Da Vinci, Retrofitted for the Modern Age

The New York Times, June 1, 2008

By Janet Rae-Dupree
Published: June 1, 2008

WHEN Thomas Alva Edison was starting in business, his first patent was for an automated vote-tallying machine to let legislators know instantly which measures had passed and which had been voted down. He sold not a one. It seems that legislators, accustomed to schmoozing and politicking right through a vote’s tally, didn’t want to speed the process.

But with the resilience he would show throughout his life, Edison refused to view that episode as a failure. Instead, he used it to set the stage for future decisions: He would pursue only those innovations that had a verifiable market from the beginning. He went on to earn 1,092 more patents and to become a symbol of American ingenuity.

Ancient history, right? Not so fast. True, Edison has long been revered for changing the face of modern civilization. But beyond the material aspects of his success, he demonstrated that creativity and innovation could result from a set of identifiable and repeatable processes.

Like Leonardo da Vinci before him, Edison kept extensive notebooks detailing every idea he ever had and every experiment he ever tried. He established the world’s first modern research and development laboratory, hiring teams of experts in things as diverse as model-making and chemical engineering. Not only did he invent the incandescent light bulb, Edison also created the electric power industry required for the bulb to light up millions of homes and businesses.

As entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 executives alike seek creative solutions to 21st-century business problems, the triumphs of Edison and a number of other historical figures are being revisited for the innovation lessons they can teach.

“I use historical figures as models to talk about leadership and innovation,” explains Alan Axelrod, author of a new book, Edison on Innovation: 102 Lessons in Creativity for Business and Beyond, as well as the earlier Elizabeth I CEO, Patton on Leadership and Eisenhower on Leadership. Before video games and 24-hour television, Mr. Axelrod says, youngsters grew up reading biographies of famous people so they could learn from their lives and emulate them. “We should turn more to these historical figures today,” he says, “because why not model ourselves on the very best examples we can find?”

Michael J. Gelb, a corporate consultant, is co-author with Edison’s great-grandniece Sarah Miller Caldicott of Innovate Like Edison, a 2007 book. Mr. Gelb began his research of historical figures by turning to da Vinci, a childhood hero.

“His was a balanced brain in that he used the left and right hemisphere of his cerebral cortex equally and to their fullest, something I’ve tried to get people from DuPont and Microsoft and Merck to do over the last 30 years,” Mr. Gelb says. “Corporate executives today tend to be overly linear, logical, analytical. I’m trying to help them use their intuition and artistic capabilities. If you want to compete in the challenging world of international business, you can’t just rely on half a brain.”

In his 1998 book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Mr. Gelb outlines seven principles that he believes define da Vinci’s work:

  • Curiosità, or curiosity, marking his insatiable quest for knowledge and continuous improvement.
  • Dimostrazione, or demonstration, through which he learned by personal experience rather than taking others’ reports for granted.
  • Sensazione, or sensation, using the senses to sharpen observation and response.
  • Sfumato, a painting technique employed by da Vinci to create an ethereal quality in his work, showing his ability to embrace ambiguity and change.
  • Arte/scienza, or the science of art, which he demonstrated in his whole-brain thinking.
  • Corporalità, or “of the body,” representing his belief that a healthy mind requires a healthy body.
  • Connessione, or connection, for his habit of weaving together multiple disciplines around a single idea.

That last principle has been popularized by the educational consultant Tony Buzan as “mind mapping,” or nonlinear, radial diagramming of words and ideas around a main concept. Mr. Buzan studied the notebooks of both da Vinci and Edison while developing mind mapping, and it’s a tool that Mr. Gelb often uses with his corporate clients.

Mr. Gelb says that one man, a chemist at DuPont, reported to him that he was reaching impasses on four seemingly unrelated projects and wasn’t sure how to proceed. Mr. Gelb suggested that the chemist create a mind map of the projects side-by-side on a single, enormous sheet of paper. The man later wrote to him in a letter: “The moment I finished the map and I surveyed the whole thing, a solution literally popped off the page. I saw a connection that I never would have made otherwise.” The chemist later received a patent for the innovation.

“People think I’m a genius because I’m helping people without knowing anything about their particular industry,” Mr. Gelb said.

Asked to name other historical figures who offer lessons on innovation, both Mr. Gelb and Mr. Axelrod rattled off lists including George S. Patton and Queen Elizabeth I. (Mr. Axelrod added Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.)

Each of these personalities responded innovatively to the rapid changes taking place around them, drawing on the expertise of advisers while continuing to build on earlier successes. Like Edison, who built new innovations on top of previous inventions, innovative leaders never declare an invention “done,” Mr. Axelrod says.

“Everything ultimately became the source of something new later,” he says. “It’s like the difference between a rich person and a wealthy person. A rich person has a lot of money and buys things. A wealthy person invests in things that make more money. It’s creating ongoing wealth out of your intellectual capital.”

Janet Rae-Dupree writes about science and emerging technology in Silicon Valley.