The Day I (Almost) Invented the Underwater Calculator and What it Taught Me About Innovation

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A few months ago, I found myself in an odd situation. I was about 45 feet below the surface in the waters off Montego Bay, Jamaica. And I needed a calculator.

I was completing a course on underwater navigation for recreational divers. After successfully showing all the skills I needed to show, my instructor threw me a curveball. He challenged me by asking me to navigate a triangle using my compass. I had already navigated a straight line and a square using just the compass. Those were easy. But to navigate a triangle, I needed to travel in a straight line; turn through a third of a circle; travel along that line; turn through another third of a circle; and return to my starting point. I’m not good at arithmetic and calculating the compass bearings in my head isn’t something I can do on dry land. I got it right on my second attempt and passed my practical exam. The instructor, his assistant, and I had a big laugh about it on the surface at the end of the dive. They agreed that the arithmetic was the hardest part of that little test. What we needed was an underwater calculator!

After lunch, I set out to see if anybody made an underwater calculator. I have an underwater flashlight. I have an underwater camera. I have an underwater dive computer that tracks my dive and tells me how much time I can safely stay underwater. Surely somebody made an underwater calculator! I wasn’t planning on buying one, but I wanted to know such a device existed. So I cranked up the Google machine and set about to find an underwater calculator.

Nothing. There were calculators for diving — apps that would tell me how much weight I should use or how long I can dive at a certain depth. But I couldn’t find a calculator to use while diving. I could find calculators that were waterproof. But I didn’t need a waterproof calculator. It’s relatively easy to make something waterproof. Well, water resistant anyway. The IP ratings you’ll see on your smartphone or your portable Bluetooth speaker are for brief immersion in relatively shallow water. My portable speakers, rated IPX7, can be safely submerged in water up to one meter deep for up to 30 minutes. I needed something that could be submerged in water up to 40 meters deep for up to an hour. The pressure there is five times what it is on the surface. That’s some waterproofing!

Thinking about the design and manufacturing challenges we would have to face to build a calculator that could operate under those conditions, I realized I was going about the problem all wrong. I had fallen into one of the classic blunders in innovation: looking for a specific solution, not a solution to a specific problem.

Analogies are powerful thinking tools. We use them all the time to innovate, to solve problems, even to better understand the world. Comparing a fresh challenge or situation to a familiar one helps you apply existing knowledge or solutions to a novel problem.  The mistake that I made that day in Jamaica was that I was starting my search with the solution already in mind. I was looking for a calculator that worked underwater. But I didn’t need a calculator that worked under water. I needed to calculate under water. That’s a big difference. Instead of searching for analogous solutions, I needed to search for solutions to analogous problems. That’s where the true power of using analogies to drive innovation and solve problems comes from.

The first thing I did was to reframe search in terms of the problem I was trying to solve. Or the job that needed to be done. What was that job? I needed to calculate under water. What are the existing solutions for calculating?

  • Calculator
  • Slide Rule
  • Abacus

This was my face palm moment. I didn’t need to invent the underwater calculator. Calculating devices that work underwater have existed for thousands of years. I needed an abacus! This, of course, is where my diving buddies and I all had a good laugh. Who needs an expensive electronic calculator that will function at a depth of 40 meters when you can just bring along an abacus.

An abacus might not be the ideal solution. They require special training to use. You also need the right amount of friction so the beads move easily but don’t bounce around in the surging water when in use. Still….. there are distinct advantages to a mechanical and analog calculating device over an electronic digital one when solving this specific problem. When I started my innovation journey with a solution in mind, I was blind to the alternative paths these mechanical analog devices represent.

That’s the simple lesson of my humorous adventure. In your innovation journeys, always start with the problem, not the solution.

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