Co.Design

Wanna Solve Impossible Problems? Find Ways to Fail Quicker

A case study in how an intractable problem -- creating a human-powered airplane -- was solved by reframing the problem.

1959 was a time of change. Disney released their seminal film Sleeping Beauty, Fidel Castro became the prime minister of Cuba, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower made Hawaii an official state. That same year, a British industry magnate by the name of Henry Kremer wondered: Could an airplane fly powered only by the pilot's body?

Like Da Vinci, Kremer believed it was possible and decided to try to turn his dream into reality. He offered the staggering sum of £50,000 for the first person to build a human-powered plane that could fly a figure eight around two markers set a half-mile apart. Also, he offered £100,000 for the first person to fly across the English Channel. In modern U.S. dollars, that's the equivalent of $1.3 million and $2.5 million. The Kremer Prize was the X-Prize of its day.

Speed-Ring

[Paul MacCready holding a "Speed Ring," a device he invented for competitive glider flying.]

The problem was the process itself.

A decade went by. Dozens of teams tried and failed to build an airplane that could meet the requirements. It looked impossible. Another decade threatened to go by before our hero, Paul MacCready, decided to get involved. He looked at the problem, how the existing solutions had failed, and how people were making their airplanes. He came to the startling realization that people were solving the wrong problem. "The problem is," he said, "that we don't understand the problem."

MacCready's insight was that everyone who was working on solving human-powered flight would spend upwards of a year building an airplane on conjecture and theory without a base of knowledge based on empirical tests. Triumphantly, they would complete their plane and wheel it out for a test flight. Minutes later, a year's worth of work would smash into the ground.

Even in successful flights, the flight would end with the pilot physically exhausted just a couple hundred meters later. With that single new data point, the team would work for another year to rebuild, re-test, and re-learn. Progress was slow for obvious reasons, but that was to be expected in pursuit of such a difficult vision. That's just how it was, went the common thinking.

The problem was the problem. MacCready realized that what needed to be solved was not, in fact, human-powered flight. That was a red herring. The problem was the process itself. And a negative side effect was the blind pursuit of a goal without a deeper understanding of how to tackle deeply difficult challenges. He came up with a new problem that he set out to solve: How can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours, not months? And he did. He built a plane with Mylar, aluminum tubing, and wire.

Gossamer

The first airplane didn't work. It was too flimsy. But, because the problem he set out to solve was creating a plane he could fix in hours, he was able to quickly iterate. Sometimes he would fly three or four different planes in a single day. The rebuild, re-test, and re-learn cycle went from months and years to hours and days.

Find a faster way to fail, recover, and try again.

Eighteen years had passed since Henry Kremer opened his wallet for his challenge. Nobody could turn that vision into an airplane. Paul MacCready got involved and changed the understanding of the problem to be solved. Half a year later later, MacCready's Gossamer Condor flew 2,172 meters to win the prize. A little more than a year after that, the Gossamer Albatross flew across the English Channel. So what's the lesson? When you are solving a difficult problem, re-frame the problem so that your solution helps you learn faster. Find a faster way to fail, recover, and try again. If the problem you are trying to solve involves creating a magnum opus, you are solving the wrong problem.

[Thanks to Alan Kay for turning me on to this story.]

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15 Comments

  • Christoph Dollis

    Brilliant, Asa -- thank you so much for this article.

    I shall endeavour to put the tips gleaned into practise and iteration.

  • Matthew Shears

    Agree with O'Donnell. I don't underdstand is this love of "failing"....

    In this piece there is no failing. "Rebuilding, re-testing, and re-learning" is not failing - its prototyping, redesigning based upon trial and experience. You fail at doing something once, not multiple times. Most times its used in the past tense - as in you were a failure in something. None of us want to be there or should be comfortable being there.

    If you continue to fail you clearly have not prototyped or redesigned enough and clearly need a major reboot.

  • Lyne Tumlinson

    The comments here are as good as the article, thank you all for once again helping me realize I'm in the right place. We are indeed in a challenging time, (thanks, Chris) at a fork-in-the-road. Melodie, right there with you! Shannon, keep hammering at the language and idea where success is a developing concept (vs continual failure). You folks are the people I love to work with!

