Matt Ridley on the Wright Brothers: innovation is gradual

… with very few exceptions, man-made technologies evolve from previous man-made technologies and are not invented from scratch. This is a key characteristic with evolutionary systems: the move to the adjacent possible step.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating – after all, there was a moment when the Wright Brothers’ Flyer became airborne on the 17th of December 1903. Surely this was a sudden breakthrough moment?

No – far from it. Once you know the story, nothing could be more gradual. The flight that day lasted for a few seconds – it was barely more than a hop. It would not have been possible without a stiff headwind, and it was preceded by a failed attempt. It came after several years of hard slog, experimentation and learning, in which very gradually all the pieces necessary for powered flight came together.

The genius of the Wright Brothers was precisely that they realised they were in an incremental, iterative process, and did not expect to build a flying machine at the first attempt.

And the Kittyhawk moment came before several more years of hard slog, tinkering and re-tinkering, til the Wrights new how to keep aloft for hours, how to take off without a headwind, how to turn and how to land.

The closer you examine the history of the aeroplane, the more gradual it looks.

Matt RidleyHow Innovation Works

What are you building? Do not expect to build a flying machine at first attempt – look for the adjacent possible step.

More on innovation:

Matt Ridley: 15 principles of innovation
Efosa Ojomo on market-creating innovation
Marks and Spencer as disruptive innovators
Marc Andreesen on networks of innovation
… and on “Scenius”
C├ęsar Hidalgo on the importance of trust in networks of innovation
Astro Teller on planning, experimentation and innovation
Resource: Clayton Christensen on disruptive innovation
Zen Hae on cross-pollination, imitation and innovation
The innovation in your head…
W. Brian Arthur on combinatorial innovation
Seeds (2): bikes, planes and automobiles
Hybrids (2): combinations and connections

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...