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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Dod

Think Like da Vinci: Be a Genius

For many, our impressions of the great Leonardo da Vinci were shaped by Dan Brown’s wildly famous book, The da Vinci Code. In it, da Vinci and his secret society progeny of generationally-connected elites are riddled with enigmas wrapped in mystery.

From our modern perspective, it is all sleuth and magic – a veritable puzzle inside a puzzle – a journey to uncover the Holy Grail. Shuttled rapidly from scene to scene, we whizzed by each clue like a bullet train, blurred by the speed and left just a little bit off-kilter.

Whether intentional or not, Brown’s popular masterpiece revealed many of the methods da Vinci used in his every day initiatives, from painting to science to sculpture to medicine and beyond. Perspective. Distance. Closeness. Angles. Questions. He is said to have had a “feverishly inventive imagination” with an “unquenchable curiosity.”

These elements drove da Vinci to see the world from a different perspective. By doing so, he managed to see what mere mortals missed, even 500 years later. In fact, given that many art historians believe da Vinci has hidden clues in many of his masterpieces, his lessons about perspective still ring true today. What do we not see that is right in front of our eyes?

How does this apply to the modern tech company? How can we learn from a genius of the 1500s?

Simple. Learn to think like da Vinci.

  • Trust nothing of what your eyes show you and less of what your ears hear.

  • Get outside your normal ways and habits, switch up the ways you go about generating ideas, up-end the processes you use for solving issues.

  • Try something new…something uncomfortable…something silly or kid-like. Try diagramming a problem with crayons.

  • Professionals are trained to solve problems quickly. But often, in our rush to check off an item from our to-do lists, we whizz past the correct answer, obscured by the blurriness along our path. We lose perspective by failing to gain perspective. And that, often, but not always, can mean a business fails to operate at its peak.

In my career, I have led dozens of innovation sessions with many large tech companies. Often pegged as “Brainstorms,” these sessions were actually designed with a single goal in mind: to train executives to think like geniuses by giving them the tools to generate new ideas, new products, new models and new ways of winning in the market. Some of the executives embraced the sessions like kids in a candy story, eager to try new exercises and willing to push the envelope. Some, unfortunately, were wedged in their entrenched ways of thinking, almost as if a car with a flat tire in a ditch. These execs could not get out of their own worlds to explore new perspectives. Some people are so genetically conditioned to think in certain ways that it’s hard for them to consider alternatives or to shift their gears accordingly. Obviously, you can surmise which companies developed more new ideas and started thinking differently. To the most intransigent, I would ask who they believed was a modern tech genius. Most said Steve Jobs. To that expected answer, I asked: “Does anyone here think Steve Jobs thinks like you?” Never, in all the sessions, did a single hand go up. So, how do you start thinking like a da Vinci or a Jobs? What are the tools of the trade and how can every person with an above-average room temperature IQ get on the path to becoming a tech genius?

Start with this single, simple lesson. Follow each of these directions step by step. Do not skip steps. Try it with three different colleagues in three different settings and see how they respond.

Get a coffee mug. Place it on your desk. Do not touch it. Just look at it. Study it. Examine it. Now, spend 60 seconds making a list of the things that mug is. Simple stuff, yes. Not a lot of heavy lifting in this lesson.

Most Level 1 thinkers write down the following: coffee mug, water goblet, a cup-of-soup, etc. To them, it’s a cup for holding a liquid substance. Why? Because that’s how they “see” or “use” that cup every day. It’s a flippin’ coffee mug. That’s it. All true. All correct. But incomplete.

Now, you can touch the mug. Spend 60 more seconds and write down anything else that comes to mind.

Here’s what a Level 2 thinker might write down: a very small fish tank, a flower vase…(still, they cling to the liquid holding vessel perspective)…and then…boom…out will pop a different line of thinking: a paperclip holder, a small trash can, a mini-basketball hoop, etc. These thinkers move sideways from the liquid-dominated imagery to that of something solid. They start looking at the mug as a big or small thing, not just as a thing they themselves use every day. They start to get outside of themselves. (Sidenote: when marketers get outside of themselves, that’s a VERY good thing.)

Now, stage 3. Spend 60 more seconds and push yourself to go farther. What’s a Level 3 thinker do? Twist everything upside down and left-side right. He/She will get up and walk away or examine the mug from an inch away. In twisting and turning it, they experience epiphanies that immediately jolt an idea into their heads them. What might they write down, in addition, to the above? When they turn the mug upside down, they see an insect trap or a round turret maker for a beach sand castle. When they place the mug back on the desk next to a stack of papers, they see a paper weight. And when they turn it on its side, they immediately see a makeshift golf putting cup.

Most of us are conditioned to see the mug as we use it in our daily lives. We look at it from a singular dimension, not from a multi-dimensional perspective. As a result, we miss the blur as it whizzes by. A mug is a mug. Well… not so much. By changing their perspective of the mug, my clients learned to push themselves from Level 1 thinkers to Level 3 thinkers. As they did so, it was truly amazing to see how quickly new real business ideas came to the fore and how different thinkers, each leveraging the others’ best and wackiest, could generate out of thin air concepts and ideas that blew minds.

Genetics are not always kind to most of us. Most of us were not born geniuses. But, we do have the capacity to think like geniuses if we get a little perspective, push ourselves into uncomfortable zones and, most importantly of all, forget everything we know.

Curious? Good. That’s a start. Give us a ring and we’ll buy you a cup of Joe with that multi-dimensional mug.

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