Making them afraid to win

When ‘failure is not an option,’ guess what happens?

After 132 years and 26 challenges, the New York Yacht Club had the longest winning streak in sports history. In 1851, the yacht America won a race around the Isle of Wight successfully defeating 15 British yachts and winning a “100 Guinea Cup.”

As the winning streak got longer, the pressure on the defenders steadily increased. Nobody wanted to be the one that lost the cup and broke the winning streak. In fact, it was said a skipper that lost the cup would have to leave his head in its place in the trophy room of the yacht club.

After successfully defending the cup in 1980, Dennis Conner lost it to Australia II in 1983, ending the 132-year streak. Conner, a very talented skipper, found himself with a slower boat, but was able to win three of the seven races. In the last race, his yacht, Liberty, led most of the race, but it was close. Towards the end, Australia II tacked away on a long shot to find better wind. When the yachts crossed tacks, Australia II was ahead, and the Australians had won the Cup.

After the loss, the Australians showed us their keel, which had been kept secret. It was a winged keel, which was new technology for a sailboat. That’s what made them faster.

Well come to find out, the Americans had looked at incorporating a winged keel in their design. But this was radical new technology, and they decided not to take a chance. Australia had never won and had nothing to lose.

Conner vindicated himself by going to Australia in 1987 and winning it back.

OK, so you’re not a sailor. Let’s say you’re the new CEO of a technology company, call it Miracle Engineering. You were recently promoted from vice president of operations after the founder retired. The company is 12 years old. It was pretty shaky for the first two years, but your predecessor successfully delivered 40 profitable quarters in a row. The message from the board was, “Don’t screw it up!”

It may not be a 132-year winning streak, but few managers would want to deliver the first quarterly loss in 10 years. Failure is not an option.

Miracle Engineering has built its record on delivering innovative solutions to their customers’ problems. They started with a product no one had even imagined, and continuously reinvented it every year or two. This would attract new customers and even the existing customers would want the latest and greatest.

.The engineering team has outdone itself this time. They have a revolutionary design that dramatically improves performance. The only problem is that it has a very different look and feel, and customers would have to learn how to use it all over again.

The pressure was intense, the meetings endless. They spoke to the sales folks who spoke to the customers. Reactions were mixed and confusing. The engineering folks thought they had a grand slam. The customers weren’t sure what to think. On the outside, the economy seemed to be going into a downturn. The new design required a considerable investment. If it didn’t sell well, you could be looking at several years worth of quarterly losses.

Everyone sort of came to the conclusion the only responsible decision would be to postpone this particular innovation until the market was ready. It’s always good to blame somebody else.

Unbeknownst to our friends at Miracle Engineering, they had a new competitor, one that was selling a system not unlike the one they had just put on the back burner. As it turned out, Miracle Engineering had taken the “safer” route, which caused them to begin a string of quarterly losses.

But they had spoken to their customers! Henry Ford used to say, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me faster horses.” The competition was able to show Miracle’s customers a better system, not just talk about it. They found many customers willing to learn the new way for the improvements it would bring.

If you want to make your people afraid to win, few things work better than cranking up the pressure and letting everyone know failure’s not an option.

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or

Categories: Business Advice