Saturday, May 28, 2011

You Are Solving the Wrong Problem

There is some problem you are trying to solve.  In you life, at work, in a design.  You are probably solving the wrong problem.  

In 1959, British industry magnate Henry Kremer wanted to build a plane powered only by the pilot's body power.  He offered £100,000 for the first person  who could fly across the English channel.  In modern US dollars, that would be $2.5 million.

A decade went by and it looked impossible until MacCready got involved.  He came to the startling realization that people were solving the wrong problem.  Everyone was working on solving human powered flights and would spend upwards of a year building an airplane on conjecture and theory without the grounding empirical tests.  Triumphantly, they'd complete their plane and wheel it in for a test flight.  Minutes later, a year's worth of work would smash to the ground.  Even in successful flights, a couple hundred meters later the flight would end with the pilot physically exhausted.  With that single new data point, the team would work for another year to rebuild, retest, relearn.

The problem was the problem.  Paul realized what needed to be solved was not, in fact, human powered flight.  That was the red-herring.  He came up with a new problem that he set out to solve:  how can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours, not months.  And he did.  The plane was made of Mylar, aluminum tubing and wire.  

The first plane didn't work because it was too flimsy.  But because he set out to create a plane fixable in hours, he was able to quickly iterate.  He was able to fly three or four different planes in a single day.  Half a year later, Macready's Gossamer Conder flew 2,172 meters to win the prize.

What's the take-away?  When you are solving a difficult problem, re-ask the problem so that your solution helps you learn faster.  FIND A FASTER WAY TO FAIL, RECOVER AND TRY AGAIN.  If the problem you are trying to solve involves creating a magnum opus, you are solving the wrong problem.


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