By now all of us here in New Zealand have savoured Emirates Team New Zealand winning back the silver trophy we lost with a leaky boat back in 2003. After the absolute heartbreak of San Francisco where we were beaten both by money and sheer force of will, once again the Americas Cup is New Zealand’s.
I’ve watched this boat race since I was a small boy, the long blue water races in Fremantle broadcast live on TV ONE, took all afternoon, slow and captivating. 1987 was a high water mark in New Zealand business, it was chrome, shoulder pads, Rolex, cappuccinos and Auckland seemed a very far away place from Invercargill. The drama captured my imagination. I even had the KZ7 bedding with a BNZ logo.
Politics and skulduggery have always been part of the tableaux of the oldest sporting trophy. Sailed by wealthy pirates, it has forever been a game of Total Design, the fastest boat always wins. On a recent trip to Beijing, I brought Ross Brawn and Adam Parr’s book titled Total Competition for the long haul on Air New Zealand. Brawn is the most successful engineer in Formula 1, winning 14 drivers and constructors championships with Benetton, Ferrari and his own Brawn GP. In the book Brawn and Parr discuss what is required to win in F1, a cut throat sport where everything must be in sync to achieve continued success. Their conversations covered three key areas in relation to Strategy:
Many of their discussions relate back on Sun Szu’s eponymous book, the Art of War (which should be a must read, as many of it’s principles apply to business). In Formula 1 you must master the art of raising the money, and then create the conditions to manage the politics of the sport to benefit the team before enhancing the design to best meet them both. You must have the right people doing the right things at the right time. If you have no money or input into the politics then of course the design will suffer.
What Emirates Team New Zealand has achieved at this America’s Cup clearly illustrates Brawn and Parr’s thinking. Grant Dalton, the salty sea warrior much maligned after the terrible PR disaster that saw Barker dumped in 2015, managed to raise the right kind of finance to keep the doors open. With the AC always being a labyrinthine political animal, we’d have to assume Dalton and his fellow directors managed to brawl their way through everything Russell Coutts and Larry Ellison were able to throw at them. With his leadership team he was then able to assemble the right talent to design, build and said a sailboat developed with imagination and to the upper limits of the rules.
The systems designed for the campaign were so radically different to the other teams, from batwing dagger board to cyclists instead of grinders and a division of responsibility on the boat that made the crew work by the other teams seem clumsy and complicated by comparison. Abandoning ropes, Skipper Glenn Ashby controlled his wing with a console. I am completely sure Aotearoa was turned upside down and inside out by Oracle to see if they were cheating, but having mastered the Politics, Emirates Team New Zealand were able to argue their case. It was Total Design, for in essence, to Design is to take an existing situation and turn it into a preferred one. Obviously sport has a binary outcome, however along the journey, to win the AC, so many preferred situations must be conceived and designed to prevail.
It would be apt to point out here, that ‘nice’ guys don’t win the Americas Cup. The roll call of actors on the AC stage has included names like Connor, Coutts, Ellison, Spithall, Barterelli and Butterworth. These are win at all costs people, nice guys like Dickson and Barker lost. So it would seem that Ashby, Burling and Tuke are good guys, but I’m sure there are stories still to be told that will that tell of their ruthlessness of their ruthless will to win.
All in, it’s a fairytale really, from a team with no money and some hope in 2014/5 to a team that as Dalton said ‘threw the ball as far away as possible’. It really was a master class in planning, innovation, design, leadership, culture, craft, you name the discipline and it’s there. Add in imagination, guts, tenacity, perseverance and perhaps some desperation for good measure. It was war and we won it our way with Burling and Ashby as great commentators with a laconic ANZAC style.
It’s that kind of attitude and ambition that brings tears to my eyes. I feel it in my soul that Kiwis fight for what we believe in — from Kate Sheppard winning the right to vote, to Bruce Mclaren building and racing his own car, or Richie McCaw leading the All Blacks back from tragedy — New Zealanders have a special kind of no guts no glory view on life. We at times simply refuse to lie down. We will not be told we can’t do something. If we fail we will go once more into the breach. We say, there has to be a way.
But you see, that’s how Team New Zealand has attacked the America’s Cup since Sir Peter Blake took the helm in 1992 before winning it in 1995 and 2000. Some may call this the good old ‘number 8 wire’ way of doing things but I feel it’s more like doing radically more with relatively less. It’s an attitude I’d like to see more in business. This Americas Cup campaign will have many case studies for industry to study. Lets learn from this success and see where it might apply to our own businesses, for us all to have the attitude and ambition to be the best in the world.