The year is 1983. The event – America’s Cup, the most prestigious sailing competition in the world and the oldest active trophy in international sport (predating the Modern Olympics by 45 years). The defending champion is Liberty from the New York Yacht Club, has been holding the trophy for 132 years (the longest winning streak in the history of sports). The challenger is Australia II out of the Perth Royal Yacht Club.
The event is a challenge-driven series of seven races between the two yachts. After three races, Liberty is leading 3:0, and it seems that the trophy will once again stay in New York. And if things weren’t complicated enough, at the start of the fourth race Australia II crossed the start ahead of time and was therefore starting 45 seconds after Liberty.
America’s Cup, as most sailing competitions, is all about the struggle against the wind. The yacht team has to work according to the direction of the wind and the finish line buoy, and as the wind changes its direction various time throughout the race, it’s a great struggle against the forces of nature and the other team.
In this impossible situation, John Bertrand, skipper of Australia II, decided to bet against all odds. Instead of making the obvious plays, as the wind and the course require, he followed a much simpler rule: do exactly the opposite of what the yacht in front of him was doing. The logic was clear: if he follows suit, he will most likely stay in 2nd place, and the chances of closing a 45 second gap are slim. On the other hand, if something comes up, if the Liberty team makes a mistake, if the wind changes suddenly, if the unpredictable will happen, Australia II can actually win.
And like all great sport stories, what no one thought would happen did, and Bertrand and Australia II won the fourth race, and the three races that followed. On September 26 1983, against all odds, America’s Cup went down under, all the way to Perth, in what many consider to be the greatest-ever sporting moment.
I heard the story of the 1983′s America Cup in a recent workshop I attended on “Multicore: The Challenges of Today and Tomorrow“. Prof. Uri Weiser included this story in his presentation to convince the crowd that sometimes only by thinking differently, against the “common belief”, opposite to the market trend, you can get results and break the status-quo.
Photo from the Technion seminar. Source: Technion.
First from the left in the 2nd row: Prof. Uri Weiser.
First from the right in the 3rd row: yours truly.
I was thinking of Prof. Weiser’s moral and of Yossi Cohen’s post here on innovation versus optimization. I think that the general conclusion is “Don’t Follow, Innovate”. And as someone who has been working in the Hi-Tech industry for more than a decade, I think that it’s not just a moral, it should be a life motto.
Everyone in every business is tempted to “just” follow. Embracing a “Me Too” strategy has worked for giants like Cisco and Microsoft, but most companies, especially those trying to surprise (and surpass) the “giants” and disrupt the market, must “re-invent the wheel”, innovate and by doing so shake the grounds of the market they work in.
The “number one”s, the big and the mighty, or in the case of America’s Cup the leader in the race, can settle for just following “number two”, doing whatever the skipper on that boat is doing, and always staying one step ahead. “Number two”, on the other hand, just like that brilliant campaign from Avis, must try harder, stay sharper and keep a bag full of tricks in his pockets, if he ever wishes to reach “number one” and stay there. It’s hard, it’s a struggle that never ends, but it’s the only way one can survive in this market, especially in these times.
Believe me – I’ve been there. It’s very hard to persuade management to bet on a totally different direction than all competitors – a new product, a different market, an alternative hardware vendor, a totally different architecture. It takes a lot of guts to innovate, and not simply follow. There’s a lot to gain, but there’s a possibility of being the only big loser. I can tell you that in times like these, with decisions like that, I am glad I am not (yet?) in that position.
And there’s an even bigger problem – just like with the America’s Cup, we are talking about multiple races, with challenge after challenge. Scoring big in one race may get you the cup, but it’s only until the next competition, where you’ll have to defend it again.
In 1987 the Perth Royal Yacht Club hosted the America’s Cup. The defending champions were beaten 4:0 by the Americans. Australia never won another American Cup. Prof. Weiser didn’t mention the 1987 competition in his presentation. I have added this part myself. It’s a reminder to us all to keep striving for innovation, to lead and not follow, to always try to win and never settle for second place.