Go Fly a Kite!
Solutions to Complex Problems can come from Surprising Places
Charles Ellet, Jr. had a big problem. To be exact, the problem was 800-feet (244 meters) wide.
Ellet had been commissioned to build the first suspension bridge to span the Niagara River near Niagara Falls. When completed, the bridge would cross the narrowest point between Ontario and New York, above the treacherous Whirlpool Rapids. But to get started, he needed to find a way to get a line across the gorge. It was the problem faced by everyone who built suspension bridges during in the late 1840’s, but for Ellet and his team, the river below was too dangerous to cross and going up or downstream to cross was not an option.
Big problems are often encountered in the pursuit of big opportunities. Ellet was making a name for himself in the bridge building business. He had already won contracts to build other suspension bridges and wide acclaim for his proposed design to bridge the mighty Mississippi River near St. Louis. Unfortunately, that bridge was simply unaffordable for the city at the time, so the ambitious project was shelved. Actually building the bridge that would allow safe crossing near the majestic Niagara Falls was now more important than ever because it would bring Ellett worldwide attention and make him one of the leading engineers of his generation.
A bridge between the United States and Canada would also open the door to new commercial opportunities introduced by the Erie Canal and more recently, by expanding rail lines across the region. Ellet’s design for the Niagara bridge would allow for two lanes of carriage traffic, a rail line, and foot traffic. Merchants, politicians, and the public were all counting on Ellet to succeed
Strengths in Action
Fortunately, Ellet was a man well acquainted with his personal strengths and willing to use them. Blessed with the good looks of an actor and entertaining oratorical skills, Ellet leveraged these gifts to market himself and his proposals. His showmanship and powers of persuasion were undoubtedly factors in his success with clients and allowed him to recruit a strong team.
It was likely this combination of self-awareness and flair for the flamboyant that led Ellet to an unconventional solution to his big problem. While brainstorming with his team, the group entertained a variety of options. One suggestion was to fire a cannonball over the river with a rope somehow attached. Another involved firing a rocket from a steamer in the river and hope that the whole idea didn’t blow up–literally. Inspired by the earlier experiments of Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo Da Vinci, Ellet elected to bet everything on a boy and his kite.
The Unlikely Solution
With his usual flair, Ellet announced that he would be sponsoring a kite flying contest. The objective was to fly a kite over the Niagara River and the winner would receive $5.00. (which is equivalent to about $150 in 2018). Needless to say, young people from surrounding communities flocked to the competition and newspapers from across the state covered the big event.
The winner of the contest and the person who saved Ellet’s bridge project was 13-year old, Holman Walsh. Almost successful on his first attempt, his kite crashed just short of the shoreline. On a subsequent attempt, Holman’s kite made it across and Ellet’s team was able to use the kite string to pull across a heavier cord and eventually a 36-strand cable strong enough to hold a basket that would support a man and building materials. In the end, the solution to what seemed to be an insurmountable problem came from an unlikely source–a boy and his kite.
Who is your Holman?
There seems to be no shortage of big problems in our contemporary world. Some come with extremely high-stakes and few have easy solutions. In these situations, your natural strengths will take you so far, but at a point, you’ll have to look to different options to bridge the gap. Charles Ellet was a visionary engineer and his powers of persuasion won many deals; however, these strengths alone weren’t sufficient to address every challenge.
In some cases, you may be able to bring a different strength to bear or partner with a colleague who has the answer; however, even this approaches may be lacking in certain situations. At that point, you need the wisdom to recognize that the answer may come from the place you least expect it. Perhaps the solution resides with a soft-spoken staffer who is hesitant to even voice their thoughts in meetings or a coworker who you’ve never considered an idea person. Solutions to complex problems may be found in unlikely places.
Who is your Holman? This week, take the time to talk with some of the people on your team who are young or maybe don’t have powerful positions. Ask some of your customers how you’re doing and what you can do better. They may have good ideas that need to be heard and if not, the fact that you’ve given them a voice will likely cause them to feel more connected, committed, and engaged. In other words, go fly a kite!
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Dr. Mike Patterson is a principal at Core Strengths and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. He is also the co-author of Core Strengths: Results through Relationships training and the highly acclaimed book, Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org