Digital technology and the internet of things enabled one the greatest comebacks in sports history. That is only part of the story. While technology certainly played a critical role in the eventual comeback and win by the United States team in the 2013 Americas Cup Race, I have since learned technology was only partially responsible for the comeback and in fact one might even say that the improper use of digital technology almost cost the United States team the race. In the end the combination of technology, human learning and process improvement saved the day.
The right formula for winning
In the 2013 race, the United States team was a heavy favorite. The boats being used were technology marvels and looked more like fighter jets than traditional sailboats. Every single aspect of the boats were reworked for speed including 72-foot composite hulls, a 13-story carbon fiber sail, and foils that allowed the boat to sail above the water dramatically reducing drag. All of these contributed to a boat that could attain speeds of 50 mph. In addition, the United States team was sponsored by Oracle and Larry Ellison. The team had almost unlimited access to everything that they needed to create a winning effort. So, it was absolutely shocking that the New Zealand team was up 8 – 1 in the best of nine series. After every single race, the United States team scrambled to figure out why their boat was not performing as expected. From watching the races it was obvious that the New Zealand team was deploying a different strategy than the United States team on the upwind legs and utilizing their foils to increase their speed – but, why?
Shifting sails at the speed of data
The teams were pouring over petabytes of data analyzing every single aspect of their models and were struggling to determine how to correct the issues. After many hours of analysis, the AI team realized that their model was indeed flawed and as a result the team’s tactics and processes were sub-optimal. However, changing tactics was not as simple as it sounded. First, the boat was not configured to sail effectively with the foils on the upwind segments. Second, the United States team had not practiced this technique in their three years of preparation. With an off day in the competition and nothing to lose, the team made the strategic decision to change their approach. Through additional modeling, the team was able to reconfigure the boat to reduce the risk of capsizing once the boat was reconfigured the team spent the day practicing the new foil technique. These three changes were enough to turn the tide and allow the United States team to come back and win the next eight races and complete one of the most improbable comebacks in sports history.
Lessons learned in digital transformation
I think there are several digital transformation lessons to be learned from this story. Technology can certainly be a difference maker, but over dependence on technology can also create problems. It can even lead you down the wrong path. Even knowing the best way to “sail the boat” or “run the business” is not enough. Winning the race is only possible if you can develop and implement winning strategies and execute the supporting processes that enable those strategies.