When the Method Becomes the Problem

When a complicated problem stubbornly resists attempts to solve it, it may be more complex than initially thought. In this case, a change of method from analytics to empiricism, from a plan-driven to a more agile approach, can work wonders. In this way, a layman in the field of aircraft construction succeeds in doing what legions of engineers before him have been unable to do.

When the only tool one has is a ham­mer, it is tempt­ing to think of every­thing as a nail (Maslow & Soci­ety, 1966). This ten­den­cy to apply tools and meth­ods to any prob­lem, no mat­ter how inap­pro­pri­ate, sim­ply because they are avail­able is also known as the Law the of Instru­ment or Maslow’s Ham­mer. Com­bined with the human bias to over­es­ti­mate our abil­i­ties when we only have a fun­da­men­tal under­stand­ing of a tool or method (Kruger & Dun­ning, 1999), this explains many aber­ra­tions in one or anoth­er agile trans­for­ma­tion, e.g., com­mit­tees that orga­nize their work in sprints, even though they are nei­ther a team nor work­ing on a product.

Maslow’s ham­mer, how­ev­er, is by no means a prob­lem of lay­men but ini­tial­ly describes a blind spot of experts (Maslow & Soci­ety, 1966). This blind spot becomes painful­ly notice­able when deal­ing with com­plex issues where experts are pri­mar­i­ly used to work on com­pli­cat­ed things. Engi­neer­ing, for exam­ple, is main­ly in the realm of the com­pli­cat­ed. Accord­ing­ly, the engi­neer­ing approach is ana­lyt­i­cal: experts break down the prob­lem, ana­lyze the parts and var­i­ous aspects, and then assem­ble the solu­tions. That’s how fac­to­ries, cars, and air­planes are built. Reg­u­lar planes, anyway.

The art of build­ing air­planes was already well advanced by 1976. That year, the Con­corde became the first super­son­ic pas­sen­ger air­craft to take up reg­u­lar flight oper­a­tions. It car­ried its pas­sen­gers at more than twice the speed of sound in a record time of 3 to 3.5 hours from Lon­don or Paris to New York, twice as fast as before (see Wikipedia). How­ev­er, a whol­ly dif­fer­ent and, at first glance, much sim­pler chal­lenge of air­craft con­struc­tion was still unsolved at that time.

In 1959 not only pre­lim­i­nary devel­op­ment work on Con­corde began in France and Great Britain. That year, the British indus­tri­al­ist Hen­ry Kre­mer also donat­ed a prize of 5,000 British pounds for the first air­plane pro­pelled by human mus­cle pow­er that would fly a lying fig­ure eight around two posts at a dis­tance of half a mile (806 meters) with­in 8 min­utes. In 1967 Kre­mer dou­bled the prize mon­ey, and in 1973 he final­ly increased it to 50,000 British pounds. Despite this hand­some sum, which would be equiv­a­lent to just under €720,000 in today’s pur­chas­ing pow­er, many teams failed to meet the chal­lenge (see Wikipedia).

Enter Paul Mac­Cready. The Amer­i­can physi­cist had a Ph.D. in atmos­pher­ic dis­tur­bances and was an avid glid­er pilot, but not an air­craft engi­neer. He only had some expe­ri­ence build­ing indoor air­plane mod­els from his youth and build­ing hang glid­ers with his sons. And he was $100,000 in debt in the sum­mer of 1976 due to a guar­an­tee for a friend’s failed start-up. Accord­ing to the exchange rate at the time, this sum was pret­ty much equiv­a­lent to the 50,000 British pounds of the prize donat­ed by Hen­ry Kre­mer, which is why Paul Mac­Cready became inter­est­ed in the prob­lem of human-pow­ered flight.

Lack­ing pri­or knowl­edge about the right way to design air­planes and lack­ing the bud­get for a large team of experts and expen­sive equip­ment, Paul McCready did not dwell long on analy­sis and plan­ning like the oth­er pro­fes­sion­al teams. Hav­ing stud­ied the flight of vul­tures dur­ing his sum­mer vaca­tion, he had the idea to try his luck with a light “mod­el air­plane” with a vast wingspan (29 meters, about the size of a DC‑9). With­in just two months, the first ver­sion of the Gos­samer Con­dor, made of alu­minum tubes, wires, rigid foam, and all cov­ered with a poly­ester film, was ready for a test flight. It end­ed — like so many after that — in a crash. But that was pre­cise­ly the point.

