Problem Solving The Wright Way

As December approaches and organization leaders develop plans to operationalize their strategy next year, one date, December 17, is both inspirational and aspirational. On December 17, 1903 the Wright brothers demonstrated heavier than air human flight at Kitty Hawk North Carolina (

Many people know or sort of know the story of the Wright brothers. We see or hear airplanes every day and if asked we could answer that the Wright brothers invented airplanes, more or less. However, the coolest things (from the perspective of a modern organization) the Wright brothers did were all of the supporting acts that led to human flight.

The Wright brothers invented or mimicked behaviors that every successful start-up and every successful leader finds internally today. As the Wright brothers set out to solve the problem of flight they implemented ways of doing and thinking about the outcome that evolved into practices any effective organization leader will recognize today.


1-      The Wright brothers first broke the problem of flight into three smaller parts, wing lift, sufficient power, and pilot control. Then they solved one problem at a time to keep resources, including thought processes, focused.

2-       Next the Wright brothers gathered the known data of the day from the public library and other limited sources. Remember this was the late 1800’s and the daily paper was the primary source information sharing inside and outside of the community.

3-      With a focused problem and research in hand, the Wright brothers began building and testing to prove that they understood the problems and along the way they understood that the initial problems were not the actual problems. That is, they were learning to learn by letting the data lead them to new problems.

4-      To solve new problems the Wright brothers needed new tests or new ways of testing so they designed their own tests and tools to make testing faster and more accurate.

5-      With new tests and tools, new results emerged that were not supported by the prior research so the Wright brothers decided to trust their own data rather than what was already written. This more so than anything else led to powered flight, in my opinion. This act should feel very familiar to every successful start-up and effective organization leader today.

6-      Looking through the first five bullets you see the Wright brothers _____ (fill in the blank) because they did everything. That is, they were personally involved in every aspect of each problem, including the test pilot role where they were the ones who would be killed if things went wrong.  In organizations today, mistakes may not lead to death so leaders should be less afraid to commit and personally engage.

7-      As good researchers, the Wright brothers documented everything that worked as well as everything that did not work. Creating lessons learned from test failures ensured no more resources were wasted on things that did not work. Moreover, as a self-funded start-up, the Wright brothers documented every cost and invented ways to drive costs out, to decrease their burn rate (using modern terms).  

8-      Finally, when all of their solutions to the identified problems came together on December 17, 1903 years of effort, hundreds of test flights, new tests and new ways of testing, new mathematics, new manufacturing techniques, all combined to bring a new era of flight to humanity, the Wright brothers shared their successes with everyone who would listen.

As we prepare to enter a new year and solve new problems, these problem solving lessons that are more than one hundred years old seem highly relevant and worth remembering. Perhaps we should all try the Wright way of problem solving.


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