As I was perusing the leadership and management section of a local bookstore, for some reason one of the titles just jumped off the shelf at me.
“The Wright Way – 7 Problem Solving Principles from the WRIGHT BROTHERS That Can Make Your Business Soar” by Mark Eppler.
After reading this book and highlighting passages, I decided to write down some of the more poignant parts so I could reference them later also that I may share some of these insights with others. I made note of the main subjects included in this book including quotes and commentary. This book nicely melds a factual historical account of an extraordinary accomplishment with proven solid leadership and management philosophies and concepts. The title refers to making a business soar but, as can easily be seen in the book, this applies to any organization.
The 7 problem-solving principles as identified in the book are;
- Tackle The Tyrant
- Relentless Preparation
- Measure Twice
- Force Multiplication.
The notes and quotations below in black text are the authors work that particularly struck me and should be self explanatory; however I will add some overall clarification in blue italics through the outline.
INTRODUCTION – Intrepid Souls
This first section gives a broad introduction of the Wright brothers, their family and the task in general.
It was a unique, perhaps one-time occurrence when opportunity and preparedness, like two trains on the same track, collided to make something happen.
Chapter 1 - THE EVENT OF THE CENTURY
In addressing the magnitude of the Wright brothers’ accomplishment, the author states, “It would be like Neil Armstrong landing on the moon in a craft he had built himself and paid for with a part-time job.”
The big news item in the papers the day Wilbur and Orville conquered the air was the story of Colonel H Nelson Jackson, who, in order to win a fifty-dollar bet, had driven cross country in an automobile in the unheard-of time of just sixty-three days! The Wright brothers invention would one day extract 99.8 percent of the time needed to make Nelsons journey.
The actual flight of Orville wasn’t as much the answer to the problem as it was a confirmation of the process used to achieve it. In solving the problem, the Wright brothers resolved hundreds of smaller challenges that, when taken as a whole, yielded the first flight. For the brothers, the solution to the flying problem was actually a systematic process guided by an established, if not written, set of principles. The first flight was the culmination of that process. That’s why the brothers weren’t particularly excited or enthused when it occurred. For Wilber and Orville, the first flight was just another step along a problem-solving continuum.
They achieved an extraordinary ROI (return on investment). Although others had offered to finance their research, Wilber and Orville were concerned that accepting outside funds might result in a loss of control over their work. Drawing on profits from their bicycle business, the cumulative amount spent by the Wrights in developing their flying machine would be less then $1000. By comparison, the launch mechanism alone for Langley’s flying machine cost $50,000. Hiram Maxim spent more then $200,000 on his efforts. Clement Ader, a French flying-machine pioneer, raised $100,000 in government funding and spent it all before giving up (Langley, Maxim & Ader were others trying to accomplish the first controlled flight). The Wright brothers’ invention was one of the greatest returns on investment in history.
Frustrated with the U.S. military’s lack of interest, the brothers took their flying machine overseas, where they were acclaimed as conquering heroes. It wasn’t till 1908, five years after the first flight, that many Americans would see what Europe had seen. The U.S. government’s failure to respond to the brothers’ achievement had spawned the globalization of flight, leading to economic, cultural and geographic changes worldwide.
One of the first government agencies to take advantage of the Wright brother’s invention wasn’t the military but the post office, which began airmail service in 1911 on Long Island.
Chapter 2 - MASTERS OF THE PROBLEM
The Wright brothers truly exemplified optimism and persistence.
If the Wright brothers were caught in fortunes wind, they were setting the sails and choosing the direction.
Chapter 3 - FORGING – The Principle of Constructive Conflict
The practice of “scrapping” often took place at the Wright household. It was simply arguing an issue, often passionately but always courteously and constructively like a debate in school. Scrapping played a very large role in the development of ideas used to accomplish the Wright’s task. One strategy taught early on by their parents was to have these reasonable debates around the table after dinner, at some point during the scrap, the Wright father would have the boys swap sides of the issue, teaching them to recognize the other perspective and listen intently to the opposite point of view.
