Solve The Right Problem

In 1959, long before the X-prize, Henry Kremer offered 50,000 pounds to anyone who could finally build a flying machine powered only by the pilot’s body power.  All an entrant had to do was fly in a figure eight around two posts placed half a mile apart.  Kremer also offered 100,000 pounds to anyone who could fly across the English Channel.

Many undertook the challenge.  All of them failed.  Their designs were too heavy, too prone to failure, and took too long to fix to be economically viable.

Paul MacCready realized where the others had failed.  He recognized that their biggest flaws weren’t in the design or weight of their aircrafts.  Instead, he recognized that each competitor was spending up to a year on a single design before launching it.  These teams would finally complete their designs and then promptly lose a year’s worth of work when it inevitably crashed.  They didn’t do any interim testing because their machines, once destroyed, took months to rebuild.

The problem, MacCready realized, was that nobody understood the problem.

By taking the opposite approach, by designing a machine that could be rapidly rebuilt, changed, and tweaked, MacCready was able to launch 3 to 4 flight attempts per day.  He was able to constantly test and rework his designs.

MacCready’s first attempt didn’t work.  Neither did his second.  Or his twentieth.  But it didn’t matter.  MacCready need only six months to solve the problem others had been working on for 18 years because he understood that the process was the real problem that needed solving.    Just six months after the Gossamer Condor claimed the 50,000 pound prize, MacCready’s Gossamer Albatross claimed the 100,000 pound Kremer prize for crossing the English Channel.  All because he understood what the real problem was.

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One Response to Solve The Right Problem

  1. Ryan Tanaka says:

    So true — sometimes people get into a feedback loop of “getting busy” when their efforts are spent on the wrong types of problems. Especially hard when it comes from management and the workers don’t have much choice but to follow that path.

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