Perceptive Advantages

The story of the successful first flight is more about bicycles than airplanes and shows why perception matters to innovation.

Back in the early years of the 20th Century the race to see who could develop the first self-powered, sustained flight of a craft was on. We know that two brothers — Orville and Wilbur Wright — won that race.

The Wright Brothers won not because they were necessarily better at making airplanes than everyone else, but because they were very good at making and repairing bicycles. A bicycle requires self-powered, sustained movement on two wheels and, as the brothers found out through their prototyping and testing, involved much of the same kind of physical adjustments that would later be required for flight.

They had a perceptual advantage.

Seeing and Thinking Differently

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”     – Marcel Proust

Innovation is about generating new ideas and putting them into practice. What perception does is allow us to recognize the ideas that have plausible possibility — the potential for the translation into an action. The Wright brothers could see that there were air movement and balance dynamics at play with an airplane that could be understood partly through their experience with bicycles.

The means to generating these perceptive shifts are not just about experience, we can strengthen and enhance our perceptive muscles through a variety of means.

  1. Get out. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, this might have been the easiest exercise. By getting out beyond the usual routine and engaging with situations, people, and environments that are different we see things in new ways. Exposure to difference is one of the greatest drivers of empathy, which is one of the foundations of human-centred design. A mindful walkabout can yield many new insights about what is going on around you and this changes and expands your perspective.
  2. 360 degree look. This simple exercise works well in a group. Pick an object that has different dimensions to it and have everyone gather around it in a circle (some distance apart to allow people to see the whole object) and draw it and then compare what is created. The exercise is not about drawing skill, rather it allows everyone to see what or how people choose to visualize the same object and how their position — what perspective they see the object — shapes what they draw. In practice, this can allow us to do the same thing with a problem: creating a 360 degree view of a problem or situation.
  3. Upside down/Right-side up. A flamingo will look under the water and eat upside-down. It’s eyes and perceptive ability is designed for their physiology. By turning things on its head, we can also see things differently literally and metaphorically. By taking a positive and turning it to a negative (e.g., best case/worst case scenario, dark/light) or juxtaposing what we see with it’s opposite we can illuminate differences that we may miss under normal circumstances.
  4. Near/Far. Ever notice how your hometown looks a lot different from the air than it does on the ground? Distance does that. Another way to shift your perception is to look at something from a distance. That can include time. The Power of Ten approach is one way to do this — it’s a way to envision the impact of a decision or outcome of a situation 10 seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years into the future. What you’ll notice is that the salience and intensity of the effects change over time. Some amplify and some diminish. These allow you to decide which scale is most appropriate to consider when moving ahead with an idea.

These ideas are just some ways we can strengthen our perceptive muscles and widen our field of vision to help us see what’s in front of us and what is possible.

With so much attention given to innovation we often forget that some of the most powerful tools we have to create products and services that make a difference are with us already.

If you need help in seeing things differently, feel free to reach out: I can help.

Photo credits: Wright Brothers – Library of Congress, Public Domain,

John T. Daniels – File: Wright_first_flight.tif, Public Domain,

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