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« It’s a Brand New World: Department Stores | Main | Sense & Sensibility, Pt 2 »

Innovation and the America's Cup: The Mindset That Led to a Win

Image © Jim Bahn

I’ll admit it, I was hooked. Even before Oracle Team USA began its improbable rise out of the basement of defeat, I was drawn to the spectacle of those huge ships slicing across San Francisco Bay. Up on their dual-hulled haunches, they were anthropomorphized by the audible groans they emitted while being maneuvered by their handlers.

After Team USA’s ultimate triumph in the 34th America’s Cup regatta I watched the press conference and read the newspaper commentaries with increased interest. How the heck did they do it? As details emerged about the winning strategies it became clear that a true innovative mindset was at work. Here is my interpretation of how the Oracle team achieved one of the greatest comebacks in team sports, and what I believe it can teach organizations about innovative problem solving:

Ask the right questions. After finding themselves down eight points to one (with nine points needed for a win), Team USA knew they faced a serious challenge. But instead of simply asking “why aren’t we winning races?” they framed a better question and asked “why are we so much slower than the other team on the upwind leg?” Keen observation, augmented by lots of data, and serially asking “why” helped them identify a more focused question and, as it turned out, the most important problem to solve.

Seek new perspectives. Once they identified the right problem, the organization sought expertise that went beyond that of just the crew. The design team and the shore team, among others, were engaged to address the challenge. A new tactician with a fresh perspective was also brought in to work more closely with the crew strategist. These individual talents provided a collection of divergent views that ultimately converged on a winning solution.

Make necessary changes. Instead of viewing its $100 million catamaran as a precious “finished product”, the team went to work manipulating many of its features. Some of these were highly technical changes (moving more of the load off the wing and onto the rudders) and some were more subtle (using a shorter spine to reduce drag on the bow and changing the shape of the foresail). But most of the adjustments – 70% as estimated by the team’s chief executive – came in the form of new sailing techniques for taking wider angles to the wind on the upwind leg. This allowed them to get the boat up on its blade-like foils, pick up speed, close the angle and make up the extra distance. Team USA kept making tweaks even as they were initially losing races. Through such iterative prototyping they learned much faster than their competitor how to race on the Bay.

Keep your eyes on the prize. Even during the most challenging period, when defeat seemed inevitable, Team USA’s leadership kept the vision of winning alive. Through daily pep talks, and a fundamental belief that they had the capability to get the job done, they managed to stay optimistic. The end goal was undoubtedly in mind, but each day they focused solely on managing to the next (race) milestone.

Be fearless. During the final leg of the penultimate race as the Oracle boat was already reaching 44 knots (51 mph), the voice of skipper Jimmy Spithill was audible. “Don’t be afraid to go a bit faster” he prompted his team, calmly but firmly. And they did.

This edition of the America’s Cup was full of novelty, most notably a venue that allowed direct viewing from land and a new boat design that many skeptics called “crazy”. As with many new ideas, true potential was not fully understood until the very end of the campaign (the final two weeks of the competition, in this case). The next edition of the America’s Cup may, or may not, look like the one just concluded, but it will undoubtedly build on the lessons learned and benefit from a generation of newly converted fans. Even the skeptics now agree that the sport has been “transformed.” The game is the same, but elevated to a whole new level.

Lessons in innovation: Although the projects or initiatives that businesses and organizations pursue are significantly longer than a 30-minute match race or two-week regatta, time (and the presence of competitors) are often critical factors in determining success. In a world where innovation has become a key determinant of “winning,” how strong is your innovation mindset?

  • Are you working on the right problems?
  • Are you regularly including a variety of perspectives, or limiting yourselves to just “the team?”
  • Are you willing to mess with your work and your work processes, making adjustments as often as needed?
  • Are you staying focused by ‘chunking’ a complex problem into manageable parts, and remaining optimistic even when times get tough?
  • Are you willing to take big risks when the time is right?
Laura Weiss helps organizations get results from their innovation programs through expert problem-solving, process facilitation, and conflict mediation. Leveraging her expertise in both design and management consulting, she has skillfully led interdisciplinary teams and guided both private and social sector organizations in product and service innovation, business process transformation, and talent development initiatives. In addition to a laptop she tries to carry a sketch book and colored pencils wherever she travels. Contact her at laura_weiss@gensler.com.

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