What an 18th Century British Clockmaker Can Teach us About Problem Solving

Every role in a business is a problem solver, yet surprisingly, we are taught very little about good approaches to solving problems.

Cameron Warren

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On October 22, 1707, over 1,400 British sailors died off the coast of Sicily.

When the British Government investigated the disaster, findings revealed that a series of navigation errors resulted in the ships running aground. At the time, the only way to determine a ship’s distance from shore (i.e. longitude) was by dropping a lead and line to estimate the depth of the ocean floor.

The method, known as sounding, was highly inaccurate and lead to countless shipwrecks. But the magnitude of the Sicily disaster was unprecedented.

Photo by Pixabay: https://www.pexels.com/photo/white-and-brown-galleon-ship-37859/

In response, the British Government pledged 20k pounds (equivalent to millions today) as a prize for anyone that could solve the problem.

To evaluate proposals, the Crown put together a group of experts in math and astronomy, assuming that the solution would come from celestial measurement and advanced calculation. Ultimately, however, the solution didn’t come from the field of astronomy or math at all — but from a self-taught clockmaker named John Harrison.

Through a myriad of discoveries, Harrison precipitated the invention of the marine chronometer which allowed ships to accurately calculate how far they had traveled east to west, effectively solving the issue of longitude.

How is it possible that a self-taught clockmaker could advance the field of maritime navigation when the preeminent experts in the field could not?

Outside-In Thinking

The answer is called “outside-in” thinking: finding solutions to problems in experiences outside of the field of specialization for the problem itself.[1]

Far from a one-trick-pony, outside-in-thinking is responsible for solving some of the most complex problems out there: The preservation of food, the ability to predict solar particle storms, how to effectively clean oil spills, and the science of muscular dystrophy, are just a few examples.

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Cameron Warren

Writing about how teams and individuals can more effectively use data. Follow me: @camwarrenm