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I have been always fascinated by Leonardo Da Vinci. Reading Da Vinci’s biography by Walter Isaacson inspired me to dive deeper into the life of the famous Italian polymath. What I took away from my research were several lessons from Da Vinci’s life and experiences that can just as easily be implemented in the Digital Age. The most important of these lessons, which underlies everything else that we can take away from his life is to be ‘Agile’ which is THE most crucial skill in the age of digital disruption. As we go through each of the lessons, we will see how Leonardo Da Vinci is the posterchild for strong learning agility.
Lesson #1: Be a lifelong learner
Da Vinci’s curiosity was paramount and his urge to learn was unquenchable. Da Vinci was someone who simply wanted to know everything and thought it might be possible to do so, and therein lied his genius. While he is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of all time, Da Vinci’s areas of interest and expertise also included sculpting, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology. astronomy, botany, writing, history and cartology. He has been called the father of paleontology, ichnology, and architecture, and has been credited with the inventions of the parachute, helicopter and armored tanks used for fighting.
Da Vinci’s curiosity shows us just how agile a learner he was. He satiated his curiosity by mastering several different subjects and making significant contributions to them. However, he was also supremely skilled at using that knowledge in creating the masterpiece paintings that the world still admires today.
Lesson #2: Learn by doing
As Isaacson writes in his portrayal of Da Vinci, “Over and over again, year after year, Leonardo lists things he must do and learn”. From his various interests and contributions, it is evident that Da Vinci believed in experience as the best form of learning.
Da Vinci belonged to a time of exploration, discovery and invention, as suggested by the definition of Renaissance – a period of rebirth. From the way he functioned and achieved his accomplishments, there is much that we can also learn about navigating the current age of technological disruption, which demands us to reimage and redefine the way we work and live.
In implementing his learning, Da Vinci demonstrated the second crucial component of learning agility – implementing learning for a positive outcome. His habit of relentlessly iterating was a result of his need to implement what he learnt. Therefore, despite never having been satisfied with some of his own work, he continues to leave patrons spellbound and tongue-tied even today.
Lesson #3: Navigating the Digital BLUR™
Our point of view at KNOLSKAPE about digital is that “Digital” is not a thing. It is a way of doing things: by leveraging technology to create an exceptional customer experience, become agile and unlock new value.
This is an important definition because many crucial lines that have traditionally defined businesses are blurring away in the digital world, necessitating businesses, strategies, leaders, teams and processes to be redefined and reorganized. BLUR™ represents these four crucial lines:
What does Da Vinci teach us about managing this BLUR™?
Operating in a Boundary-less state requires an extensive network. In his book, Isaacson highlights Da Vinci’s perspective on Networked Intelligence. He says, “the ability to make connections across disciplines – arts and sciences, humanities and technology – is key to innovation, imagination, and genius.” Through his life, Da Vinci portrays the epitome of this thought:
- He pursued innovative studies of optics, mechanics along with arts and created a drawing of a well-proportioned man spread-eagle inside a circle and square, known as Vitruvian Man -A classic example of his ability to combine art and science.
- In the creation of The Last supper, Da Vinci used different perspectives from anatomy and optics.
Da Vinci forces us to ponder about how often we look outside our own industry boundaries and take inspiration.
- The second crucial line that Digital disrupts is through Limitless Digitization. The advent of technology focusses on rapid digitization of everything around us, producing high volumes of data constantly. The struggle is in ability to derive sense out of this data. The key requirement here is for a leader who possesses the ability to make sense out of the volumes of data constantly discovered. Here again, we have much to learn from Da Vinci:
- He once took a trip from Florence to Milan and calculated the exact distance of the trip to be 180 miles. He devised a type of odometer by counting the turns of a vehicle wheel.
- All his paintings were inspired with a deep application of optical science and geometry on how light reflects on different faces and surfaces from different angles.
Da Vinci exhibited this genius in a time which was considered primitive by modern standards of advancement. The lesson to take away, however, is that there have always been correlations all around us. Technology and data have just made these correlations blatantly obvious to a point where they can no longer be ignored. Therefore, the ability to make sense is no longer a novelty, but a necessity.
- The third line that is being blurred is that of innovation. The Digital Age demands Unbounded innovation. Innovation can no longer take place in a secret lab. Rather, innovation is a constant pursuit which requires unprecedented amounts of thinking outside the box. Da Vinci is a role model for the master design thinker who requires to embody the strengths of curiosity, relentless experimentation, keen observation, empathizing with the environment and collaboration among other strengths How did Da Vinci exemplify Unbounded Innovation?
- In his early days, Da Vinci worked with multi disciplinarians to create paintings and artifacts so that he could produce a constant flow of marketable products.
- For another project of a weapon system, he made more than thirty preparatory drawings (minimum viable product in design thinking parlance)
The final element of the Digital BLUR™ that Da Vinci seamlessly performed was that of Relentless Iteration. In the Digital Age, a state of ‘doneness’ does not exist. Individuals, teams, and organizations need to constantly strive to improve their processes, products and services in favor of constantly supporting positive customer experience. Da Vinci’s most famous painting ‘The Mona Lisa’ was created with significant effort. To ensure that he got the smile perfect, Da Vinci conducted multiple experiments on skin grafts, and still claimed that the smile had not been perfected. The Mona Lisa was painted over and over again for 4 years, and some claim that the Mona Lisa was never finished. In fact, in his book, Isaacson states, “Leonardo’s unwillingness to declare a painting done and relinquish it: he knew that there was always more he might learn, new techniques he might master, and further inspirations that might strike him. And he was right.”
How often we do this with our products and services?
Leonardo Da Vinci exhibited the qualities and capabilities crucial for the Digital Age at a time far before modern day technological advancements and disruptions, highlighting that the much elusive “Digital Capabilities” are not as daunting as they are made out to be. Rather than focusing on words such as ‘NEED’ and ‘CRUCIAL’ in relation to digital capabilities, we must, instead, focus on striving to constantly better ourselves and explore beyond the boundaries that we are accustomed to. After all, many of the conveniences we relish today are simply results of someone wanting to improve something, even when it wasn’t broken.
In short, Da Vinci teaches us that in order to embark on the journey of becoming a true master of the digital age (we use “becoming” instead of become as there is no end state of capability for a digital leader), one must be in a constant state of learning, absorbing, making connections and identifying patterns, implement and relentlessly experiment to improve ourselves and the world around us. The volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of the digital age may seem daunting, but Da Vinci’s life is a testament to being able to achieve unimaginable outcomes through the pursuit of learning agility.
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