Sometimes a challenge seems obvious: make something go X miles using Y components. Such was the case in the 1960s and 1970s, when engineers tried to make a plane that could fly using only human power. One engineer realised — correctly, ingeniously — that the problem wasn't physics, but the plane building process.
Designer Aza Raskin, founder of Massive Health and former lead designer at Firefox, writes about Paul MacCready, an engineer who thought his way around the problem of flying a man-powered plane for a half-mile, and then across the English channel, for a cash prize. Teams of plane designers were making small, incremental improvements to their human-powered planes, but on a year-by-year scale. That's how MacCready worked his maxim: "The problem is we don't understand the problem."
The problem was the process itself, and along with it the blind pursuit of a goal without a deeper understanding how to tackle deeply difficult challenges. 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. He built a plane with Mylar, aluminium tubing, and wire.
What other examples of working out a problem with a better problem to solve can you think of? How have you worked that thinking into your own efforts?
You Are Solving The Wrong Problem [Aza on Design]