Competition Is Our Challenge

Sport analogies may be clichés, but the greatest comeback in history does show us how to attack the climate challenge.

You’d have to live under a rock not to know what happened on the San Francisco Bay these past few weeks. In what some are calling the greatest comeback in the history of international sport, Oracle Team USA defied overwhelming odds, learned how to win and ultimately sailed away from Emirates Team New Zealand with the 34th America’s Cup.

Oracle’s owner, billionaire Larry Ellison, said afterward, “This regatta has changed sailing forever.”

That’s an understatement. For the first time, the America’s Cup—a play thing for the super rich and a footnote on the sports page—became something else.

A tiny nation vs. a superpower’s corporate wealth, grace under pressure vs. over-the-top bravado, ingenuity vs. impossible odds; thrills and chills at
the extreme edge; call it what you will, the series captured the imagination of sailors and non-sailors around the world.

The outcome isn’t what counts in the end. It’s what the process proves about us.

In the background, it’s a given that the America’s Cup is always about technology. Teams experiment with design, engineering, materials and tactics ahead of time and throughout the regatta.

That’s the first lesson: competitors never give up. The kiwis optimized their performance during the qualifying rounds and looked unbeatable. Exempt from the qualifying process, Oracle still had a lot to learn.

With their backs to the wall, they went to school on sailing. They evolved their boat and advanced its complex control systems. They rewrote their tactical playbook.

In the end, Oracle achieved an amazing breakthrough: flying their boat above the water while sailing toward the wind at incredible speeds. The kiwis were the first to try it, and Oracle was the first to control it.

Necessity really is the mother of invention. Just imagine what these teams might do with another six months.

Oracle skipper James Spithill credits the comeback to an absolute belief that they could win. They just knew it. They were relentless and each success built their confidence.

That’s another lesson: they reexamined every assumption, every habit and every “known truth” in order to win.

In all the fuss about the comeback, it’s easy to imagine that the New Zealand side was standing still. Far from it: in the final race, under the very conditions where Oracle turned the tables, the kiwis were going almost 30 percent faster than they went in the qualifying sounds. And Emirates continued to set maximum speed records throughout the finals.

Victors get the limelight, but it was the event itself that proved we can overcome the climate challenge.

The teams embraced a bold vision—so bold, in fact, that Ellison was vilified prior to the event. Naysayers can be wrong.

They never gave up—in the face of overwhelming adversity neither team complained. Teamwork makes everyone stronger.

They changed everything—they say success came about through countless small improvements. Nobody needs a “silver bullet.”

They innovated with blinding speed—nobody ever imagined these boats could fly but that’s exactly what the designers, engineers and sailors learned how to do within a matter of weeks. Our expectations are often too small.

They invited us in—give credit to NBC Sports. Like the teams themselves, the broadcasters embraced innovation and made sailboat racing easy to understand. Complexity needn’t be a barrier.

They captivated the world—it’s not often that a backwater event takes hold of the public imagination. But the country of New Zealand practically came to a standstill to watch the finals. It’s possible to win people over.

Sports analogies are tired clichés, of course. But humanity really is on the brink and the outcome can be unthinkable or glorious.

The solutions are technological and tactical, requiring nothing more than inspiration, innovation, a willingness to rethink old assumptions and plain old effort.

As always, it comes down to a simple question: how badly do you want to win?

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of chatani via creative commons license.

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.