The Gos­samer Con­dor was thus the naive work of an ama­teur who did not care how pro­fes­sion­als con­struct­ed air­craft accord­ing to state of the art at that time. This state-of-the-art, applied by the com­peti­tors, result­ed in fan­tas­tic and rel­a­tive­ly fast air­planes. Still, it also made them more com­plex and heav­ier — too heavy to be oper­at­ed by mus­cle pow­er in the long run. How­ev­er, the real com­pet­i­tive advan­tage of Paul Mac­Cready’s design was not so much its light­ness or oth­er tech­ni­cal refine­ments but the fact that the Gos­samer Con­dor was so sim­ple to build and thus easy to repair. This sim­plic­i­ty allowed the team to learn from fail­ures much more quick­ly than the competition.

The suc­cess of this tac­tic was not long in com­ing. With­in a few months, Paul Mac­Cready’s small team was able to over­take the com­pe­ti­tion and improve the Gos­samer Con­dor fail­ure after fail­ure. And final­ly, on August 23, 1977, with pro­fes­sion­al cyclist Bri­an Allen as the pilot, they suc­ceed­ed in fly­ing the lying fig­ure eight around the two poles half a mile apart in a rel­a­tive­ly unhur­ried 7:25:05 min­utes. Just two years lat­er, on June 12, 1979, the same team man­aged to cross the Eng­lish Chan­nel with the Gos­samer Alba­tross, the suc­ces­sor to the Con­dor and received the sec­ond Kre­mer Prize for it, which was endowed with 100,000 British pounds. Paul Mac­Cready was rid of his debts and thus entered the annals of aviation.

The Gos­samer Alba­tross II on a test flight at NASA’s Dry­den Flight Research Cen­ter in Edwards, Calif.

The pro­fes­sion­al teams before him fol­lowed the rules of engi­neer­ing. If super­son­ic flight and land­ing on the moon were pos­si­ble with this art, the prob­lem of human-pow­ered flight, seem­ing­ly far less com­pli­cat­ed, could be solved as well. How­ev­er, the prob­lem was more com­plex than ini­tial­ly thought. The same ana­lyt­i­cal approach to engi­neer­ing that had improved air­craft con­struc­tion over the decades could not solve the com­plex­i­ty of mus­cle-pow­ered flight.

Suc­cess­ful­ly deal­ing with com­plex­i­ty requires a change of method from ana­lyt­ics to empiri­cism. Paul Mac­Cready fol­lowed his instinct and approached this prob­lem (also due to a lack of alter­na­tives) in a much more empir­i­cal way than the more ana­lyt­i­cal­ly ori­ent­ed com­pe­ti­tion. He focused his min­i­mal resources on what was tru­ly essen­tial and left every­thing else out. The air­plane did­n’t have to be fast or attrac­tive; it just need­ed a large wingspan for lots of lift, as in glid­ing, with as lit­tle weight as pos­si­ble, because a per­son­’s mus­cle pow­er was the lim­it­ing fac­tor. And to learn quick­ly from exper­i­ments and quick­ly try out new mod­i­fied designs, it had to be sim­ple in con­struc­tion and easy to repair.

The real chal­lenge wasn’t to build an ele­gant air­craft that could do the fig­ure eight on the field around the two pylons; it was to build a large, light air­craft, “no mat­ter how ugly it is,” that you could crash, “then repair, mod­i­fy, alter, redesign — fast.” That was when he sud­den­ly real­ized, “There is an easy way to do it.”

(McK­e­own, 2021)

Any­one who has spent many years of train­ing and pro­fes­sion­al life suc­cess­ful­ly apply­ing a ham­mer to dif­fer­ent nails finds it chal­leng­ing to rec­og­nize the screw and change the tool. At first glance, the Kre­mer price seemed to be a rather com­pli­cat­ed prob­lem, or at least that’s what the so-trained engi­neers thought it was. How­ev­er, the restric­tion of a sin­gle para­me­ter, name­ly dri­ve by human mus­cle pow­er alone, made the com­plex­i­ty more pre­dom­i­nant. It was only through the strong­ly empir­i­cal pro­ce­dure of tri­al and error (or, more ele­gant­ly, hypoth­e­sis and exper­i­ment) that Paul Mac­Cready, as a lay­man, suc­ceed­ed in doing what the experts before him had been unable to do for so long.


Kruger, J., & Dun­ning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How dif­fi­cul­ties in rec­og­niz­ing one’s own incom­pe­tence lead to inflat­ed self-assess­ments. Jour­nal of Per­son­al­i­ty and Social Psy­chol­o­gy, 77(6), 1121 – 1134. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022 – 3514.77.6.1121

Maslow, A. H., & Soci­ety, J. D. (1966). The Psy­chol­o­gy of Sci­ence: A Recon­nais­sance. Harp­er & Row.

McK­e­own, G. (2021). Effort­less: Make it eas­i­er to do what mat­ters most (First edi­tion). Currency.

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fernanda ojea 19. April 2024 Reply

Very inter­est­ing

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