Make your luck. Both teams assumed foiling was a downwind technique. Downwind legs are essentially straight (and thus don’t require lateral resistance from the underwater foils) and the angle to the wind (wind from “behind” the boat) offers enough boat speed to lift the boat from the water. So the first thing Oracle set out to learn was how to foil downwind.
But San Francisco Bay is a relatively small area. Oracle couldn’t sail downwind for a long distance to practice. They would quickly run out of Bay and need to work their way back upwind to try foiling again. The crew could have used the time sailing upwind to recover. Instead they tried foiling upwind – and discovered a winning strategy. Our study of the race interval data makes it clear that it was Oracle’s upwind foiling that drove their comeback.
The generalizable point here is that what began as an irritating constraint turned into a piece of luck – but only because Oracle approached it with curiosity. If the race had been held on a traditional ocean course, the ideal conditions would have prevented the discovery. Likewise, managers make their own luck when they look with fresh eyes at conditions they are facing and refuse to be limited by assumptions.
Gather resolve from your setbacks. Race preparation presented a number of challenges to Oracle. Nobili recalled, “We broke a foil the second or third day we had with the first boat. That stopped us for a month.” When the boat was repaired, they sailed for five days before crashing it. As a result, “we had to commit to the design of the second boat without enough time sailing the first to learn what worked and what didn’t.”
But the team found an upside. The setbacks, Nobili said, “put our team in a situation where we realized: we need to stand up.” The benefit – which has just as much application to business settings – was to instill a rough-and-ready mindset that they could call on later. “It ended up serving as something that made us a little bit stronger in spirit and changed how we reacted to the situation of falling behind.”
Keep the focus on “How could we do better?” In the early days of the Cup, as Oracle’s losses mounted, there were many opportunities to second-guess and point fingers. Instead, Oracle kept the focus on the only thing that mattered: getting faster in the next outing. Nobili told us, “After each race, crew members did their best to offer ideas on how to improve performance. When someone offered an idea, others would quickly try to build on it.”
The race format doesn’t provide a chance to test ideas before committing to them. Each evening the sailors needed rest. Overnight, technicians made adjustments to the boat. The next morning, the crew would be sailing a boat rather different from the one they raced the previous day. How could Oracle decide which risks to take?
The answer is contained in an example Nobili recalled: “When we were down 6-1 or 6-0, I began talking with the guy in front of me about an idea and he said, ‘Let’s try it – it won’t be worse.’ Elaborating on a point we think managers should take to heart, he explained: “If a change could slow the boat down, you don’t even try. But if an experienced crew and skipper agree it might make the boat faster, you must try.”
Respect the data. Sailors pride themselves on their ability to feel when their boat is in a groove, performing at its peak. But the AC 72, as the most “wired” race boat ever built, produces data that sometimes counters that gut feel in challenging ways. As Nobili said, “In the AC 72, sometimes you have to trust the number more than your feeling – and that works only if you have good numbers and good tools.”
Of course, the same is true for businesses where executives are often inclined to ignore data that doesn’t match what a trusted manager or important customer said in some recent conversation. Better metrics often produce surprises – by revealing, for instance, the loyal customers who are actually unprofitable to serve – and the disloyal ones who are profitable. But if sailors with their feet planted on a deck can learn to rely on data, then managers surely can, too – and whichever type of helm they stand at, they might stand to win.