings into three dimensional reality, and a million-dollar budget. You are not going to have that. You will have a few thousand dollars, your own ingenuity, and a group of other students who are as crazy as you are. You have to create miracles over and over again to get this project done. There are six minimum necessities that you must have to make this project work. In order of importance, they are:

Trying to run the project without these is nearly impossible.

This project is going to be tough. You can't give up when things get difficult. You have to be absolutely committed that, come hell, high water, bureaucratic snafus, reluctant sponsors, broken axles, and blown engines, you are going to finish your car and race at the FSAE in May. You must resolve, no matter how bad things look, you will get there. When you do something ambitious like this, stuff happens. Assuming you all are familiar with Murphy's law, you need to know Murphy is going to come and visit. If fact, Murphy will knock you down and kick you several times. Things go wrong at the worst possible times. Someone who is building a critical part is going to quit the team and disappear with everything needed to finish it. A critical part that a sponsor promised is not going to come because a budget got cut. This is a normal part of life in FSAE. You have to be strong enough to recover from it.

The next thing you need is people. It takes dedicated work by a team of people to make one of these projects happen. After talking to many FSAE teams, there seems to be a consensus that you need a core of 8 to 20 people who are absolutely committed to the project. This seems to be critical mass. Beyond that you can have a larger group who are involved in one aspect or another of the project. However, when you try to get large numbers of people involved, coordination of the work can become more complicated than the work itself. On the other hand, very large teams do exist in the world of FSAE.

When you have dedicated people who know that they are going to build a car no matter what happens, you need money. Raising money is covered in the sponsorship section. Do not start spending in major amounts until you have created an overall plan that everyone has bought into.

With commitment, people and money secured, you have to have workspace. My impression is that the majority of FSAE teams work in corners of sympathetic professors' labs. Space is a highly politicized issue on most campuses. Do what you need to stay on good terms with the people with whom you share space. If you get kicked out, it takes a long time to find somewhere to move to, time you need to be working on the car.

Good faculty advisors are worth their weight in gold. You are taking on a project that is very difficult and complex technically. It requires the group to find its way through an economic, political, and organizational landscape that is equally complex. You will need advocates in the university. You need guidance from people who have been around long enough to know how to get things done. Faculty members who are willing to take the time to get you through both jungles are truly special people. Treasure them.

Last, you really cannot build a new racecar without a machine shop and welding facilities, or at least access to them. Many schools continue to try. It can't be done very well. If you have enough money, you can hire someone to do it. Budget at least $15,000 if you decide to have all work professionally done.

Safety is one of the stickiest issues surrounding a Formula SAE team. You are building a racecar. Racecars have a well-deserved reputation for being dangerous. In order to build the car you will use welders, saws, machine tools and chemicals of all descriptions. Like the car, all of these things are safe if used properly, unsafe if used improperly. In the environment of easy lawsuits and substantial jury awards to people who do stupid stuff, there is a lot of justifiable nervousness about letting students anywhere near anything that could possibly hurt them. All it takes is one serious injury to shut down your team for good. There are plenty of people in positions of power who can't understand why you would want to do anything other than just go to classes and graduate. There are also plenty of people who would like to kill student projects because they see them as creating work and problems that they should not have to deal with. Don't give these people any leverage to pull the plug on you. Formula projects have been killed or almost killed many times when people did things that were dangerous, seemed dangerous, or were stupid. Examples I have heard of include driving Formula cars on public roads and driving a Formula car around at night with a headlight duck-taped to the frame. The temptation to do things like this is very strong. DON'T. You are working with stuff that is not idiot proof. Don't be idiots.

It is inevitable that your group is going to attract someone who is a flake. This is why safety rules are created. Unfortunately, often you don't spot them until they are in the shop or in the driver's seat. It is almost impossible for a group to be self-policing. Work with the faculty advisors to develop procedures that will limit people's opportunities to hurt themselves.

Group Process
Success in the FSAE is going to depend on effective management of one of the more complex adaptive systems that you will ever encounter: a group of people. Too many engineers assume that individuals can just come together and start working. It is not that simple. To get a project the magnitude of an FSAE car together takes effective teamwork. Effective teams can build societies, pyramids, or really fast cars. Ineffective teams waste resources and spoil the potential of their members.

Engineers have a reputation for not having good people skills and being hard to work with. There is a kernel of truth in the stereotype. Fortunately you don't have to be a "people" person to work effectively with your teammates. However understanding the basics of group dynamics can help you diagnose problems and see where your own behavior is helping or impeding the progress of the team.

