UK: HANDY'S VIEW - TIME FOR INSPIRATIONAL MEASURES. - Charles Handy believes the story of John Harrison's search for longitude lays bare our blinkered approach to new ideas, today no less than in the 18th century.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Charles Handy believes the story of John Harrison's search for longitude lays bare our blinkered approach to new ideas, today no less than in the 18th century.

For want of a clock that could work at sea, many ships have been lost or wrecked over the centuries, commerce imperilled, lives cut short.

I didn't realise this until I read the fascinating book Longitude by Dava Sobel (published by Fourth Estate at £12). An American science reporter, she describes how, for centuries, sailors could not know where they were, with any accuracy, once they were out of sight of land, because they could not work out their longitude. This is a story with some important messages for Britain today.

The scientists and sailors thought they could calculate longitude with the help of the moon and the stars, as they had always done with latitude.

But no one had ever succeeded in finding a way to do it accurately, and you do need both latitude and longitude to know where you are. By the end of the 17th century every nation was getting desperate to find a way to work out longitude, and Britain, with the biggest merchant fleet, was more desperate than any. In 1714 parliament offered a prize of £20,000 (a massive sum in those days) for anyone who could solve the longitude problem, presuming that the answer would come from astronomy.

John Harrison, a man of simple birth and no education but of high applied intelligence and an engineer by trade, thought he had the answer. It took him 40 years, many battles with those in high places, and much frustration, to convince those in power that the answer might lie in a clock not in the stars, and to receive his prize, finally, at the very end of his life.

His new 'chronometers' became the prototypes of the timepieces which all ships soon carried, bearing the new standard of Greenwich time all over the world, as the benchmark for calculating longitude by comparing it with the time on board. His name is now almost forgotten but the fruits of his work live on, an immortality of a kind.

The science in the book is fascinating, but Dava Sobel's short and elegant little book is really the story of one man's struggle against the establishment, of perseverance and dedication, not just for the money (which was to take so long in coming), but to advance knowledge, to improve the world and to make seafaring safer. If it had not been for one man's passionate conviction in what he was doing, nothing would have changed, at least not for many years, and Britain's sailors and commerce would have continued to be in unnecessary peril on the sea.

You would think that we might have learnt from such a story, but organisations and societies still seem to prefer to bury their past rather than learn from it. The Harrison saga has too many modern counterparts for anyone to feel comfortable reading this book. The 'not invented here' syndrome still prevails in many places. Sadly, too, we often judge the value of a new idea by its source.

This story has a delayed but happy ending. I hate to think of all the unknown stories that could be written, of ideas that were abandoned, of problems which could have been solved but never were, because those in power didn't like the inventor and so couldn't like his or her idea. 'Who you are sounds so loudly in my ears,' said Dr Johnson once 'that I can't hear what you say.' Although it is well established, and well known, that new ideas usually come from the edge of things, not from the centre, we still act as if all new insights come from the top and the centre. To unlock the future we must learn to listen to unfamiliar voices in unusual places.

More intriguingly, the longitude story may have another very modern counterpart. For want of a way of measurement, sailors of old lost their way, drowned or starved. Businesses today may also be in danger of losing their way for want of proper measurement. When the market value of a successful business can be five to 20 times the value of its assets something is going unmeasured. Presumably it is the unseen intellectual property in the business, its brands, its research and patents, the know-how and talents of its people. If you don't know what you are worth or could be worth, you are dependent on the waves and whims of the market to know where you are. Sadly, too, things which don't get counted tend not to count in the minds of those in charge. Unmeasured assets, such as talent, don't get nurtured.

They wilt, or they leave and, unmeasured, they go unmourned. For want of a proper clock some firms may be neglecting their best resources; they may even be travelling in the wrong direction.

As was the case with longitude, so people are thrashing around in their search for a new way of measurement. And for the most part they are trying to adapt old methods to these new problems, as the astronomers of the 18th century did in their attempts to find longitude by studying the moon and the stars, their familiar field of knowledge.

It may be, however, that the solution to the problem of the measurement of intellectual assets will come from a very different tradition and from an unexpected source. We should be willing to consider all possibilities, no matter how odd at first glance. Probably, given our history, we shall have to wait for someone with enough passion and conviction, and with the perseverance to continue despite indifference and rejection. The story of John Harrison should bring some consolation to any such pioneer.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

How to find the right mentor or executive coach

One minute briefing: McDonald’s UK CEO Paul Pomroy.

What you don't want to copy from Silicon Valley

Workplace Evolution podcast: Twitter's former EMEA chief Bruce Daisley on Saturday emails, biased recruitment and...

Research: How the most effective CEOs spend their time

Do you prefer the big, cross-functional meeting or the one-to-one catch-up?

6 rules for leading a remote team

Our C-suite panel share their distilled wisdom.

Showing vulnerability can be a CEO’s greatest strength

Want your people to bring their whole selves to work? You first.

A mini case study in horizon scanning

Swissgrid has instituted smart risk management systems for spotting things that could go wrong before...