Fewer people are wearing wristwatches now. When my generation was younger, wearing a watch was a necessity. Now, the watch is largely a fashion icon that seems destined for the technology scrap heap that contains VCRs, 8-track tape players and other things we once could not live without. We’ve found other ways to get to work-school-the church on time. But the greatest contribution of the watch was perhaps to let us know where we were, not how late we were.
Pre-eighteenth century explorers, never really knew exactly where they were when they sailed across the ocean. They knew about where they were, but not with precision, because there was no known way to determine one’s longitude while at sea. King Charles II of England founded the Royal Observatory in Greenwich – home of the Prime Meridian – specifically to find a solution to this problem. In 1714, the British Parliament offered £20,000 to anyone who could find a solution that provided longitude accurate to within half-a-degree, or two minutes of time.
Determining longitude is actually quite simple. For each 15 degrees that one travels east, local time moves one hour ahead – hence our time zones are approximately 15 degrees in width, with some modifications to accommodate local geography and political boundaries. So, if you know the local times at two points on the earth, the difference between them is used to calculate how far apart those places are. The navigational instruments of the day were quite adequate to determine local time. But what time was it back in Greenwich (or any other known point on the globe)? To know that would require a clock that could accurately keep Greenwich time aboard a sailing ship. This bit of technology was the difficult part, so the longitude problem was actually a timekeeping accuracy problem. Many people who lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries did not believe this problem was solvable.
Dava Sobel tells us about the hero of this story in “Longitude”. John Harrison was the working class son of a carpenter who built his first clock entirely of wood in 1713 at the age of 20. His pursuit of the longitude prize spanned over 30 years, during which he would display persistence and an ability to innovate. The clock paradigm in Harrison’s day was a long clock, that is, one that used weights to power it and a pendulum to regulate it. These clocks work well on land, but not so well on a rolling, pitching ship. Harrison initially devised a clock that showed promise in a 1736 sea trial. From 1737 to 1759, he labored to refine his invention, building a second and third generation clock, the latter the result of 19 years of effort that failed to achieve the accuracy needed to win the prize. This failure became inspiration to pursue a different design.
The new design Harrison pursued in the mid-1750s was essentially a pocket watch, which the experts of the day did not consider a serious timekeeper. But modified to Harrison’s specifications, this pocket watch marine timekeeper performed well enough in a 1762 trial to qualify for the prize. The Board of Longitude remained skeptical and a second trial was arranged, which the timepiece also passed well within accuracy limits. Despite the proof of multiple, successful trials, the Board remained unconvinced and began playing politics with the prize money, eventually awarding half of it to Harrison. At the age of 79, Harrison appealed to King George III and then Parliament, finally securing the remaining prize money but most importantly, recognition that he had solved the longitude problem.
Many organizations want to believe that if they create a financial incentive, they will mobilize the energies of their people to solve big problems. Money is a motivator, but it isn’t the most important one. Harrison wasn’t driven to solve the longitude problem because it would make him richer. He had a passion for it. Daniel Pink, in “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, speaks to the conditions that are a catalyst for achievement. The first is autonomy: Harrison worked in his shop at his own pace, not in some lab under the eye of the Board of Longitude. The second is mastery: Harrison was able to work at something in which he had expertise, and gained even more in the process of solving the problem. The final motivator is purpose: the prize money may have been in the back of Harrison’s mind, but he was driven by the far-reaching implications of solving the problem – the ability to do something that made a difference.
If you look inside companies that are sustained innovators, of course you will find employees who are well paid, but it is not the money that keeps the innovations flowing. It is the culture in which they work that gives them autonomy, allows them to gain mastery in their field and provides work with purpose. My experience tells me that it is possible for a company to have some success if only two of these three attributes are present. If only one or none of them exist, it threatens a company’s viability and it certainly can’t hope to retain its talent.
The famous British explorer, Captain James Cook, took one of Harrison’s marine chronometers on his second voyage of discovery (1772-1775), which spanned three years and ranged from the Tropics to the Antarctic. The chronometer performed well, prompting Cook to refer to it as “…our faithful guide through all the vicissitudes of climates.”