Behavioral psychologists have found that when groups form around work, they go through roughly four stages. They call these forming, norming, storming, and productive. The forming stage is where people come together and begin to get to know each other. Typically there is a lot of talk about non-work related stuff. People start learning each others' names and about each others' backgrounds. The norming stage is where many of the formal and informal rules of the group get established. The level of formality between group members, acceptable subjects to talk about, how different ideas are received and evaluated and how different ethnic groups are treated are all things that get laid down, at least on an informal basis, during this stage. The storming stage is where people kick around ideas and visions of what the group might do and how to accomplish them. This is also where the work of the group gets started. The last stage is where most of actual work gets done.

Teams are fragile entities. A lot of things can go wrong and frequently do. Each stage depends on an increasing level of trust and commitment between members. A potential team can get stuck in any of the first three stages and never get to being productive at all. When people leave or join the group, the whole process starts over. This is one of the reasons it is often hard to join an existing team or to integrate a new person. New relationships have to be established and new norms created. You may not want to be bothered by this intangible touchy-feelly stuff, but it is the difference between a great team and an average team. Rather than go through a bunch of locker room cliches like, "There is no I in team," just remember that your success depends on how you all work together. No one can do this alone.

There are things that you can do to improve the group process. Start by letting other people talk and listening to them. Listening is an active mental process where you try to understand meaning. This is not the same as hearing which is a physiological recognition that sound is leaving someone's mouth. Argue design questions on quantifiable aspects of the problem. Focus on the problems and don't personalize disagreements. Don't discount something because you don't like the person who thought of it. This is most important. Deliver your pieces of the project on time and on budget. Finally, you must be thick skinned. Not everybody is going to like your ideas. Most people are not shy about letting you know it. If you can't handle criticism or you get mad if the group doesn't do it your way, find another profession.

There is no one right way to lead people. There has been a lot of study of what makes good leaders. There is no one set of characteristics that distinguishes good leaders. Leadership is situational. What works any given time may be wrong at another. How you interact effectively with your followers depends on where you are in the group process. In the early stages of the FSAE project, new members need a lot of direction at work sessions and meetings. They don't know where to find tools. They don't know all the tricks to putting something together or taking it apart that you figured out last year. Some of them have never worked on a car before. New members, for the most part, are going to need teaching and close interaction until they start feeling confident about what they are doing. Team leaders need to prepare enough structured activity for early get-togethers so no one is standing around. A fast way to lose people is to waste their time.

Fairly quickly the leaders will be able to step back more and eventually start delegating things directly. If you delegate too much right away, people are going to get mad at you because they are not ready for it. If you continue to closely supervise people after working with them for six months, they will be equally mad at you because they don't need close supervision any more. It is a fine balance that you have to maintain. I have heard FSAE leaders complain bitterly about new people needing to have their hands held. They looked on this as some sort of weakness. If you find yourself feeling this way, be patient. Your new members will gain confidence if given a chance. On the other hand, if they sense disdain from you, they will quit one by one and soon you'll be down to five people trying to build a car.

Here are some things to expect as a leader. First, a minority of people in the group will cause the majority of the problems. It comes with the territory. You will get at least one individual who needs a lot of attention. Another common team dysfunction happens when different groups don't see each other working. Small fragmented subgroups are notorious for assuming that other members or groups are not doing anything. On a regular basis, perhaps weekly, each subgroup should update the team on what they are doing. They should explain what they have done since the last update, what snags they have run into, what they are doing about it and finally their measurable goals for progress by the next update. This approach can do several good things. It communicates that progress is being made, highlights bottlenecks in the process, and gives the team members goals to focus on. It can also bring the power of peer pressure to motivate individual members. There are few things as uncomfortable as standing in front of a bunch of your friends who have been busting their butts on something if you have been spending too much time playing Doom and drinking beer.

Dealing with University Bureaucracy
The bureaucracy at any university can be one of your biggest problems. The systems for purchasing and tracking parts and materials were designed with many goals, but the responsiveness and speed needed for FSAE or other student projects are not usually among them. The bureaucracies are all different, but there are a few guidelines to dealing with your local bureaucrats. First, as students you are only going to be around for a few years. The people who work at the university are going to be there many more. You are going to go away after graduation. The natural tendency for anyone in a bureaucracy is to give top priority to those who can make his or her life most miserable. Slow rules and procedures will get followed unless someone up the command chain says its okay to do differently. You need good relationships with faculty and administrators. Second, almost everyone who works in a college or university has been burned, or knows someone who was burned, by a student who lied. It is going to take time to build credibility. Your credibility is really fragile. DO NOT engage in unethical behavior. Don't falsify documents. Don't use money for other than its intended purpose. Don't accept money under the table. If you get caught, you will kill your Formula team and taint every other student project. The last thing is to make sure you understand who owns the cars, tools and spares, and what authority you have over the disposition of them. Generally you will end up with stuff you are not using or don't need. It makes sense to sell or trade for what you do need. Every organization has rules for disposing of things. Don't get yourself into trouble by selling college property without authorization.

Notice: "SAE" and "Formula SAE" are registered U. S. trademarks owned by the SAE International.

View further installments: Part 2