Six key takeaways from the America’s Cup comeback


What can businesses learn from “the greatest comeback in sports history?”

The Harvard Business Review posted a blog detailing six key takeaways from Oracle Team USA’s come-from-behind win of the America’s Cup last fall.

The blog looks at lessons from the turnaround, taking six pieces of advice from crewmember Gilberto Nobili that “leaders of land-based businesses might do just as well to heed,” wrote Nathan Bennett and Dave Forquer in the blog.

A synopsis of each lesson:

• Crossfit your company — “A key element of the crossfit approach is that every day presents a different challenge. It got us used to thinking and doing different things together every day,” Nobili told the Harvard Business Review. It’s that mental exercise that carries over as a lesson for businesses, Bennett and Forquer wrote.

• Learn quickly from disruption — This Cup also featured a disruptive innovation: the practice of foiling. “We designed our boat for displacement sailing. We didn’t think about foiling,” Nobili said. “New Zealand approached the race differently.” To Oracle’s credit, it responded fast. Designers reworked the boat and the crew practiced the techniques. “When disruption hits your business, recognize it, and start making your own transformation instantly,” the bloggers write.

• Make your luck — Both teams assumed foiling was a downwind technique. Because the distance downwind during practice was small on San Francisco Bay, Oracle tried foiling upwind. The HBR study of the race interval data makes it clear that it was Oracle’s upwind foiling that drove its 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,” the blog says.

• 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. “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, Nobili 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” raceboat ever built, produces data that sometimes counter 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.” The same is true for businesses where executives are often inclined to ignore data that don’t match what a trusted manager or important customer said in some recent conversation.


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