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  • Writer's pictureDan Manning

Two lessons the Wright Brothers teach us about out-innovating our competitors

Despite their late start, the Wright Brothers went from exploring the idea of manned, heavier-than-air flight in their spare time to lift-off at Kitty Hawk in just over four and a half years. How did they go from unknown amateurs to unforgettable innovators in a competitive field? Better creative problem solving.

Imagine the challenge they faced. In the spring of 1899, the world's most inventive minds were focused on flight. The leading contender was Samuel Pierpont Langley, a mathematician, astronomer, and the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He was on fire. Three years earlier he completed several flights of his Aerodrome #5, an unpiloted, steam-driven aircraft catapulted from a houseboat. The aircraft flew about half a mile at a time and was successful enough to persuade the War Department to provide a $50,000 grant (~$1.3M in 2018 dollars), the first ever for an aircraft.

Langley wasn’t the only inventor racing to the sky. Hiram Maxim, the multimillionaire inventor of the Maxim machinegun, had some early success as well. In the 1880’s he managed to get a 7000 pound biplane into the air thanks to a 180 horsepower engine. The aircraft was manned with a crew of three, but it was so uncontrollable it had to be tethered to a track.

In France in 1897, Clement Ader flew a French-funded, bat-winged, steam-powered aircraft a few inches off the ground for about 50 meters. The Brazilian inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont had great success with balloons and was turning his attention, and considerable wealth, towards manned, heavier-than-air flight. There were others around the world with every configuration of wings imaginable.

Where were the Wright Brothers in this competition? You may be surprised to realize that while their competitors were trying to improve existing designs in the Spring of 1899, the Wright Brothers were just getting started, literally. On May 30, 1899, the Wright Brothers started their research in earnest with a letter to the Smithsonian Institution. Wilbur penned a two-page letter explaining he was not a “crank” but had some pet theories about flight he would like to explore in his spare time. To aid his research, he asked for copies of whatever the Smithsonian had published on the topic.

Hiram Maxim spent about $100,000 in his attempts. Samuel Langley burned through not only the $50,000 War Department grant but an additional $20,000 from the Smithsonian itself. Orville and Wilbur, however, only spent $1000 to get airborne. How did two bicycle mechanics, in their spare time and with a shoestring budget do what the world’s greatest minds could not? They were better creative problem solvers than anyone else in the field.

They understood that to be creative, you must first understand the state of the art. Only by understanding what currently is possible, can creative-minded thinkers begin to consider the not-yet-possible. Once the Wright Brothers understood the state of the art, they observed birds in flight to understand how they controlled themselves. They twisted cardboard cartons to envision how changing a wing’s shape could cause it to turn controllably. They mixed together ideas over and over in their brains and in their hands until they were ready to travel to a windy place, Kitty Hawk, to test their prototypes.

They made several trips to Kitty Hawk, and during one of these trips in 1901 they discovered the conventional wisdom and existing mathematical tables describing lift were incorrect. The assumptions all the competitors were using to calculate the amount of lifting force a wing could generate were wrong.

Wrestling with this knowledge carried the Wright Brothers into the next phase of the creative process. In a great example of divergent thinking, they created hundreds of new wing shapes out of thin tin sheets and tested them, first on a Wright Brother’s cycle (what else?) and then in a wind tunnel they designed specifically for the purpose. With this methodical approach, they not only were able to correct the tables but also find the ideal wing shape.

They combined their wing design and earlier experiments in controllability with a new engine. When they finally lifted off the ground in Kitty Hawk, neither brother was surprised. Their serious, creative approach over the preceding 1662 days assured them of their success. Where their competitors were rooted in “common knowledge,” the Wright Brothers approached the problem with an open mind.

During the September 2018 Air Force Association conference, Jeff Bezos conveyed the same idea to today’s Airmen:

Little kids try things. We all do that when we’re little, and some of us lose it. One of the great paradoxes of inventing at a high level is that you need to be an expert in your domain area, and you need to have a beginner’s mind. You absolutely need both of those things...The problem is, for many people, by the time they become true experts, they’ve lost that ability to see things in a fresh way. They’ve lost the beginner’s mind.

Can you restore your beginner’s mind? Absolutely. Can you build a team and a work environment that encourages the responsible risk-taking required to be creative? A thousand times yes! While there are bookshelves and Kindles full of information on creativity, there are two lessons the Wright Brothers can teach you today to make yourself, and your team, more creative.

1. By admitting we are stuck in our thinking and have hidden our beginner’s mind, we give ourselves permission to look in new places for new ideas. If you remember beginning to learn to ride a bicycle, it’s no surprise bicycle mechanics focused first on controlling their vehicle rather than making it go fast. While their competitors studied thrust and lift, the Wright Brothers started at the beginning with basic controllability.

2. Create an environment for yourself and your teammates to be vulnerable with new ideas. The filial connection between Orville and Wilbur created an environment where they could share and vigorously debate ideas. Developing the trust of brothers or sisters on our teams takes work, but when successful, we create an environment where new ideas can come to light before they are fully formed. Had the Wrights not been willing to challenge the accepted mathematical tables, they never would have left the ground.

Despite being underdogs, the Wright Bros were willing to step into the unknown because they had an idea…and our world changed because of it. What will you change today?

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