The Wright Brothers: An Introduction To Innovation

On December 17, 2003 pilots in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina failed to reenact the flight of Orville and Wilbur Wright that had taken place 100 years earlier. What made the flight successful a century earlier, while an exact replica of the flight failed in an era of jet-powered aircraft? I believe the people who drove this innovation were ultimately the reason for the original flights success. Many people believe that the Wright brothers were the first people to fly. This is only partially accurate. They were the first to successfully power and control a sustained, heavier-than-air-flight, although many previous innovators had had a similar vision.

• Abbas Ibn Firna, an Arabian inventor is often cited as being the first person to attempt a heavier-than-air-flight.

• Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis and Anne-Jean Robert, French men, attempted to steer using oars and umbrellas while flying in a hydrogen balloon.

• Otto Lilienthal, a German known as the “Glider King,” is dubbed as the first person photographed in a flying machine.

Over many centuries, people have dreamed of flying and have taken steps towards that dream attempting to fly. So what made the Wright brothers flight in 1903 a success, while a flight identical to theirs was unsuccessful a hundred years after the fact? Again, I believe it is the people who were driving the innovation. You can see that the Wright brothers were engaged in the process and cycle of continuous innovation throughout their lives, and were fortunate enough to succeed. In the innovation process, they succeeded in a few areas that made their accomplishment memorable, historic and groundbreaking.

Complacency – The Wright Brothers refused to be complacent; they challenged the status quo and were not concerned with stability or certainty. The idea of powered flight was completely new and they were willing to take risks and to brave ambiguity in their pursuit of flight.

Optimism – The two men were excited about new ideas. Their experience building bicycles led them to believe that, much like riding a bike, instability in a flying machine could be controlled and balanced with practice. The mistakes (deaths) of others led them to believe and to be optimistic about the notion that that control was critical to flying successfully.

Failures and Setbacks – Experiencing failure is the most critical juncture for any innovator, and for many, this is where the cycle of innovation ends. Many people and organizations get frustrated, spiral downward into chaos, despair over their failures, and become disengaged or disinterested in pursuing innovation further. The Wright brothers refused to be bogged down by setbacks and as a result, they were able to move on to the next step in the process.

Informed Learning – The Wrights conducted thousands of trials using kites, gliders, and primitive airplanes in order to perfect their work. They were constantly in a state of innovation, making frequent adjustments to motors, propellers, and steering mechanisms.

Validation – The Wright brothers didn’t learn to fly overnight, they repeated this innovation process over and over again, using the data and evidence they had gathered to validate the results they had found in pursuit of the results they desired.

As you ponder the innovation process of the Wright brothers, remember that innovation is the ability to either incrementally or boldy manipulate the driving forces of change and improve products, processes, or solutions in ways that create distinctive value and advantages for you as an individual or the organization you work for. Keep innovating and don’t give up.

A clip of Wright brothers in Action (30 seconds)

An amature clip of the unsuccessful 2003 reenactment of the the Wright brothers 1903 flight (50 seconds)

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About the Author

Chris Stowell

Christopher Stowell is currently serving as CMOE’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing where he works with multi-national organization to develop their people. His special interests lie in coaching teamwork, strategy, e-learning, and assessment design, and delivery. Chris has a special talent in helping companies assess their organizational effectiveness and identifying key issues and opportunities in order to advance their performance and achieve long term results. Additionally, he has extensive experience in designing, coordinating, and facilitating customized adventure based experiential training events for high performance teams.