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The Triumph of Possibility

January 24, 2024
Redefining Limits

In the early 20th century, the idea of human flight was not just a challenge; it was deemed an impossibility by the brightest minds of the time. Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Samuel Langley, the respected head of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution, along with the majority of scientists and engineers, were convinced that conquering the skies was beyond human reach. This collective skepticism, however, was about to be spectacularly upended. 

After Langley’s second failed attempt to fly on December 8, 1903, the New York Times stated in an editorial, “A man-carrying airplane will eventually be built, but only if mathematicians and engineers work steadily for the next ten million years.”

It wouldn’t take 10 million years. In fact, it wouldn’t even take 10 days. On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright, with his brother Wilbur running alongside, redefined the concept of possibility. When the Wright brothers solved the problem of manned flight, they achieved a technological breakthrough that stunned the world. It was an incredible achievement with no modern parallel. The only thing that might come close would be if Neil Armstrong had landed on the moon 65½ years later in a craft he had built himself and paid for with a part-time job! The immensity of the event cannot be overstated, but its genesis is something of a mystery. How did two bicycle builders from Dayton, Ohio, manage to do what the best engineers and brightest scientists in the world could not?

Since solving problems is a key part of management and leadership, many of today’s business ideas and tips come from the work of the brothers. Public opinion of how the Wright brothers were able to solve the problem of flight ranged from good fortune and genius to birthplace and heredity. While these were certainly factors, the real key to their success lay in the systematic and practical use of a problem-solving model.

Here are the seven principles that comprise The Wright Way and how you, like the Wright Brothers, can apply them to solve the seemingly unsolvable problems in your life or business. 

I. Forging: The Principle of Constructive Conflict

John Milton, the English poet, wrote, “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing.” By this standard, the Wright brothers' desire to learn must have been enormous! Charlie Taylor, a machinist for the brothers, once commented that the two men would often engage in heated debate. “The air would be frightened with argument,” he noted. To outsiders, Will and Orv’s thunderous encounters may have been alarming. To the brothers, it was the sound of discovery. “I love to scrap with Orv,” Wilbur once noted. “He’s a good scrapper.” Forging is a problem-solving principle that uses constructive conflict to uncover and validate new ideas and strategies. Like a blacksmith's forge, ideas are subjected to the “heat” of debate and the “blows” of contention until a practical solution begins to take shape. Many companies, reluctant to encourage heated debate among employees, have made political correctness and the pursuit of pleasantness more important than the creation of new ideas. Important sounding boards and catalysts are lost in the process. Companies able to teach employees the skill of forging will develop a keen-edged staff capable of surfacing and defending new and unique ways to solve problems.

II. Tackle the Tyrant: The Principle of Worst Things First

Hiram Maxim, who spent $200,000 of his own money trying to solve the problem of manned flight, thought the answer lay in developing more power. “Without doubt,” he stated, “the motor is the chief thing to be considered.” He was not alone. The majority of those tackling the problem of flight in 1900 focused efforts on power and propulsion, believing that anything could be made to fly with a big enough motor. It was assumed that once in the air, the craft could be steered much as one drove a car or piloted a boat. In thinking through the problem, the Wright brothers broke the challenge down into subsets. In looking at the parts, they asked each other which component was the “tyrant,” the one part they were least likely to solve. Their thinking was that if they tackled the worst first and failed, their expenses would be limited to that part of the problem alone. Since their inventive effort was to be paid for by profits generated from their bicycle business, the men wanted to make sure they did not waste time or money.

III. Fiddling: The Principle of Inveterate Tinkering

One evening, while Wilbur was tending the bicycle shop, a customer came in to purchase an inner tube. As Wilbur chatted with the customer, he began fiddling with the box the tube was packaged in. As he held each end and twisted it, he noticed that he could make it change shape without compromising the strength of the box. After the customer left, Wilbur closed the shop and raced home to share an idea with Orville that his fiddling had produced. That idea was the critical factor in their being able to patent their flying machine. Fiddling is a problem-solving principle that says tinkering with idea in an effort to understand it, repair it, or make it better can create new approaches. Tinkering, the art of looking for connections and contrasts, can either be conceptual (mental) or tactile (physical). The ability of the Wright brothers to tinker with things and fiddle with them until the beginning of an idea or solution began to emerge would be one of the key elements of their success.

