Co.Design

What The Wright Brothers Could Teach Today's Innovators About Solving Problems

Three tips for testing your assumptions the Wright—er, right—way

One key to successful innovation, a growing body of innovation thinkers believe, is trial-and-error experimentation. Proponents of the Lean Startup methodology urge innovators to create a minimum viable product (MVP)—something that solves a customer’s problem adequately but isn’t perfectly polished—and use it as a vehicle to gather critical in-market learning. The approach makes many executives inside big companies nervous. After all, experiments can fail, which implies taking on a risk that could blow back in some way to harm the core business. And in some industries even developing a good enough product is time consuming and expensive.

Consider how, for example, innovators approached the development of manned flight. Since most animals that can fly have wings, one group naturally thought about developing strap-on wings. To test a particular design, they’d go to the top of a tall structure, and jump. Wrong assumptions had predictable consequences. Other innovators tried to create flying machines, taking years to build expensive prototypes that often didn’t survive the testing process.

Wright's Start via Library of Congress

The way the Wright Brothers approached the problem offers important lessons for modern innovators. The Wright Brothers were consummate experimenters. But they found relatively simple, low-risk ways to test their assumptions. Rather than going to the top of a tall building and jumping or spending years tinkering to create the perfect prototype, they built and flew kites. Not only could they build kites more rapidly, but they hadn’t risked life and limb or depleted their bank accounts when it turned out that they got something wrong.

Still, they hungered for other ways to speed the learning process. In 1901, using a wooden box, a hacksaw blade, bicycle-spoke wire, and a fan, they built a six-foot long "wind tunnel." After a month of tinkering, they figured out how to use it to test assumptions about design. The tunnel allowed them to see how different shaped wings would perform in different wind conditions without having to build an entire craft, and, of course, rebuild that craft if something bad happened.

By simplifying the testing process, the Wright Brothers could test more than 200 types of wings in two exhilarating months. They experimented with models proposed by other would-be aviators, carefully measuring the aerodynamic lift of different designs in different conditions. Wilbur Wright later recalled that they learned that most of the mathematical assumptions inventors used about how different aspect ratios—the ratio between the wing’s length and its span—would affect lift were "full of errors."

Analyzing the data that came from their rapid experiments accelerated the Wright Brothers’ path to developing a viable flying machine. Wilbur wrote, "it is doubtful if anyone would have ever developed a flyable wing without first developing this data."

Orville Wright in flight via Library of Congress

The wind tunnel allowed the Wright Brothers to learn a tremendous amount without creating full prototypes or doing the equivalent of in-market learning. And you can learn before you build a MVP by considering three straightforward approaches.

Do desk research. A few years ago, Innosight advised a team inside a big consumer products company that was thinking about a new offering to target college campuses. The company hoped to deliver a device to centralized points on campuses, drive usage through targeted awareness campaigns, and then make money on the consumable components that went into the device. The business plan assumed that it would take about three months to work through the process of getting approval to sell to a school. However, no one on the team had ever sold to a school before.

They could of course go and pilot the idea at a few schools and see how long it took. Or they could simply pick up the phone and call someone who made a living selling to schools. One of the team members had a family friend who worked at a company that sold security solutions to schools. He was more than happy to talk about his experiences. It turned out in many cases the sales cycle wasn’t three months—it was three years. Schools move slowly, with decision-making authority intentionally diffuse. That didn’t mean the idea was bad, it just meant the team needed to approach it differently and assume it would grow more slowly than it first projected. There is a misbegotten belief that action is the only way to learn. The combination of LinkedIn and Google mean that experts who can shed light on critical assumptions are no more than a mouse click away.

Run a thought experiment. Fast food giant McDonald’s regularly evaluates new concepts for its menu. A few years ago it considered a shrimp salad. The idea fit general trends toward health consciousness. It could be pre-packed, fitting neatly into McDonald’s delivery model. However, any idea McDonald’s introduces has to have the potential to scale to its tens of thousands of stores around the globe. McDonald’s ran a thought experiment. How much shrimp would be required if it scaled the idea around the world? How did that compare to the current supply of shrimp? It turned out that McDonald’s would put a significant dent in the U.S. shrimp supply, which would drive up prices and make the idea unprofitable. You can run your own "shrimp stress test" in your imagination. What would it look like if you succeeded? Is there a hidden rate-limiting assumption that would make success impossible? Thought experiments are wonderful ways to learn because they don’t cost anything, and force you to take an external perspective on key strategic issues. They can be conducted by an individual, but work best when they involve people who bring diverse, external perspectives.

Wilbur Wright examining canoe attachment to aeroplane before first flight over water via Library of Congress

Perform a focused feasibility test. About 15 years ago, Reed Hastings had an idea. What if, instead of going to a store to return a movie, a consumer could simply return it through the mail? Customers would still pay late fees—after all, that enticement to return videos helped ensure adequate inventory of movies—but the ease of dropping a DVD in the mail would increase convenience and customer satisfaction. Ultimately Hastings and his team built an incredibly sophisticated system to manage the intricacies of delivering millions of DVDs around the United States and shifted the model to a highly disruptive all-you-can-eat subscription offering. Before making any investment, however, Hastings had a basic question: could you actually mail a DVD and not have it get mangled? It was simple enough to learn more about this uncertainty. Hastings mailed a CD to himself in an envelope. A couple of days later he had his answer: the postal service could in fact complete a mailing without damage. Total investment: less than $5.

The activities described above aren’t quite as exciting as developing a full blown offering and attracting real customers. But, like the wind tunnel, they allow innovators to learn quickly with lower investment and lower risk. As Wilbur Wright noted, "Sometimes the non-glamorous lab work is absolutely crucial to the success of a project."

So, what’s your wind tunnel?

[Image: Wright flyer via Wikipedia]

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2 Comments

  • Great examples of experiments that lead to valuable knowledge. The same process can be applied successfully to identifying the problem. Start with a problem based on reasonable assumptions, then verify which aspects of that problem actually exist. Then refine the definition of the problem based on experiments.

  • Chris C Olivier

    I feel the birth of a new phrase... "Let's wind tunnel this idea." Or "have you wind tunneled that concept?" I think it will stick.