Keith Turner: Innovation the key for Team NZ

Keith Turner is blown away by the successful blend of innovation and teamwork within Team NZ.

Team New Zealand have become world leaders in catamaran technology. Photo / Greg Bowker
Team New Zealand have become world leaders in catamaran technology. Photo / Greg Bowker

I had the great privilege to visit the Emirates Team New Zealand base in the Auckland Viaduct basin, just as they were preparing to pack up and shift to San Francisco.

As a PhD in engineering, my eyes were trained to search for the little things that make a big difference - stuff we commonly term "innovation".

As an ex-chief executive, my ears were listening for the clever ways that the more than 100 people in the team have worked together to pursue the "redemption" of New Zealand in the eyes of the sailing and technology fraternity.

While the traditions of the America's Cup go back a long way, they are founded on mono-hull design and innovation. But in only three years this has changed beyond recognition.

Three years ago we knew little about the capacity of catamarans to perform. Today the technology, the know-how, the team skills, the data have leapt so far forward, so quickly, I thought the team could really land on the moon if they wanted to.

The advances in design and the application of extraordinary innovation and leading-edge material, science, technology, hull dynamics, wind dynamics and every other technical aspect of this campaign are just world-leading class.

New Zealand was way ahead of the pack when, right from day one, they began pursuing a foil lift that could propel a 72ft (22m) craft clear out of the water, and achieve speeds in excess of 40 knots in wind speeds of less than 25 knots. It defies belief. Yet Team New Zealand, from the very start, believed they could do it. Only a year later did other teams follow suit.

So what stimulates such extraordinary achievement? This small nation is founded on a belief we can achieve whatever we want if we have "a piece of No 8 wire".

The culture in New Zealand is, no doubt, a leading element of what has been achieved by Team New Zealand in bringing this catamaran campaign to its impending pinnacle.

The culture of the team is outstanding. The sailors, the designers, the weather men are so committed together they are leaning on each other's shoulders working out what they learned the day before, how they can change the design tonight and how they can make the boat go faster tomorrow.

The speed of learning that our team has generated in transforming an idea into world-leading practice is quite extraordinary.

So, with my CEO eyes, I was also amazed to see a team assembled from all corners of the world, working on a common cause like there is no tomorrow. Designers from the world's leading experts coming together, not just for money but to participate in something truly great but with a tremendous sense of humility. That is a great lesson for corporate learning.

The team has been able to catapult their ideas forward at such a pace, despite the multitude of cultures present, to innovate, to spring off each other's dumb questions and to learn so quickly that in three years they have gone from knowing virtually nothing about AC72s to being now one of the best in the world. What an extraordinary learning culture.

What extraordinary leadership to engender such culture. Grant Dalton lives with his heart on his sleeve. He's frank, he's unassuming and he's driven. He's intense. Dalton is very much a what you see is what you get and no frills. He has welded a world-performing team together in an incredibly short space of time to achieve extraordinary performance.

I remember him coming into my office one day to pitch a sponsorship proposal to achieve the world sailing speed record on Lake Wakatipu. He was clearly keyed up. He made his pitch with an intense logic and impact that left you thinking - if anyone can do it, this guy can.

It also left me thinking what an extraordinary platform for New Zealand on the global stage. I was left thinking 'every bit as big as Lord of the Rings' for NZ.

What Dalton and his team have achieved is only obvious to the very few who have felt it and seen it in practice. When Team New Zealand's AC72 gets up on foils and flies at more than 40 knots, it is extraordinarily exhilarating but also balanced on a knife edge. Everything in the hull and the wing is performing to its ultimate capacity.

The team, their energy and their drive are performing to the ultimate human capacity. A tiny mistake can cause disaster. We have seen some other teams launch their boat at high speed into spectacular catapults. Yet Team New Zealand has perfected its performance even though they continue to train and develop in San Francisco.

Whether they win or lose in San Francisco, what they have achieved in three years is quite extraordinary.

I can see that there is something very, very special going on. It makes me deeply proud to be a New Zealander.

The Government's $37 million investment in Team New Zealand was extraordinarily far-sighted. It is all about New Zealand identity.

It is all about nation building. It will already have created far more value from commercial spinoff, just like space exploration.

But the potential is even greater. If Team New Zealand brings the cup back to Auckland, it will indeed be redemption, a moment of pride money can't buy.

But it will be more than that.

It will show that New Zealanders, New Zealand culture, and all that is good in the New Zealand spirit, can succeed at the world's pinnacle of technology and human performance.

Keith Turner is the former CEO of Meridian Energy and is chairman of Fisher & Paykel Appliances Ltd, an official supplier to the team.

- NZ Herald

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