Taking flight with the Wright brothers
In 12 seconds on December 17, 1903, two bicycle repairmen sealed their place in history as they solved the mystery of manned flight. Now 100 years later, Wilbur and Orville Wright's landmark takeoff is back in the spotlight, and the shelves are packed with books on all things Wright.
Standing out from the crowd is Mark Eppler's The Wright Way: 7 Problem-Solving Principles from the Wright Brothers That Can Make Your Business Soar. The management advice-cum-historical adventure draws business lessons from the brothers who, still working part-time in their bicycle shop, financed their own inventions and conquered the air in just 11 months. BookPage recently spoke to Eppler, a former marketing executive and management instructor, about the Wright brothers' amazing problem-solving techniques and how they can be applied today.
For brothers, Wilbur and Orville got along amazingly well. What made them such good business partners? The Wright brothers' partnership, perhaps the most productive two-man collaboration in history, was based on the fair distribution of what I like to call the five equities: trust, effort, honor, profits and power (information). The trust the two shared was powered by an intense belief that integrity and honesty were essential in all relationships. That integrity made sure that the other parts of their working relationship sharing workload, credit (for accomplishments) and information were all kept in balance. Sharing profits was not an issue either. During the entire time they were in business (the partnership ended in 1912 with Wilbur's untimely death from typhoid fever), they shared a common checking account. Neither questioned the checks the other wrote, both signing them the same way: "Wright Brothers." Wilbur and Orville knew that neither could solve the problem of flight alone, so protecting the relationship was as important as building a flying machine.
Wilbur called Orville a "good scrapper." Why was that important? It's important to remember that what the Wright brothers were trying to accomplish was incredibly complex. A lot of theory and ideas were being thrashed out, and the brothers needed to be sure they got it right. After all, they were betting their lives on the outcome. Their ability to contest each other's ideas, often in heated fashion, was a key component in their success. Their sometimes thunderous arguments, while disconcerting to others, were the sound of discovery as far as the brothers were concerned.
In calling Orville a "good scrapper," Wilbur was paying tribute to Orv's ability to engage his older brother in head-to-head debate without being intimidated. In my book, I call this activity forging, a process by which ideas are subjected to the "heat" of discussion and the "blows" of contention until a practical solution emerges just as iron is forged in a blacksmith's shop. The Wright brothers' "scrapping" was a creative life-force that energized the brothers, driving them forward in their quest to fly. Many companies, in the interest of political correctness and civility, have shifted the emphasis from the pursuit of creativity to the preservation of pleasantness. Everyone's getting along, but there aren't many new and innovative ideas being generated.
How did the Wright brothers react after their flight made them famous? The Wright brothers were raised in a home that placed great emphasis on personal character. Milton Wright, a bishop in the United Brethren Church, raised Wilbur and Orville to believe that humility and courtesy were essential in all relationships. As a result, they remained unchanged in virtually every respect by their success, save one. Because of the bitter patent fights and legal battles that followed, the brothers became less trusting of those outside their tight-knit circle of family and friends, and more insulated from the world.
Where do you plan to be on December 17? Freezing in Kitty Hawk! At 10:35 a.m., on the spot where the Wright brothers first conquered the wind 100 years earlier, an attempt will be made to fly an authentic replica of the original Wright Flyer at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. I'll be there, with a few thousand others, to capture the moment and cheer them on.