The America’s Cup yacht competition held in Fall, 2013 featured only two yachts, one from New Zealand and one from the U.S. Both used exotic technology enabling the boats to attain speeds of 50+ miles per hour. Specifically, each had the capability, when they get to a certain speed, of lifting literally out of the water, moving along on four foils, like surf boards, reducing drag and causing speed to dramatically increase.
During the races, when the wind was behind their back, both boats achieved similar performance. Frustratingly, the U.S. was not able to keep up with the New Zealand boat when they needed to navigate the legs that were into the wind. When a sailboat is sailing into the wind, the only way to go forward is to sail at an angle to the on-coming wind, going to the right then switching to the left. This zig-zagging is called “tacking.” You don’t want the angle to be too great or you won’t be making much progress in going forward. On the other hand, the angle needs to be large enough so that you get some speed. The U.S. team’s experienced engineers did extensive analysis that suggested the optimal mix of speed and distance traveled was achieved when you steer the ship at an angle of 42 degrees off of the dead-ahead wind direction.
Tragically, New Zealand won the first five races. The first boat to win nine races wins the Cup, hence it looked very gloomy for the U.S. The reason the U.S. was losing was they couldn’t keep up with New Zealand when sailing against the wind. Strangely, New Zealand was “tacking” with an angle of almost 50 degrees whereas the U.S. was at 42 degrees. In essence, New Zealand was going a longer distance but they were achieving greater speeds, enabling the boat to foil, and hence, traveled the against-the-wind legs much faster.
After the five straight loses, at last, someone on the U.S. team questioned the 42 degree assumption. This caused the U.S. team to begin experimenting; allowing their angle to go greater than 42 degrees when going into the wind, and they won the sixth race. They lost the next three races as they further experimented with various angles, leaving New Zealand needing only one more win to capture the Cup. Having settled on a new strategy of using a 55-degree angle when sailing against the wind, the U.S. team won all 8 of the remaining races and defeated New Zealand 9 to 8. It was the most dramatic comeback in the history of the sport.
There is a powerful lesson for leaders here:
Beware of Assumptions – Regularly isolate key assumptions that are being used, constantly probe the basis for those assumptions, and experiment appropriately.
Also, thank goodness the America’s Cup team had an out-spoken sceptic in the crew. We all need those kinds of people on our team!