The goal with the brothers was not consensus, but convergence – a blending of ideas that yielded the strongest options
Since the purpose of their arguments was to uncover the truth, both men wanted to hear the point of view of the other.
Taylor (Wright Cycle Company’s only employee) recalled one fierce argument the propeller problem had occasioned. The morning after their scrap, Orville came into the shop and told Wilbur he felt like he might have been wrong in his point of view. Wilbur, who had continued to evaluate Orville’s arguments overnight, said he was inclined to agree with Orville’s approach. Taylor said, “The first thing I knew they were arguing the thing all over again, only this time they had switched ideas.” It was the very strategy their father had taught them as young boys debating at the dinner table.”
Jagoda Perich-Anderson, an organizational consultant and conflict mediator, says some companies need to increase – not reduce – the amount of conflict in their organizations. “We need to learn to become more comfortable and skillful with conflict” she says. Perich-Anderson suggests there are three keys to making conflict a plus: mutual respect, a spirit of curiosity, and a commitment to learning.
Chapter 4 – TACKLE THE TYRANT – The principle of Worst Things First
The tyrant is the part of the problem that is the real monster or source of troubles.
They look for parts of the problem that are familiar to them, that they feel they can comfortably address, then start there in an effort to get things going.
Steps to identify the tyrant
- Break the problem down into small components or subsets
- Identify the obstacles and barriers associated with each subset
- Determine the resources (i.e., time, money, people) needed to solve each subset
- Rank subsets in terms of degree of difficulty
- Pick the tyrant
- Tackle the worst (i.e., more difficult) first
Chapter 5 – FIDDLING – The principle of Inveterate Tinkering
The Wright brothers were always trying or testing something. They had several exhaustive examples of trial and error, however, there was always more trail then error, which ultimately had something to do with their accomplishment.
Soon after the lathe project, Orville notices that many of the kids in his school have taken up chewing pieces of tar. Thinking that flavoring might make the tar more appealing, he begins working with ingredients to make the tar sweeter. Years later Wilber would kid his brother by making references to that “chawin’ gum corporation.”
Discourage milk runs. Getting in the habit of doing things the same way is often a detriment to creativity. As the old saying goes, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. I call this approach a milk run because it involves making the same stops on the same route every day.
Chapter 6 – MIND-WARPING – The Principle of Rigid Flexibility
The Wright brothers did not have a problem finding the line that runs between agility and wishy-washyness or stubborn inflexibility. They wouldn’t have even come close to their goal without questioning, testing and eventually rewriting some of the established scientific teachings of aerodynamics.
Mind-Warping is a problem-solving principle that encourages flexing the mind, allowing it to consider possibilities that fall outside the plane of thought established (and limited) by policy, tradition, and personal experience. It is the ability to think “outside the box”, without abandoning the box.”
Although their experiments with their glider had been filled with some anxious moments, Wilbur and Orville were encouraged. Later, Wilbur noted that they considered it quite an achievement to “return home without having our pet theories completely knocked in the head by the hard logic of experience.”
Those who fell into the airmen category were later broken into two additional groups based on their approach to the concept of aircraft stability. Octave Chanute (1832-1910), among others, felt that the primary objective of experimenters should be to develop methods for eliminating instability. The focus of this group was on developing the automatic systems needed to correct the machine’s wayward movements. The second group, represented primarily by the Wright brothers, believed that the key was to conquer the inherent instability of a flying machine by providing means to control and balance it. Instead of trying to eliminate the instability inherent in the craft, the goal was to preserve it and give the operator the means to overcome it.
“If I take this piece of paper and, after placing it parallel with the ground, quickly let it fall, it will not settle down as a staid, sensible piece of paper ought to do, but it insists in contravening every recognized rule of decorum, turning over and darting hither and thither in the most erratic manner, much after the style of an untrained horse. Yet this is the style of steed that men must learn to manage before flying can become an everyday sport.” Wilbur Wright
Chapter 7 – RELENTLESS PREPARATION – The Principle of Forever Learning
This chapter refers to “forever learning” and how important it is in the pursuit of answers to a problem.
