If you could invite anyone for dinner, dead or alive, who would it be?
My answer to that ice breaker question has always been Leonardo da Vinci. I wonder what this renaissance man would make of today’s digital world in which many of his ideas of the future have become part of our reality.
Would he use AI to draw the smile of the Mona Lisa or to perfect the shading in the Last Supper? Would da Vinci join the race into space with a 21st-century version of his flying machine? How would blockchain spur his imagination?
Above all, I would like to know how da Vinci inspired others to embrace his inventions. Not everyone at da Vinci’s time was ready to share his fascination with flying and become a co-inventor or potential user of his flying machine. Not everyone today is ready to welcome the change that intelligent technologies, such as AI, are bringing to our workplace and society. The need for driving change and helping others to embrace it is everlasting.
Leonardo da Vinci’s birthday is on April 15. This year is also the 500th anniversary of his death, an opportune time to reflect on his impact on the arts, sciences, and technology. Driven by curiosity, Leonardo da Vinci became the world’s most famous polymath and change maker, not only for his generation but for generations to come.
While I can’t invite Leonardo da Vinci for dinner at our house in Heidelberg, I can still get inspired by his wisdom based on his well-documented legacy. I identified three things that we can apply today from da Vinci’s work to encourage innovation and master organizational change.
One of da Vinci’s most lauded qualities was his endless curiosity. He started off as a painter, but quickly branched out to other disciplines, continuously expanding his knowledge and skills. His interests included the arts, architecture, music, mathematics, engineering, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, history, writing and cartography, among others. His multi-disciplinary approach fueled his creativity and quest for perfection. For example, by studying the anatomy and physiology of the human body, Leonardo da Vinci could further perfect his painting skills.
To drive change, we have to inspire others to be curious. Recent research published in Harvard Business Review states that curiosity is critical to an organization’s performance as it helps the workforce to adapt to a changing and uncertain market environment. On the one hand, curiosity can infuse more creativity into innovation processes. On the other hand, it can inspire team members to upskill and re-skill and create new ways of cross-team collaborations to prepare for the new customer and market requirements.
Communicate change as an opportunity for growth
Da Vinci moved across different disciplines in his quest for innovation. Organizational changes often have a similar goal: to improve the company’s ability to innovate, better serve customers, and perfect products and services. Some people thrive on change, for others changes can be unsettling. In the words of Leonardo da Vinci, “the noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.” Communications and employee engagement are vital in creating an understanding of a company’s new direction and in making the new path enjoyable. Transformation requires an open and honest conversation about the reasons for change. The most frequently asked question in change management processes is pragmatic: how does it affect my work? A common approach is to provide an open forum for questions and answers via group and individual meetings. An important element is to help team members embrace change as an opportunity. Change brings possibilities for professional growth. Communication can provide a road map, outlining the concrete steps for everyone to take and the professional development opportunities along the path.
Show leadership commitment
Not all of da Vinci’s projects came to fruition. In 1502, Leonardo suggested the construction of a single span 720-foot bridge over the Golden Horn inlet at the mouth of the Bosporus. The ruler at that time, Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II of Constantinople, was not convinced that the bridge construction would be impossible. He perceived it to be a risk, not a value. The plans got shelved. With leadership buy-in, the outcome of this engineering project could have been different. In 2001, da Vinci’s plan for the Bosporus bridge was successfully applied to construct a smaller bridge in Norway.
Committed leadership is the motor for organizational transformation. “In change, people have to find their own path. You can’t mandate how that happens. But you can create the right conditions,” says Beth Comstock in her book ‘Imagine It Forward’.
Effective leaders guide teams through changes. They map out the vision and goal, the north star, but give everyone the opportunity and flexibility to find their own way and role of contributing to the journey and the team.
Leonardo da Vinci once said: art is never finished, only abandoned. The same applies to change management. Change is never finished, only abandoned. Every organization, small and large, continues to evolve.
A company’s long-term success not only depends on whether or not it will reach the north star, but it also depends on its ability to navigate change at every stage of its evolution. In 500 years from now, chances are that Leonardo da Vinci will still inspire us to innovate and drive change — and stay curious about our world.