This month Fahrenheit 212 will be celebrating its one-year anniversary since opening its doors in Paris. As part of the first innovation pod, I wanted to reflect upon the work we have achieved and crystallize my key learnings.
Shifting from a management to an innovation consulting company was no mean feat. But in this new challenge I noticed unexpected similarities with another discipline that I spend a lot of time doing – sailing.
Clients often come to us and ask whether we can help them disrupt a market, crack a new category, find their next area of growth. They want to rewrite the rules, be the game changers, challenge paradigms and find the ‘blue ocean’. As Innovation Consultants it’s our mission to guide them but it doesn’t happen overnight, it takes years of training and polishing the discipline of Innovation.
Armel Le Cléac’h, a French professional navigator, who broke records for sailing around the globe in 74 days, wrote in his book “Le Prix de La Victoire” (the price to pay for victory):
At Fahrenheit 212 we believe innovation is a discipline. We help our clients find the ‘blue ocean’ by accelerating and de-risking the innovation process. The more cases I crack, the more this discipline reminds me about my passion for sailing. Let me explain.
Every person on our team has been hired, not because of a prestigious education or background – this is a standard, but for their unique way of thinking and tackling a challenge. We cultivate this diversity because we are convinced that this differentiation is what provides our clients unique innovation strategies.
Our way of working amazes clients. They often tell us that they’ve never worked with such a team. One of my colleagues likes to say that we are like “superheroes”, each with different superpowers.
Similarly, in sailing, when you form a crew, you can never rely solely on the big strong crewmen that only hoist the mainsail. You also need small and agile crewmen that can rush to the bow or climb the mast. Successful crews like Team Jolokia, are built on diversity, with 5 different nationalities, 50% women and 50% men, 50% above 50, 50% below 50 years old, and 2 disabled people.
Gonzague de Blignières, Jolokia Chairman, and co-founder of Raise.
At Fahrenheit 212 we use specific vocabulary, ensuring a common language when dealing with complex methodologies and projects. For instance, we don’t build a strategy from “data” but from “insights” – fresh, potent and energizing truths (if you want to know about “insights”, you can read the Insight on an Insight written by our founder).
Sailors also have their own language which may appear complex at the start but is essential for efficient and clear communication. Port and starboard refer to the left and right of the vessel and since they never change, they are unambiguous references that avoid confusion.
This precise, shared language is key for clarity on any innovation journey.
We build teams of experienced innovators in a flat organisational structure. This encourages members of the team to be proactive, make decisions, and voice their opinions.
Likewise on a yacht, each crew member is accountable for a specific role. For instance, the crewman in charge of the foresail is responsible for the right trim of his sail during the whole regatta, and that’s his only role. It is as important on a yacht to not have unneeded crew on board. However, individual accountability does not mean individualistic work. The final objective for the team is to get to the finish line before everyone else does. If the crewman in charge of the spinnaker needs help, a team member will always help. This is also the case at Fahrenheit 212.
Unlike companies such as Google who famously give 20% of their employees’ time for side projects, Fahrenheit 212 optimise resource in a smart way. Not because we are profit-oriented, but because we think there is an optimal way to building productive and long-lasting teams and collectively fostering intelligence. Too many people in a meeting will more often than not slow down the thinking. But too few people can impoverish the thinking. At F212, we tend to say that you should only assist a meeting if you have a specific role. The same logic applies on a yacht. Ask yourself “What’s your role”.
Our Head of Commercial Strategy in the UK, Tobias Rooney, recently wrote a piece: “Big Strategy Is Dead”. He argues that long-term strategy is no longer relevant for companies that have to compete in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. Companies need a “North Star” to direct them, but they also need to evolve with smaller incremental shifts.
Juggling between strategy and tactics in sailing is essential. Before a race, you study a map, the winds, sea currents and plan a route. But once the race has started, you have to take into consideration unexpected weather events, unpredictable damage to equipment, competitors’ moves, fatigue etc. and you refine the journey ahead.
At the start of a project, we look for tensions within different fields that we call the 4Cs – Consumers, Category, Channels, and Company. We look for dissonances and conflicting data, because these are the areas to solve for.
You have to take the same approach on a boat, looking for tension in the sails, because a sail that shivers is a boat that cannot optimize its speeds. Yachts are complex and the options to solve for any tension on a sail can be numerous (for instance you have as many as 8 tools to set the mainsail) and you therefore have to be highly methodical. You list the hypothesis to solve for the tension, test and refine if needed. This is similar to what we do at F212 when testing our strategic hypothesis.
Some of us have years of experience designing innovation strategies, but we do not pretend to master the process of innovation. The context of each project is specific, the assets to leverage are unique and the conditions for success are endogenous and exogenous. We look at every project with trained fresh eyes and de-risk innovation, but we do not guarantee innovation.
The unfortunate death of Eric Tabarly, one of the most innovative French sailors, who inspired a whole generation, illustrates this point. The yachtsman, who navigated across the oceans to win numerous solo titles, fell overboard during a manoeuvre on his own sailboat – the Pen Duick – while sailing in the Irish Sea off the coast of Wales. You can know your boat and the sea by heart, but you can’t be protected from risks. You only de-risk.
We have all witnessed the blurring of categories: GAFAMAT are moving into almost every category, startups are redefining category lines and legacy players are working to move into adjacent categories as current business models become outdated. In many cases it is no longer viable to remain in a single category. Business’ need to be able to explore spaces where they can leverage their existing assets while building new ones.
The same is happening in the sailing industry which is collaborating with the aerospace industry to design faster boats with compatible technologies. Wings produce lift, while sails generate thrust, and both cut through the air in a similar way. The next series of America’s Cup race will have yachts that literally fly above the water. Airbus and American Magic have worked in partnership to design the fastest possible flying yacht and the first trials look promising.
At Fahrenheit 212, we divided our team into a creative and a business team because we are convinced we need business acumen and consumer empathy to deliver predictable, sustainable innovation growth. This is our famous “Magic and Money” approach.
The discipline of sailing has been developed the same way. You see a lot of innovations that make boats faster: they have foils, they are giant, etc. For instance, the surface of Sodebo Ultim 3 – one of the largest boats – is equal to 4 tennis courts with a mast the size of the Arc de Triomphe. But they have to be comfortable for the sailors – especially when the sailor is on his own to skipper it. That is why this same boat has the cockpit set in front of the mast so that the boat is more stable. This is completely new. The real innovation solves for both the boat and the sailor.
My final parallel with sailing is drawn from one of the reasons I am still here after 12 months of hard work and why I spend my weekends on a boat. Because sailing and innovating is a lifestyle. This is not a sport, this is not a passion, this is how life should be. Fresh, potent, energising and true!
At Fahrenheit 212 we believe we have the right team and experience to send your company sailing around the world. If you like the concepts outlined in this article and want to learn more about Fahrenheit 212’s approach to innovation please contact us.