Working In Uncertainty

Team New Zealand and the America's Cup

If you want to spend a lot of money on sailing, enter the America's Cup. The boats are purpose built for the race and extremely efficient. This is the playground of billionaires.

In 1995 the Cup was won back from America by Team New Zealand using their NZL-32 boat, known as Black Magic. They won the series 5-0 in what came to be known as a blackwash. Here is Black Magic on display at New Zealand's National Maritime Museum.

Black Magic was a hugely superior boat, in part, because of the way it was developed. Even by 1995 the teams routinely used computer simulation to explore alternative shapes for the keel (i.e. the hull of the boat). However, while other teams poured money into supercomputers, Team New Zealand spent less on computers and more on having two development boats so that they could test new ideas on the water as well as on the screen.

The team organized themselves for efficient experimentation. Keel ideas were simulated during the day. The most promising concept was then manufactured and fitted to a hull, usually overnight, for sea trials the next day against the second boat. Crews gave their feedback too, which was easier because the simulation workstations were positioned near the dock.

By the first race of the series 1000s of ideas had been simulated and some 50 physical changes had been tested on the keel. These changes took about 2 minutes off the expected course time.

By comparison, another team ran its simulations in large batches every few weeks, and lacked a comparison boat despite spending about the same amount of money.

Working In Uncertainty observations

Although the different teams all used experimentation to develop ideas, only Team New Zealand could do meaningful sea trials and organized themselves for rapid experimentation.

(Source of information: ‘Experimentation matters’ by Stefan H Thomke, published 2003 by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.)

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Words © 2011 Matthew Leitch