That’s what I discussed with Richard Browning, Englands very own Iron Man.
Of course, I didn’t phrase it that way. I’d asked Richard to explain how he went from being a rockstar commodity futures trader at British Petroleum to designing and building the worlds first rocket-propelled flying suit.
However, as the conversation progressed, he explained how he approaches experimentation.
I was expecting advice that would only be applicable for budding inventors.
Instead, I found his advice was essential for all of us, from startup founders to multinational CEO’s.
A Quick Bio on Richard
I’m not going to spend too much time introducing Richard.
This isn’t a Vanity Fair weekend bio. This post is intended to leave you with just enough information to make a judgement call about whether to apply Richards approach to your own experiments.
Having met him and watched him in action I think it’s a no brainer.
But if you’ve not heard of him here’s the rundown. I’ve copy-pasted his timeline from Tymline (and added a few extra details) to speed things up.
For hundreds of years, humankind has tried and failed to build a practical commercial jet pack. Richard Browning succeeded in less than 24 months (source)
1989 – Starts schooling at Queens College Taunton
1997 – Completes degree in Geology at Cardiff University
Initially, Richard had signed up for an engineering degree.
“But I lost interest,” he admits. “It was full of calculus and maths – we never went near a lathe or anything practical – so I shifted to something more hands-on: exploration geology.” (source)
2007 – Starts at BP trading oil and crude futures
2007 – Joins Royal Marine Reserves. After two years receives Green Beret.
2016 – Designed, built, redesigned and rebuilt Gravity’s prototype flight suit. The suit took 15 months to develop completely.
2017 – Co-founded Gravity Industries Ltd in March 2017, the company behind the ‘Daedalus Mark 1’, a flight suit that uses six miniature jet engines to achieve vertical flight. The kerosene engines are rated at 22kg of thrust each. Browning uses his arms to control the direction and speed of the flight, while a display inside the helmet gives updates on fuel consumption and other usage data
2017 – Richard gives a demo of his recording and explains the idea at TED
2017 – Browning achieves a speed of 32.02 miles per hour (51.53 km/h) with the suit during a Guinness World Records attempt for the ‘Fastest speed in a body controlled jet engine powered suit’
2019 – Richard is now an accomplished inventor, speaker, record-breaker and entrepreneur who has featured at, with or in Wired, The Telegraph, Redbull and Ted.
There are Lots of Rules for Experimentation – Aren’t There?
Before writing this post, I was curious to see if anyone else felt there was one master rule for experimentation.
So I asked my Network.
Here are just some of the great answers I received.
– Be prepared to fail. – Fail fast and get up. – Experiment again and again. – Keep it simple. – Experiment to learn. – Set hard and fast deadlines for milestones. – Make sure you test and validate with cheque writers. – Try & try again. – Believe in yourself.
All great answers but not the one I was looking for.
(If you have other suggestions please do share them on this LinkedIn thread?).
But, no one picked what I now think is the most important rule.
Richards Other Rules of Experimentation
For full transparency, Richard didn’t only share one rule. I’ve listed a couple of his absolute gems below.
Just be aware that although they are important, like the above ideas, I felt they are all subordinate to the most important advice I received from him.
Not doing these things will slow you down. But, they won’t necessarily take you down.
Don’t listen to the experts.
Despite having access to many aeronautics engineers, Richard told me that if he had listened to them, he would never have developed the rocket-suit.
He repeated this advice in an interview with Red Bull:
The big aeronautics companies would list half a dozen reasons why this would never work,” he says. “You’d never be able to carry enough fuel, never generate enough power or manage that power. The rotational forces would rip your arm off every time you moved it. The heat would be unmanageable – you’d disappear in a fireball. You’d end up needing a huge traditional jet pack with armrests, gyros and whatever. Then it’s going to be unfeasible from a power-to-weight ratio.” His solution was to ignore those voices. “Because that’s where every breakthrough lies,” he says. “Every invention mankind has ever made comes from disregarding conventional assumptions. The humble part of me acknowledges that 99 per cent of the time they’re right. But I hunt down the one per cent because that’s where you change the world.” (source)
And this certainly makes sense. Richard Branson didn’t listen to the experts from British Airways. Elon Musk didn’t listen to the engineers at BMW. James Dyson didn’t listen to the designers at Hoover.
And these are just three examples. If you look back through history, the experts seem rarely to evolve from being knowledgable to become successful inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs.
Ignorance, it would seem is a virtue, as we can think more freely about solving the impossible.
Moreover, ignorance forces you to learn from experimentation, especially if you are going to ignore the experts.
None the less, this isn’t a rule. Some experts do succeed.
Also, the Bransons, Musks and Dyson’s of the world still have to find experts at some point in their journeys.
Perhaps they were just better at filtering the opinions that were presented to them?
Mix with Supporters Not Detractors
Jim Rohn, a mentor to Anthony Robbins, said that
we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.
So if you want to experiment. If you want to innovate. If you really want to do something different.
Make sure you surround yourself with those who support your crazy idea!
Of course, finding believers when you are trying to do something different isn’t easy. It requires planning and energy to seek out the 1% who will back you.
That’s why organisations like Abundance 360, YPO or The Entrepreneurs Organisation are so successful.
They provide an environment for like-minded people to share ideas, not so that they can be kicked down, but so they can be built up.
So great advice, but again perhaps not a rule?
It might be 100x harder, but it’s still possible to succeed if you are strong enough to ignore ‘naysayers united’.
And, if you are running experiments correctly you’ll be able to counter their ‘opinions’ with ‘fact’.
Experiment to learn
Richards story is a perfect example of how to experiment to learn.
Test, learn, iterate, repeat
Test, learn, iterate, repeat.
Or in Richards case..
Buy and a cheap rocket to see if it will fit on an arm.
Add another cheap rocket to the second arm to see what level of control an operator can have.
Change the rocket positioning multiple times to try to improve control
Add more rockets to see how many are required to generate enough thrust to take off
Change positions to test improve in-flight control.
Learn how heat is absorbed by air, helping Richard to avoid incinerating himself.
and so on, until after years of failure, you become an overnight success.
However, this isn’t a rule of experimentation.
This is the most important rule of innovation.
If you want to keep yourself at the bleeding edge of innovation, you have no choice but to run agile business models, where you test, learn and iterate continually.