What the America’s Cup teaches us about Innovation

I am not a sailor. I am not even much of a sports fan. I know of the America’s Cup but it had no meaning to me. Living in New Zealand changed all that. NZ is a country unified by sport and will eagerly stand behind a national team in a international competition, whether they follow the sport or not.

Trust me when I say, Auckland is a ghost town when a race is on.

So I have been sucked into the America’s Cup and find myself inconveniently stuck in front of the television watching this race play out.

If you haven’t been gripped like New Zealand has, here is the quick overview.

The America’s Cup 2013 has been a story of two halves. Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) dominated the first week with speeds that Oracle could not match. The second week has been all Oracle, who matched ETNZ and won the last 9 races.

We are hanging on a knife edge as Oracle has come back from 8/1 (9 races needed to take home the Cup – Oracle needed 11 due to a cheating penalty). Now the teams are 8 a piece.


I do know something about innovation and as I watched the race this morning I realised how important that has been to Oracles’s comeback. Let’s break this down.

Match Your Competitor: Oracle catamaran simply did not have the speed of ETNZ on the water. So every night they pulled together the design and engineering teams and asked “how can we make it faster?” Oracle tweaked the boat until it matched ETNZ on speed.

From an innovation perspective, Oracle had an advantage. The catamarans are a similar product and they had the TV footage from each race to use as research for redesign (and the data the trail boats are collecting).

Oracle aren’t trying to create the best Catamaran possible. They are creating a catamaran that will match the speed of its competitor in the San Francisco Bay in Summer. Its very specific. Its is much more effective to innovate with a very specific framework in mind.

That also gives them clarity of distance, they weren’t looking at a boat that wasn’t performing for all possible scenarios and lamenting its failure. They were looking at it, saying, this is a great boat but what are ETNZ doing that we aren’t?

Having the same specifications of your competitor and testing that in live competition will enable you to understand the product/service with the clarity of distance. Once you do that, you can see its opportunities and flaws and take it to the next level.


Test, Fail, Repeat: Every night Oracle went home and asked “How can we go faster?” “How can we match them?” Everyday Oracle took its new hypothesis onto the water and failed. At least that’s what happened in the first week (although, they did win one). Oracle took that knowledge and repeated the process. It took them 7 failures until they just kept on winning.

Oracle had nothing to lose for another few races, so that was the prime time to be okay with failure. Failing and trying again is the only way to create a product/service and a team that will knock the competition off its feet.

Mix up the Team: A team is a tricky thing to get right. You definitely need a great leader but you also need a Star. Someone who has that little bit extra creativity, cunning, skill and unique understanding of the conditions being operated in.

Enter Ben Ainslee. A Olympic gold medal winning sailor and expert tactician. They say he can listen to the water and knows on intuition where to send the boat. After a tactical blunder, Ainslee was brought onto the main Oracle boat and has made a noticeable difference.

Under extreme pressure, most teams would be afraid to bring in someone new. As with everything, its a gamble but new perspective combined with intuitive ability may just be the boost your team needs. We have barely seen Oracle in the wrong place since Ainslee came onboard.


Be the Underdog: At the start of the America’s Cup, ETNZ was the underdog. A small country with a small budget pitted against the money and might of Oracle and America. After 8 wins for ETNZ the positioning had switched.

Oracle became the underdog. Not that anyone was rooting for them. America isn’t even paying attention to the Cup. That doesn’t matter. Team Oracle feels like the underdog and that changes their mental approach to the game.

ETNZ is winning. Mentally they say to themselves, let’s just keep on doing our thing until we win. Its worked so far, so why change it?

Oracle has been losing. They knew if they didn’t mix it up fast, its was all going to come crashing down around them. So they got scrappy, mixing, matching and experimenting until they have found a combination that started working. Now they are in the power position.

So ETNZ is the underdog again. Simply because they changed nothing. Which also means they have not switched to a scrappy mentality.

07/09/2013 - San Francisco (USA CA) - 34th America's Cup -

ETNZ have one more race to go, it is too late to start innovating? Waiting for Oracle to mistake a mistake won’t win ETNZ the game.  Even if Oracle did make a mistake, as a Team and a Boat they are mentally ready for change as they have been innovating, fearlessly everyday.

It took seven failures before Oracle got the combination that consistently took them over the finish line first. ETNZ don’t have time to get scrappy with one race to go. They have to do what they have been doing and hope for the best.

Key lessons: Leaders in a field only remain so if they continually focus in improving what they are doing. There is always a competitor ready to steal your limelight if you are not on the ball.

Staying in front means creating the conditions for your teams to thrive in – testing everyday, experimenting, being okay with continual failure, working under time constraints with very specific challenges and with a leader who is comfortable creating those conditions and making the hard calls when needed. Innovation is resourcefulness, toughness and having a mindset that allows for change.


P.P.S: Speaking of leaders, Oracle’s skipper Jimmy Spithill is Australian. Being one of my countrymen it okay to make a broad generalisations about him. Australians can be cunning, never say die, willing to get dirty in a fight and most of all resourceful. I bet he knows how to make the most of what he has got to work with and use it in ways people wouldn’t expect.


2 thoughts on “What the America’s Cup teaches us about Innovation

  1. Pingback: Innovation Excellence | What Dancing Can Teach Us about Innovation

  2. Pingback: What Can Dancing Teach Us About Innovation? |

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