October 2016

The Wright Way to Collaborate

by Steve Alltop

In 1901, most people believed that man would never fly. Wilbur Wright, who had already begun investigations into heavier-than-air flight with his brother Orville, thought that the achievement could be as much as fifty years in the future. Yet, on December 17, 1903, just two years later, he and Orville accomplished that feat. What propelled them to success? What key leadership lessons can we derive from the Wright brothers? One could wander down the usual paths of clear unifying vision, goals, planning, resource allocation and so forth. But at the turn of the 20th century there was no shortage of individuals with a vision of the future that included flight. Here in the U.S., Samuel Pierpont Langley was very well funded by the War Department but failed spectacularly, with his craft plunging into the Potomac River just weeks before the Wright brothers' famous flight at Kitty Hawk. So why did they succeed where others had failed? I maintain that it came down to their effectiveness as a team and especially their ability to collaborate through intense conflict.

For my summer reading enjoyment I'm reading an excellent biography, The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough. As I read the chapters detailing the time leading up to the creation of the first Flyer, I asked myself how two bicycle shop owners accomplished what no one else could? Keen intellect, intense curiosity, and a willingness to question assumptions and prevailing wisdom certainly played major roles. But McCullough's description of long evening discussions as they worked through one problem after another, and especially this passage, struck me as key:

During these months their "discussions" became as intense as they had ever been. Heated words flew, filling hours of their days and nights, often at the top of their voices...According to Charlie Taylor [their mechanic], they were never really mad at each other. One morning after one of their "hottest" exchanges, he had only just opened the shop...when Orville came in saying he "guessed he'd been wrong and they ought to do it Will's way." Shortly after, Wilbur arrived to announce he had been thinking it over and "perhaps Orv was right." The point was, said Charlie, "when they were through...they knew where they were and could go ahead with the job." (McCullough, p. 89)

Each brother was passionate in his position, but neither had to be "right". They focused on arriving at the best possible solution, not winning the argument. Over and over again they invented options to overcome objections and stayed focused on achieving an objective. They very rarely compromised. They would stay at it until both were convinced they had arrived at the best possible solution.

What enabled the Wright Brothers to collaborate so effectively can also enable you and your teams. Build trust in each other, so that no member fears engaging in passionate discussion around issues critical to the team's success. Build a culture where no one hesitates to disagree with, challenge, and question to find the best solutions, discover truth, and make great decisions. When you do, you will find that unhealthy conflict fades away and team buy-in and commitment to outcomes grows exponentially. Oh by the way, you might also find that you've accomplished something cool; like learn to fly.

Steve Alltop is an Academy Leadership affiliate and co-founder of The Daedalus Group.