Smooth Sailing: Putting Research Into Practice

Article Icon Article
Tuesday, November 21, 2023
By Rohit Ravi
Photo by iStock/Dmitry Berkut
Imperial College professors write a paper connecting business strategy to sailing tactics. A student turns their theory into a real-life MBA project.
  • Drawing on data from the America’s Cup, two professors theorize that competitive dynamics predict performance outcomes. A student tests the theory by organizing a yacht race.
  • During the two-day event, participants attend a workshop that covers the basics of strategy, then embark on a race to test four scenarios.
  • Participants work with diverse teammates, execute different strategies in different contexts, demonstrate leadership, and practice effective communication.

I’d rather be sailing.

That message was on a sticker I saw pasted on the back of a sailboat the first time I had an opportunity to get out on the water as a young boy. Little did I know then how much relevance the phrase would have for me in the future when I was studying for my Master’s in Business Analytics at Imperial College Business School in London. But I recently had an opportunity to combine my lifelong passion for sailing with my newer interest in scientific management.

The opportunity arose shortly after I read a 2015 paper written by two Imperial College faculty: Jan-Michael Ross, associate professor of strategy and deputy head of management and entrepreneurship; and Dmitry Sharapov, associate professor of innovation, entrepreneurship, and strategy. In the paper, they postulate that imitation can be an effective means of staying ahead as a leader. They demonstrate this rather unconventional business strategy through data collected in the lead-up to the 34th America’s Cup World Series. Considered the “Formula One of sailing,” America’s Cup is the world’s oldest trophy in international sport.

The paper immediately caught my attention because it used sports as a vehicle for validating a theoretical management concept. I have long been fascinated by scientific approaches in management, whether they’re measuring the effect of emotion on risk preferences by paying furloughed stock traders, measuring the effect of anchoring on the likelihood of a successful negotiation, or demonstrating that customers are more likely to distrust algorithms when they very closely resemble humans.

In the paper, the professors outline a theory and devise simulations based on the America’s Cup data. In their simulations, they control for externalities such as environmental factors, the initial advantages of various competitors, and the previous performances of these competitors. Their broad conclusion is that competitive dynamics predict performance outcomes. This finding is directly applicable to business scenarios as long as researchers understand its underlying assumptions and limitations.

I wondered: Was there a way to bring the paper and its simulations to life through a real-world experiment in which two sailboats participated in a head-to-head race?

A Race to Find Answers

To answer the question, I began working with professors Ross and Sharapov, as well as Clemens Mieth, an alumnus of Imperial’s MBA program and co-organizer of the event. Esma Koca, a senior teaching fellow at the school, also provided inspiration and support. We drew on data from the paper to derive four scenarios with decision rules—that is, conditions that would have to be satisfied in order to execute a particular strategy.

We directly tested these scenarios during an event we called the IB Sailing Leadership Weekend. It consisted of two parts: a “Leadership On-Shore” segment, in which participants discussed the theoretical foundations of the paper and sailing strategy; and a “Leadership Off-Shore” segment, in which participants went out onto the water to enact the four scenarios.

Was there a way to bring the research paper and its simulations to life through a real-world experiment in which two sailboats participated in a head-to-head race?

During the segment on the water, two sailing yachts departed from Portsmouth and sailed within the Solent, a famous sailing destination and shipping lane between Great Britain and the Isle of Wight. The boats were skippered by Mieth and Chris Rees, a business owner in leisure and property, both of whom are experienced in yacht racing. They were accompanied by 18 Imperial students and alumni, who possessed varied levels of sailing experience.

After we had spent months planning the race, carefully considering the safety and well-being of the crews, we were thrilled to have fair weather and mild winds for the two-day event. Participants were able to ease into the sport of sailing and carry out our planned scenarios on the water. We learned a great deal.

For instance, one scenario validated the theory that the leading boat would hold onto its lead if it imitated the actions of the following boat even if the two were separated by a large physical distance. This meant that the lead yacht needed to have a “lookout” who would instruct the helmsman on how to copy the following boat. The crew also needed to be ready on the winches and ropes to execute a maneuver on a short notice.

A Different Tack

The results of the race supported the theories outlined in the research paper. Even better, the entire weekend served as an engaging learning opportunity for students because it was so different from traditional reading assignments and classroom discussions.

One student in particular appreciated the hands-on approach to “understanding leadership dynamics under high-stress conditions, emulating the turbulence faced by leaders in today’s dynamic business environment. We were presented with theoretical management scenarios, then asked to apply these learnings to real industry contexts in a Q&A session. This approach made complex leadership theories more tangible, fostering a deeper understanding of leadership in action.”

A group of college students gather on a yacht before setting off on a regatta to prove their professors' research theories

Students and alumni from Imperial College Business School prepare to set sail to test management theories about strategy and competition. (Photo by Raheem Bari)

Ross, too, was pleased with the way the weekend unfolded. As he noted after the event, “Students had to collect data during racing, grow as a team quickly, coordinate different tasks, apply different strategy scenarios, and have fun.”

The makeup of the crews contributed to the learning experience: The majority were not sailors, they came from diverse ethnic backgrounds, and they were split evenly between genders. This mix provided a great opportunity to break open the silos often found in both society and sailing, Ross observed, creating an event that was “more inclusive, innovative, and intelligent!”

Onboard With Learning

The weekend was not only an innovative learning opportunity for participants, but also an eye-opening experience for me. Sailing is a complex sport, and I tend to be skeptical of new strategies designed to give sailors an advantage in competition. These strategies often involve several elements that are out of my control to align, and they usually only work if others don’t execute the same tactics themselves.

However, the sailing leadership weekend showed me that a strategy is not meant to be causal in nature. Particularly in business situations, it can provide leaders with an edge if they carefully consider and execute it—and if they have a good understanding of their own environments as well as relevant external factors. The weekend also showed me that the execution of any successful strategy requires healthy communication, strong leadership, and the ability to record and learn from past events.

The sailing leadership weekend showed me that a strategy is not meant to be causal in nature. It can provide leaders with an edge if they carefully consider and execute it.

In addition, the event demonstrated that academic theory can have real-life practical value. Many of the conventions that exist in business emanate from research and the application of that research in real-world contexts. I learned that it’s always important to approach theoretical topics with curiosity and an open mind.

It was a privilege and a pleasure for me to organize the IB Sailing Leadership Weekend and bring together diverse individuals who all took away lessons they could apply to their personal and professional lives. I also was honored to win the Deans Community Award for the work that went into creating the event.

In the future, we hope to organize larger and more refined IB Sailing Leadership Weekends. They could be delivered either as components of course offerings or extracurricular opportunities.

When students finish each event, I won’t just ask, “Would you rather be sailing?” I’ll ask, “Isn’t this a great way to learn?”

Rohit Ravi
Student, Master’s in Business Analytics, Imperial College Business School
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
Subscribe to LINK, AACSB's weekly newsletter!
AACSB LINK—Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge—is an email newsletter that brings members and subscribers the newest, most relevant information in global business education.
Sign up for AACSB's LINK email newsletter.
Our members and subscribers receive Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge in global business education.
Thank you for subscribing to AACSB LINK! We look forward to keeping you up to date on global business education.
Weekly, no spam ever, unsubscribe when you want.