Since joining the industry in 2001, I’ve seen a lot of really good idea campaigns. Many have produced breakthrough ideas, from the most unlikely of sources. But I’ve never seen a campaign which changed the course of history. This next example did just that, and might be the best idea campaign ever run.
A problem at sea
After a victorious battle with the French at Gibraltar, Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell and his men set sail for England. Like hundreds of ships before them, they misguided their longitude, and headed straight for the Scilly Isles. The flagship of the fleet, the Association, crashed into the Isles first, sinking within a few minutes. Three more ships crashed before they had any chance to react. Two thousand men perished. This was a familiar scene for the seafaring men of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries.
The problem was clear – not knowing the precise distance east or west of the home port. The problem of longitude was a giant one – the cost of losing so many ships, and so many men was devastating to a seafaring nation. But to solve it required a true breakthrough innovation, a technology of the like which had never been seen before.
The English Government decided to act
In 1714 it established the Longitude Act, a public idea campaign to find a solution to the crippling problem of navigating the seas. To get people excited they offered a reward, the equivalent of several million dollars in today’s money, an astronomical amount for the time. They were seeking a ‘practical, and useful means of determining longitude’.
The expectation was that a member of the scientific elite would hit upon a solution. In particular the fifth astronomer royal, the Reverend Nevil Maskelyne, competed vigorously (perhaps even unfairly at times). Isaac Newton feared it couldn’t be solved. The campaign received overwhelming amounts of ideas – and it was expected that a solution would eventually come from mapping navigation via the stars in the sky. It’s easy to discount this today, but at the time it was hard to see a solution coming from any other place. The astronomy community was the dominant one of the day, and leading astronomers played a significant role in national affairs; they were also expected to find the solution.
But ultimately, and remarkably, the solution finally came from a source that can only be described as completely out of left-field.
John Harrison, a man of no formal education or apprenticeship, constructed a clock which solved the problem of longitude like nobody could have imagined. He constructed several friction-free clocks, which required no lubrication, and no cleaning – this alone was remarkable. They were made from materials impervious to rust, and their inner parts perfectly balanced in relation to each other – no matter how much the waves shook them. There was no pendulum, and the materials inside were constructed in such a way as to expand or contract depending upon the temperature, keeping the clock ticking at a constant rate.
William Hogarth, the English artist, wrote in his book Analysis of Beauty, that Harrison’s clock was “one of the most exquisite movements ever made.”
Anatomy of a great campaign
The outcome of the campaign cannot be overstated. The solution was truly a breakthrough technology, and a disruptive one at that. Many modern horologists and historians would argue that Harrison facilitated England’s dominance over the oceans, directly leading to the creation of the British Empire (some might argue that wasn’t a good thing!).
The campaign itself was structured in a way that still makes sense today:
1. A killer problem
Not knowing how to accurately navigate the seas was a real problem, and everybody knew it. The prospect of finding a solution was so alluring, not just to the British Government, but also to the general population – at the time it was akin to finding the Holy Grail – taking on mythical proportions. Every business or organization has killer problems – being willing to open up those problems to a wide audience is still difficult for some, but for those that do the results can be tremendous.
2. A sponsor with clout
Having a sponsor that really cares about the problem is profoundly important. The British Government needed an answer, and were willing to throw money behind it to get there. The King of England was a man who could get things done – if he said he’d support promising ideas, then people believed him. Every company has individuals that can get stuff done, and have a reputation for it, these folks are the best campaign sponsors you can find.
3. Support prototypes
The Board of Longitude knew that complete ideas were rare – for a problem this tricky there had to be room to iterate over proposed solutions, thus the Longitude Act allowed the Board to give smaller incentive awards to help impoverished inventors with building a prototype. Over the course of the campaign, thousands of pounds were given out to support inventors attempts. The Board of Longitude was perhaps the worlds first official R&D agency. Do you have an iterative step to build out prototypes – if not, why not?
4. Challenges spur knowledge forward
The problem definition was highly specific, yet just like any innovation manager out there knows, you always get ideas that have nothing to do with the question at hand. Some of the participants were so eager to win the prize, that they never stopped long enough to consider the conditions of the campaign. But they did create solutions for improving the ships’ rudder, purifying drinking water at sea, and perfecting special sails to be used in storms. The campaign itself was such a bold statement by the King, that it unleashed a wave of creativity in the nation. A big hairy audacious campaign can have that kind of galvanizing effect on your employees.
5. A diverse audience
We all know that diversity is the key to achieving astonishing results with idea campaigns. There is simply no better example than John Harrison – a country bumpkin, with no ties to the establishment, no formal training, and no regular way to get his voice heard, was able to so compellingly smash a giant problem of the day. The story of the campaign is riddled with incidents of the not-invented-here syndrome, with the elite refusing to believe anybody outside the astronomy community could have a solution to the problem. But Harrison persisted, and his ideas were clearly superior. You never know what employees you have in your organization who can deliver a breakthrough thought – and going outside the company, the possibilities become so incredibly vast.
It was 300 years ago this year that the Longitude Act was created, yet idea campaigns haven’t changed all that much – the basic good practices still apply. Today however, we are able to go broader and do so with greater speed, thanks to online platforms. But are we taking full advantage of this tremendous capability? Are you looking at your greatest challenges, and asking your audience to try and solve them? If not, why not, and if not now, when?
A new Longitude Prize was launched earlier this year, to try and crack some of society’s biggest challenges. You can read more about it here: http://www.longitudeprize.org/. If you want to read more about the original one, I highly recommend Dava Sobel’s book Longitude.
This article was originally posted on LinkedIn.