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Having a Great Solution isn’t Always Enough for the Win

Having a great solution isn’t always enough for the win.

Are you pursuing perfection when good enough might really be good enough? John Harrison was a brilliant tinkerer and problem-solver of his day in 18th century England, but could not see when he had solved the problem the customer needed solved. Read on to see an exquisite example of how man can both overcome and simultaneously self-edit in extraordinary circumstances.

My friend and colleague, Adam Bahret, recently renewed my interest in celestial navigation and its association with accurate time. Adam is a reliability engineer who works with some of the most well-recognized brands in assuring that their products are a success immediately upon launch—and then well into the future. He’s brilliant and a pleasure to learn from.

Adam and I share an appreciation of fine watches, and Adam even remakes historical watches by sourcing their individual parts and rebuilding them. Only recently have I gained an even greater appreciation for the development of the chronometer, a complex and highly accurate timepiece.

The Mystery of Calculating Longitude

Adam shared Dava Sobel’s book, Longitude, with me as he saw the confluence of my maritime background and appreciation of watches. The book documents the history of the world’s quest to solve the mystery of calculating longitude, the ability to position oneself in relation to one of the world’s twenty-four longitudinal meridians connecting the north and south poles. For centuries, mariners would rely on crude methods to “dead reckon” their way around the globe, using estimates of the influence of wind and current. Occasionally, mariners could update their position by confirming a bearing to a fixed location. 

Confused yet?

Today, we accept Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) as the reference point for universal time, and move east or west from GMT to compute time in the twenty-four time zones. Each of the world’s 24 meridians marks a time zone representing 15 degrees of arc and one hour of time east or west of the prime meridian in Greenwich, England (hence GMT). The location of the prime meridian was not always Greenwich, England, but the development of the chronometer in England would seal Greenwich as the universal reference point.

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Navigation, as we know it today, requires one to fix their position by latitude (how far north or south of the equator one is) and longitude (where in relation to the prime meridian one is). When we know where we are, we can identify where we specifically want to go, and the best path to get there. We take latitude and longitude for granted today, and largely rely on the Global Positioning System (GPS) to do the work for us via a handheld app. But until the 1700’s, precision navigation was a perplexing challenge.

Solving the Puzzle of Calculating Longitude

From 1550 -1650, twenty percent of trade ships between Portugal and India were lost due to navigation errors. As global trade emerged, the challenge of accurately calculating longitude would become an economic imperative. The Longitude Act of 1714 in England offered prize money of 20,000 pounds to the person who could reliably solve the puzzle of calculating longitude while at sea, an intractable global problem of the time that inhibited safe sea passages over long distances. 

Over a period of over 50 years, John Harrison came forward with four variations of what would become known as chronometers. They were frictionless clocks that could keep time to within seconds over great distances and through challenging variations in weather. Harrison effectively solved the problem with his first attempt (H-1), but failed to sell its merits fully to The Board of Longitude, those tasked with examining proposed solutions. Instead, he highlighted H-1’s shortcomings and went back to try again. He did this three times over the course of decades!

While Harrison toiled, others came forward with more complicated solutions, engaged in petty politics, and maneuvered through the complexities of government of the day. His competitors maligned him and some even copied his unique ideas, stole his intellectual property, and laid claim to some of the prize money. John Harrison was an inventor. He was not knowledgeable enough in the overall process to position himself for the big win—the 20,000-pound prize and accompanying recognition.

The Challenges of Small Businesses: Developing a New, Great Solution and Presenting Them to the Government Customer 

The story of solving the challenge of calculating longitude at sea mirrors many of the challenges of today’s small businesses developing a new and great solution, and presenting them to the government customer:

  • The timing of customer engagement must be clear
  • The competitive landscape must be understood
  • The new solution must align to the government need, requirement, and funding
  • The message of how the solution aligns must be well told

The Make Your Move podcast is a multi-season series devoted to the lessons learned of military members in their post-active duty lives. I hope you enjoy the stories of the men and women brave enough to share their transition stories so publicly. Listen to the latest episode here.

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