  • Doug Brock

    I think the key to his success was MacCready’s willingness to accept risk but limit the risk to small experiments. That's how innovation works best. Tom Fishburne speaks of how large companies frequently inhibit this innovation in his blog post today (http://bit.ly/grQqty). If you limit the risk too much you don't experiment enough.
    Doug Brock
    http://www.dougbrock.com

  • Richard Howells

    "Impossible problems" are those where there is no viable solution that we can dust off and apply again. Leaders need to tap the collective intelligence of the organization ... and the industry ... and those outside the industry to find new solutions. Those who are inside the current system are often blind to their own biases and conditioned ways of thinking. As a consultant, I find it useful to broaden the inquiry with questions like the excellent one Aza Raskin asks about reframing. "What are several different ways we can reframe this problem?" pushes people out of their current positions to new possibilities.

  • kwilson

    Thanks for this article, great to read this as I start another work week.
    I challenge myself to make time to keep my creativity always going.

    I believe that life is full up mistakes and learning from these 'mistakes' is how we grow!

    Chris, I agree we have many paths in our lives choose the unfamiliar is a fun ride.
    Creativity, art, design etc. is about redesigning, questioning the normal. Eames Wire-Base Table was designed by men who looked at furniture in a different light.

  • Mick Ukleja

    Great article. Disturbing, because re-framing is always a little scary. I loved "the problem was the problem." If we can re-frame the problem, we will be asking the right questions. THE PROBLEM NAMED IS THE PROBLEM SOLVED. The right question begs for a proper answer. Max Dupree use to say, "The #1 job of a leader is to define reality." Your story turns that principle into an understandable application.

  • Melodie Moore

    Great article.

    I agree, big business does not want linchpins.

    There is a steady rise in entrepreneurs in the world, more and more people and saying screw the 9-5.

    I feel like over the coming years big business will have no choice but to change or have no one to work for them. I don't know any human being that wants to feel like a mindless machine for 8 hours a day. People are waking up and seeing that the grass is greener...

    The revolution is now. I feel blessed to be a part of it

  • Rick Kennett

    Chis, you are so right and it is interesting that this is an area where organizations certainly 'talk the talk' but trip all over themselves when trying to walk. Speed and agility vs compliance and control. One promotes change, the other stability. When you are looking for stability mistakes are not tolerated and as a result innovation and change becomes a risky undertaking with no sponsorship. Creating an environment where improvement and change are encouraged requires a culture that embraces error as part of the learning methodology. That culture typically surrenders a great deal of compliance and control, and that is where the trouble starts. Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.

    Rick

  • Chris Reich

    Excellent, excellent. I really try to do this type of thinking with my client base but I see two disturbing trends in American business.

    1. Most businesses do not want creative thinkers. Most businesses see creative thinkers as rebels and difficult to manage, their ideas as whacky and expensive.

    2. Businesses want compliance with procedures more than they want improvement to operations. Seth Godin's Linchpin book is a an interesting reflection of this. Businesses do not want linchpins. Management's job is to hold things together. Businesses want people to work.

    This country of ours is at the fork-in-the-road of our future. One path leads to decline and the other to turn around. Looking ahead, we can see the familiar on one side as far down the path as we can see. (Not far) And the other side looks strange and confusing.

    Given those choices, people will usually choose the familiar.

    If we would break with our sense of security we could learn rather quickly that the strange road that it is lined with new opportunity.

    Which way will we go?

    Chris Reich
    www.TeachU.com

  • Shannon O'Donnell

    I appreciate the article, but I recommend coming up with better language than this old "fail faster" notion that is just nonsense. Why on earth do we insist on calling learning that, while it doesn't immediately produce a useful outcome, nonetheless contributes to it, a failure? This is short term thinking at it's worst. The problem isn't with changing how we think of failure, it's that we need to stop overusing such an inaccurate term. As our innovation processes are necessarily iterative, they will include all sorts of prototypes, trials and demonstrations on which we build the knowledge needed to make something truly new. To borrow an illustration from a colleague - when an Olympic athlete trains to run 1500 meters under 3:33 minutes, does every time he runs at 3:34 during his training count as failure?

    Sure, it might be nice if we could all get to a radical innovation on one cycle through a process, but then we'd pretty much have to know from the start what outcome we were aiming for, and where's the innovation in doing something we already know how to do?

  • Dave Thackeray

    This is astonishingly erudite thinking framed around a simple concept to understand.

    What we're saying here takes my mind to how Disney goes about creating its Utopian pleasure parks. Instead of the big picture the firm goes about putting every single jigsaw piece under the microscope, finessing solutions and ultimately creating an unprecedented experience for the paying people.

    When I can't reframe the problem I break it down into its component parts and build a better overall solution.

    Great piece, Aza!