When he (Orville) asked the librarian why there were no books on aeronautics, he was told that “scientists held the idea in great discredit and it was therefore not a subject on which libraries spend money.”
It is withholding judgment until all possibilities have been considered. It is not the search for the right answer; it’s the search for the right answers.
In Marketing 101, I was told there were basically four things that could give a company competitive advantage: a unique product, the lowest price, exceptional customer service, or strong, well established relationships. Arie de Geus, a planner with the Royal Dutch Shell, would say there was only one. “The only truly sustainable competitive advantage in the future,” de Geus notes, “may be the ability to learn faster then the competition”
Chapter 8 – MEASURE TWICE – The Principle of Methodical Meticulousness
With money and material in short supply, the Wright brothers’ mother was very careful not to waste either. An excellent seamstress and designer, she had a routine she followed when making a new dress. Before putting scissors to fabric, she created—and tried on—a paper pattern of the dress. Once she confirmed a proper fit, she transferred the pattern to the material and began cutting. She used to tell her sons, “Make your mistakes on paper if you can.”
Detailed record keeping.
Legend has it that in an effort to bring order to the kitchen of their Kill Devil Hills camp, he (Orville) numbered eggs so they could be eaten in the same sequence in which they had been laid.
The Wright brothers were able to move so quickly because of their meticulous and methodical approach to a problem. Instead of slowing them down, their meticulousness removed many of the time-wasters known to any project: backtracking, reworking, and procrastination. Having a detailed plan to follow, then working the plan, is still the fastest approach to a solution.
Chapter 9 – FORCE MULTIPLICATION – The Principle of Team Equity
The Wright brothers had a unique relationship, externally they were very different but very similar at the core. Exemplifying the thought that two heads are better then one, the Wright brothers father is quoted as saying “They (Wilbur and Orville) are equal in their inventions, neither claiming any superiority above the other, nor accepting any honor to the neglect of the other. Neither could have mastered the problem alone.”
One example (of the equitable distribution of trust) is the trust the Wright brothers had in each other in their financial dealings. When Wilbur and Orville first went into business together, they opened a joint checking account at the bank. It would be the only account that either brother would have. All funds generated from the operation of the business were deposited into this account. If either brother needed to write a check, he would sign it the same way: Wright Brothers. Only a small set of initials (O.W. or W.W.) under the signature would let someone know who had written the check. Neither brother ever questioned the expenditure of the other. This system worked from the beginning until Wilbur’s death in 1912.
The Equitable Distribution of Power (Information)
- Unequal knowledge separates people, compromising their ability to come together as a team.
Share the Glory
- Remember that any good behavior that goes unacknowledged eventually disappears.
Establish bonds of trust.
- The most effective ways to build trust are to maximize listening skills and follow through on commitments.
Chapter 10 – SOULS ON FIRE
Ambition and passion ultimately resulted in the accomplishment of the Wright brothers. Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929), a French field marshal, is quoted “The most powerful weapon on earth is a human soul on fire”
A concerned mother sat down and wrote a letter to her son, taking him to task for his inactivity and seeming lack of direction in life. She reminded him that at the age of twenty-two, he needed not only to find a purpose in life, but to work hard to achieve it. “Life means work,” she wrote, “and hard work if you mean to succeed.” I think it’s safe to say that Jennie Churchill’s letter to her son had the desired effect.
Orville’s vision was so intense that it served as a sort of “cosmic magnet” pulling him toward destiny. He had lived with that vision of success for so long that it had become reality in his mind. December 17, 1903, marked just another flight to Orville.
Learning to Soar
- Remember that great ideas need landing gear as well as wings.
EPILOGUE – Lives of Consequence
Other then carrying one of the greatest surnames that man has ever known, the Wright brothers truly made a lasting difference, and that is what really matters.
Edward Deeds, another noted Daytonian, said; “Our lives and the lives of our children, and our children’s children, depend upon our breadth of vision, unity of purpose, and courage to execute.”