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Challenge Conventional Thinking By Approaching Problems Differently

Date Published

Nov 17, 2017
5 minute read

I was fortunate as a kid that I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up; I was going to be a pilot. With a surname like Wright, my flying career seemed to be predestined, so it was no surprise when I went on to become a helicopter pilot in the military and an airline pilot upon retirement.

I’m often asked if I’m related to the famous Wright brothers (I’m not) but I find their story of hard work, grit, and ambition inspiring. With no formal training beyond high school, they taught themselves basic engineering and scientific principles.

Approach Problems Differently

Early aviation pioneers were convinced that more power was needed to lift a craft off the ground. The focus of their effort was generating more power out of newly invented internal combustion engines, which inevitably led to bigger, heavier engines.

The Wright brothers took a different tack.

They observed numerous types of birds and how they used the wind to their advantage. They noticed that these birds were not generating an enormous amount of power relative to their size. Rather, the birds seemed to expend more energy on harnessing the natural lift provided by the wind.

The Wright brothers pursued this alternate angle ruthlessly. They built gliders to practice their flying skills and invented a method of control called “wing warping.” Their work led to the first man-powered flight down in Kitty Hawk, with their “wing warping” control system (which underpins how we control planes today) and a lightweight engine.

Two brothers, with no formal training, beat everyone else to flight.

Don’t Just Solve a Problem, Solve the (W)right Problem

Many non-flying careers follow a similar path to mine – a focus on becoming a technical expert in a specific field or industry.

Eventually, you reach a point where you observe some of the same problems over and over. Once you’ve “seen it all” your strategic vision becomes clouded. You face a challenge that looks familiar and begin to solve it before you even have all the facts. With this approach, you will end up with similar results as the Wright brothers’ competition – late to market.

Here are some tips to help you think like the Wrights:

  1. Take the long view – The Wright brothers assumed they would be able to create an engine capable of keeping their airplane aloft but they went one step further and asked – and then what? While everyone else focused on creating an engine, the brothers focused their experiments on the next problem – control. Assume you can solve the challenge you are facing today, what then? What opportunities become available? Does the solution create new problems?
  2. Ask the experts – Chances are that others have faced a similar challenge, how did they approach it? Use this information to illuminate your thinking, not as a crutch. What did they miss? What questions weren’t asked? The Wright brothers weren’t afraid to ask questions and often wrote to leaders in the scientific community to ask for resources.
  3. Find a bicycle maker – Talk with someone not in your industry and present your challenge to them. When you explain your challenge to someone, without relying on your work jargon, you will find the challenge becomes clearer as you explain it in different terms. A key factor in selecting this trusted advisor is to solicit their candid feedback, this is not time for a “yes man”! They will likely provide a fresh perspective that you may not have considered.

The glue that holds this entire construct together is hard work, and lots of it. The Wright brothers were tireless workers and threw themselves into whatever task they were given; from running a small bicycle shop to building gliders to test their theories. Their unconventional path to success was also one of the reasons they persevered over their competition.