Unless you’re a fan of the 24hr Le Mans motor race then you’ve probably never heard of the DeltaWing. That’s a great shame because it’s the most radical innovation in racing car design since, well, since motor racing began. More importantly the DeltaWing is a great lesson in innovation for us all.
By starting with the problem rather than the solution Ben Bowlby came up with a concept which completely rewrites the rule book for race car design. The DeltaWing is innovative from nose to tail, but as an example take a close look at the improbably narrow nose. It still has 2 front wheels, but they’re close together and each tyre is only 10cm wide. To put that in context, that’s roughly the same width as those on a venerable Citroën 2CV, or about half of your average road car. It looks like it shouldn’t work. Current wisdom says you need a wide track and wide tyres to corner quickly, but the DeltaWing does work and it can generate cornering forces about 8 times that of a typical road car. So, it must have big wings like an F1 car then, but the DeltaWing doesn’t, or as its name suggests it does but not in any way that you’ve seen before. It’s all about achieving the perfect balance of weight, grip, and aerodynamics with the result that you have a beautifully efficient and devastatingly quick race car. It’s one of the best examples of true innovation any where today. I could go on, but this video of Chris Harris driving the DeltaWing and Ben Bowlby explaining some of its magic does a much better job.
The DeltaWing shows us what can be achieved when we throw away the rule book and all preconceptions of what the solutions could be, and get down to understanding the real problem we’re trying to solve. This is the key to innovation, being able to let go of the solution long enough to make sure that you’re answering the right question. Most people approach a problem with an answer in mind, and then work hard to deliver the best possible version of that answer. But if we want to be truly innovative and ensure that we have the right solution then we need to follow a different approach – quite simply we need to stop problem solving and make sure we truly understand the problem and its context, so that we can ensure we are asking the right question. Tom Kelley in ‘The Art of Innovation’ defined the simple methodology used by IDEO, the world’s most successful product design company, in creating innovative products:
Understand the market, the client, the technology and the constraints
Observe real people in real-life situations
Visualise potential solutions and how people will use them
Evaluate and refine concepts using prototyping to find the optimum concept
Implement the concept by developing into a desirable, feasible, and commercial solution
Or as I like to think of it, Stop and make sure you know what the real question is, Think as a team to create innovative solutions to the problem, Design the solution and prove it on real people, Deliver by ensuring that the core principles and rational of the solution are understood by all.