Learning to Fly: Principles of Innovation

January 24, 2013 — Andrew Heller

A recent trip to Kitty Hawk proved to be a lesson on how pioneering inventors make their innovations real. The Wright Brothers changed the course of history. Through insight, mechanical ingenuity and sheer determination, they brought people into the realm of flight. The world got smaller the day they flew.

Here are 6 key takeaways from Wrights’ innovations for any marketer:

1. Be Driven, Not Intimidated
Orville and Wilbur were not the only ones who were working on powered flight. Many had come before them, and contemporaries had raced to see who could figure it all out first. Early pioneers also had to experiment with (and on) their new equipment themselves. Failure often meant death. Get it wrong once and you might not get a second chance. But rather than be intimidated by these consequences, the Wrights drew more fuel for their fire, giving their work an urgency to help other would-be aviators.
Failure is more than “not an option;” it’s a motivator.

2. Build On What You Know
Orville and Wilbur’s fascination with flight began as children with a wind-up toy helicopter. They later made their living building bicycles, giving them a skill set in manufacturing, mechanics and fabrication. They also became self-sufficient, often building new machinery when none suited their needs. This proved invaluable when it came time to building a machine that had never been seen before.
What you do today should inform and improve what you do tomorrow.

3. Don’t Trust Anyone
One of the Wright Brothers’ contemporaries was a German gliding expert named Otto Lilienthal, who had completed over 2,000 documented glider flights before 1900 and written extensively on rules for successful flight. The brothers used his work as a foundation for their first tests, all of which proved unsuccessful. Turns out, Herr Lilienthal’s work was wrong––he ended up perishing during one of his test flights. Orville and Wilbur started fresh and came up with the rules of roll, pitch and yaw, the three critical flight dynamic principles that are still used today.
Don’t rely on experts; become one.

4. Allow For Trial & Error
Though the Wrights lived and worked in Dayton, Ohio, they had to find a location to test their new invention. They sent a letter to the Smithsonian asking for the windiest locations in the country. Though Chicago was at the top of the list, it proved too dangerous for a takeoff or landing. In the end, they chose Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (Kitty Hawk was sixth on the list). Kitty Hawk was windy but also coastal, giving them sand to land on that might help soften an inevitable crash landing.
Plan to make and learn from mistakes.

5. Never Give Up
The Wright Brothers worked for years before they had a successful flight, pouring all of their financial resources into a task that most thought would never succeed. The summer of 1902 was the year they almost quit. On their way back to Dayton following a glider crash, Orville was quoted as saying, “Man will fly, but not for a thousand years.” But after returning home, they got right back to work on their prototype. Twelve months later, they returned to Kitty Hawk and changed the world.
Failure is not when you don’t succeed but when you stop trying.

6. There Is No Finish Line
The Wright Brothers’ story does not end after their first flight. They continued to refine their invention, making their plane go higher and faster, and enabling the pilot to have more control. Their early secrecy led to skepticism, with some journalists doubting their claims altogether. Legal wars over patents hurt their public image. They also had to find buyers (not an easy task when nobody in the world had ever been trained as a pilot). Safety problems with later models didn’t help.
Real innovation is a never-ending journey.

Innovation is achieved on many different scales, and your challenge may not be to change the course of human history. But the lessons we can learn from those who did may help you reach your goals. Like Orville and Wilbur, the sky might quite literally be your only limit.

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