IV. Mind-Warping: The Principle of Rigid Flexibility

The new idea Wilbur conceived while fiddling with the inner-tube box (see above) led to a means of controlling their flyer they called “wing-warping.” It provided the brothers with a unique combination of strength and flexibility thought to be unachievable. In many respects, that combination (rigid-flexibility) describes the Wright brothers’ creativity in approaching the problem of flight. Their ability to approach a problem logically, while seriously considering illogical options, enabled them to achieve breakthroughs that had eluded others. The creative principle of Mind-Warping involves slipping seamlessly in and out of structure. Most companies have, in some form or fashion, tried to make thinking “outside the box” their corporate mantra. They encourage employees to “break free” of the cords that bind them and let their minds roam in whatever direction they take them. Companies need to remember that while “outside the box” thinking is important, there is a reason for the box. New ideas need landing gear as well as wings.

V. Relentless Preparation: The Principle of Forever Learning

There’s an old quote that says if you fail to prepare for your opportunity, your opportunity will make you look like a fool. Prior to beginning work on the problem of flight, Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian and requested a list of literature available on the subject of flight. When the information arrived, the brothers immediately purchased all the books on the list and read them repeatedly. When their opportunity came, the Wright brothers had a year’s worth of preparation under their belts. I once interviewed a man for a leadership position. During the course of our conversation, I asked him if he had read any good books lately on leadership. “No,” he responded, "not really.” I asked him if he had attended any recent seminars or workshops on the topic. “I really don't have time for that,” he answered.” I asked him if he had a mentor or coach to get feedback and ideas from. “No,” he responded, “I have 10 years of experience to guide me.” It occurred to me that man did not have 10 years of experience as boasted, but one year 10 times over.

VI. Measure Twice: The Principle of Methodical Meticulousness

By all accounts, the first flying machine is one of the most well-documented inventions in history. Much of the research for The Wright Way came from reading the brothers' extensive collection of notes, journals, and correspondence. Letters exchanged with Octave Chanute (an engineer and aviation enthusiast in Chicago) between 1900 and 1910 provide an extraordinary summation of their work. Not surprisingly, this methodical and meticulous attention to detail was a key to their success. When the Wright brothers first attacked the problem of flight, they did something few others had done: They thoroughly thought it through. Their mother, an innovative woman known for her mechanical aptitude and creativity, encouraged her sons to make their mistakes on paper if possible. The brothers had an additional incentive for doing so: They were betting their lives on the outcome. Measure twice is a problem-solving principle that says the most efficient way to solve a problem is by being meticulous in your approach.

VII. Force Multiplication: The Principle of Equitable Teamwork

While demonstrating his flyer in France, Wilbur decided to compete for the Coupe de Michelin Trophy presented to the individual achieving the longest flight of 1908. Wilbur not only won the trophy, but the 20,000 francs that went with it. At the banquet where the prizes were awarded, Wilbur surprised everyone by separating the money into two equal stacks. When finished, he put one in his pocket and handed the other to Orville. On the surface, it seemed like Wilbur was just divvying up the take based on their partnership. What makes the story interesting, however, is that the brothers shared a common business and personal checking account. The money, separated in Paris, would end up in the “same pot” back in the states. Wilbur had a reason for publicly dividing the money. He wanted to send a clear message to all gathered that he could not have won without Orville. What they accomplished, neither could have done on his own.

"A man-carrying airplane will eventually be built, but only if mathematicians and engineers work steadily for the next 10 million years.”

- New York Times, December 8, 1903

“Wilbur and Orville Wright successfully operate a flying machine in North Carolina.”

- Dayton Herald, December 18, 1903

Fortunately, the Wright brothers didn’t read the New York Times down in North Carolina. They didn’t know how hard it was to fly. Just 9 days later, they achieved what was considered impossible.

One hundred twenty years ago, the Wright brothers would not have had a “Seven Principles” poster tacked on the wall of their workshop. To them, it was simply a case of working together carefully, tirelessly, and indomitably. They had no mission statement, just a mission — achieve the impossible and conquer the sky. In the process, they left behind a problem-solving blueprint for those who believe there's an answer to every problem, and that nothing is truly impossible.