Lessons from Orville and Wilbur Wright
December 17, 2003, marked the 100th anniversary of the first controlled flight, leading to a profusion of books, TV shows, and magazine articles about the Wright brothers. The book I’m reviewing, The Wright Way by Mark Eppler, is one of these.
Why am I reviewing this book in a technical publications newsletter? In the last several months my image of the Wright brothers has changed. I used to view them as standard American heroes with the nagging feeling that maybe they didn’t make the first powered flight. Other countries claim their own first flights. After being immersed in the subject for several months, I now have a much better understanding and greater appreciation of the significance of their achievement. Orville and Wilbur Wright did or didn’t make the first powered flight, depending on how we define the “first powered flight.” But they did something much more important. They solved the problem of control. They could take off; control the altitude, orientation, and direction of their flight; and come to a safe landing. They defined the science of aeronautics. The modern airplane is a direct descendant of the Wright Flyer.
So why am I reviewing this book? Eppler provides a detailed analysis of the techniques that Wilbur and Orville Wright used to solve a previously unsolved problem: controlled, powered flight. People in engineering disciplines, including technical communication, are always trying to solve previously unsolved problems. We are asked to develop processes for content management, reuse, outsourcing, maybe offshoring, and a host of others. While others are working on the same problems, the solution for each of us is unique to our own organization. The Wright brothers’ problem-solution techniques are very applicable to technical communication problems.
Eppler divides the Wright brothers’ problem-solving process into seven techniques. All are applicable to technical communication organizations. They’re listed here in a different order than Eppler’s.
- Relentless Preparation – The Principle of Forever Learning
- Force Multiplication – The Principle of Team Equity
- Forging – The Principle of Constructive Conflict
- Tackle the Tyrant – The Principle of Worst Things First
- Mind-Warping – The Principle of Rigid Flexibility
- Fiddling – The Principle of Inveterate Tinkering
- Measure Twice – The Principle of Methodical Meticulousness
We’ve been involved in many content management applications recently. The Wright Principles, if applied in these projects, would make the task easier and ensure against failure. But many organizations plunge into content management with no idea of what they want or where they are going. What can we learn from Orville and Wilbur Wright?
Many organizations start developing their content management project without developing any expertise in the area of content management. The Wright brothers read every book on the subject before developing their first model. They knew about every success and failure in the field of aeronautics. They were as knowledgeable as anyone else in the field. Unlike the Wright brothers, it’s easy for us to obtain information. We have books, newsletters, the internet, conferences, telephones, and easy communication with other organizations working on the same problem, either directly or through organizations like STC or CIDM. Yet it’s surprising how few organization are adequately prepared before attempting a content management implementation.
The Wright brothers succeeded ahead of others with much greater resources because they were such a close-knit team with identical goals. Many times, teams put together for content management implementations are full of hierarchy, politics, and discord. The team must be put together to solve the problem, not to appease the political inclinations of the organization. Many teams are too large. When you put together a team, members should be selected because of their contribution to the problem solution. Hierarchy must be minimized. The Wright brothers invented aviation with a team of two, no leader, and $1,000.
In Dayton, the Wright brothers were well known for their frequent arguments. They would argue intensely about technical problems. Their discussions never became personal. They both had the same goal: to find a solution to a problem. Since they had prepared themselves by reading, their arguments were meaningful and led to ideas to apply to their problem. They were so convincing that occasionally they changed each others minds and began arguing on the other side, to the consternation of their friends and associates. Too many times in modern organizations, the concern of meeting attendees is more about not hurting anyone’s feelings and reaching a quick consensus rather than finding a solution to the problem at hand.
Tackle the Tyrant
The problem of manned, powered flight was enormous. Wilbur and Orville Wright knew they couldn’t solve the entire problem at once, so they divided up the problem of flight into a number of more manageable problems-wing design, propulsion, power, control, balance, and flying skill. They prioritized them and decided that the most important and difficult problem to solve was that of flight control. They felt if they could not solve this problem, there was no value in solving easier problems. Without control, flight would not be feasible. Most of their research and testing involved control. In fact, their patent application to the US Patent Office dealt mostly with control. They actually patented their controlled glider rather than their powered flyer! Information development organizations planning to implement content management systems should follow the Wright brothers’ lead. They should break the effort down to a series of manageable problems, prioritize, and tackle the problem that is most difficult and likely to lead to the failure of the whole effort if it’s not solved. Many organizations make the mistake of working on peripheral problems rather than the central problem of content management and reuse. They are afraid of failure.
Wilbur and Orville Wright started their design based on the best theories of their predecessors in the design of flying machines. But they were able to make innovations beyond what others had done. They were not tied to tradition. For any problem we are trying to solve, we must first be aware of what others have tried. At the same time we must be willing to innovate to attempt solutions that others have not tried before. In the area of content management, each organization has to find its own solution because no two organizations are alike. There is no such thing as a “best-in-class” or “industry-standard” solution to a content management problem.
The Wright brothers were never satisfied with a design they created. They always assumed that improvements could be made. But that did not prevent them from moving ahead, trying a design, making an improvement, trying the design again, and so on. In fact, the historic flight of December 17, 1903, was just another test in their minds. Orville and Wilbur continued to make improvements that day and in the years to come. When we design our content management processes, we should follow the Wrights’ example of testing, improving, and testing again. Like the Wright Flyer, our processes can always be improved.
Eppler gets the term “measure twice” from a rule used by Wilbur and Orville’s mother when making clothes: measure twice, cut once. Before cutting any material, measure twice so you don’t make a mistake Then, you only have to cut once.
The Wright brothers were meticulous in building their Flyer as well as in recording their flight tests. One hundred years later we know exactly how they built and changed their Flyer to make improvements. They never took data from other builders on faith but always performed their own tests. When they found that wing and propeller shapes others were using were not optimal, they built a wind tunnel and did their own measurements and carefully recorded their results. Today’s wing and propeller shapes are essentially the same as those developed by Orville and Wilbur.
Too often, in our organizations, we are faced with unreasonable budgets and deadlines in making needed improvements to our process. Sometimes it seems that throwing something together quickly and cheaply is all that is needed. It is easier to say “We do content management!” than to create a carefully designed and tested process that will produce a lasting contribution for our organization. The Wright brothers’ design prevailed over all the others because of their attention to accuracy, detail, and good documentation.
The seven problem-solving techniques of the Wright brothers should be in our minds any time we face the challenge of a new problem. Our projects may not be remembered in 100 years, but they should result in lasting contributions to our organizations.
At about 200 pages, Eppler’s book is an easy read and gives lots of interesting history about the Wright brothers. The book is inspiring because it demonstrates what can be accomplished with hard work, dedication, and attention to detail. We can learn a lot from the story of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
About the Author