Leonardo Da Vinci and Design

Leonardo Da Vinci and Design

Da Vinci and Design Thinking

In 1452 a boy was born from an illicit relationship between a prominent Italian notary and his mistress. This boy would go on to become one of the greatest geniuses in the history of mankind—as a painter, sculptor, and engineer. His name was Leonardo Da Vinci.

Thanks to the countless volumes of notebooks that he has left behind, we can get a glimpse of the machinations of his mind and his methods. And as we develop a greater understanding of the potential and power of Design Thinking, we can recognise that Leonardo was actually the original Design Thinker and we can validate the tenets of the philosophy against his own considerable achievements – to inspire us to greatness too.

Drawing is thinking

As a painter, it seems evident that Leonardo would enjoy sketching. But for him, doodling in his notebooks was so much more than just practising the shapes he eventually wanted to paint. For him, drawing was a way of accessing that mysterious ocean of ideas that lies under the surface of consciousness. Leonardo seemed to understand that through the act of drawing he could give shape to these abstractions in his sub-consciousness.

He dreamt up fanciful contraptions for flying, sailing, draining water and of course, imaginative new weaponry that could aid his royal patrons when they needed to settle a score. By studying his sketches, and we follow the way Leonardo kept redrawing his sketches, we get a sense of a man who used drawing to aid his thinking.
Today, in design thinking, we know this to be true. By visualising anything from delivery systems, customer journey maps and personas, we give flight to better thinking. These basic drawings help us see problems from new angles and can help many minds to work together to come up with new methods for solving these problems.

Observation is everything

Leonardo observed like nobody before him. When we look at his paintings and sculptures, we see how not only saw the world but could actually penetrate deeply into the core of objects, animals, and people.

His interest in engineering gave him an understanding of how materials reacted to light. And his interest in painting pushed him to the point where dissected horses and other animals to understand their anatomy. Leonardo was also known to slice up cadavers to get a better sense of the workings of the human body. The way he understood how the muscles, the tendons, connective tissue, and skin all flexed and worked together to animate our inner feelings made him a painter beyond comparison.
He also observed human behaviour carefully which allowed his paintings to become lifelike and compelling.

Today, we don’t have to be able to translate our observations into paintings. But keen observation of human nature enables us to spot opportunities and pathways that help us to solve problems.

A few decades ago, Richard Sears of Sears Roebuck, the bricks and mortar forerunner of Amazon, ordered his company’s sales catalogue – the most important publication for a direct mail business – to be printed at a smaller size than his main competition’s catalogues. Why? He keenly observed how his own grandmother stacked magazines and catalogues on her coffee table. This observation made him realise that the majority of people who kept catalogues would arrange them from big to small – and he wanted his own to always be on top.

Winning by failing

Leonardo started many projects during his life that he just abandoned. Would these be regarded as failures today?

No. We now know that every project he worked on contributed in the bigger picture towards the artist he would eventually become. The artist who would eventually paint his crowning glory: The Mona Lisa.

Accepting failure as part of the process is an integral part of design thinking methodology. The moment we free ourselves from the judgment of failure, the world becomes a more playful place. And in this playground, new ideas thrive. Failure is literally the breeding ground for great ideas.

The helicopter view

Earlier in his career, Leonardo enjoyed imagining and realising spectacular theatrical displays.

Once, he built a stage for a play that involved the planetary motion of our solar system. Leonardo wanted the planets to fly through the auditorium, over the heads of the audience. To do this, he had to take a helicopter view. The design of what happened on the stage above the audience had to be connected to a complex machine that was located behind the stage. He conceived and designed a system of gears, pulleys, and levers that would be manipulated to allow the planetary motion in front of the stage.

Today, in service design, we also understand that designing for the customer is only half the story. What happens behind the scenes also has to be carefully designed to enable genuinely transformative services. Just ask Leonardo. What happens behind the scenes is just as important as what happens in the scenes.

Learning from Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci was a man like no other. He achieved great things that in many ways still remain unparalleled.

But even today, we can still glean many lessons from his life that can be applied to modern ways of working. That legacy is perhaps an even greater treasure than any of the art he ever produced.


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When Risking it All Means Gaining it All

When Risking it All Means Gaining it All

Lessons in Leadership from Hernán Cortés and Batman

Hernán Cortés was a Spanish conquistador and explorer, born just over a decade before the start of the 16th century. In his world, the empires of Europe dispatched their ships, soldiers, and merchants to conquer the planet and its riches.

In the Americas, the mighty Aztecs had been flourishing since the 1300s, building their civilisation in Mexico. And it was to this part of the world that Cortés set his sights to seek out his fortune.

By 1518, he was to command his own expedition to Mexico, but his superior, Diego Velásquez cancelled the mission. But the flames of ambition burnt fiercely in him, and so Cortés defied the orders of Velásquez and later he secretly sailed off to Mexico with 11 ships and 500 men.

They reached the shores of Mexico in February of 1519. By now, some of the men have become aware of Cortés’ deceit. A few rebellious voices rose, and dissent grew amongst the men.

Smelling the danger, he took the brazen step of destroying all the ships on which they had sailed to Mexico. With this suicidal act, he burnt the only bridge they had to get home. He pushed his own men with their backs against the wall.

All they could do was fight. Fight till the bitter end. Retreating was no longer an option.

Eventually, in 1522, after much bloodshed, Cortés and his men conquered the Aztecs and Mexico and King Charles I of Spain appointed him governor of Mexico.

Of course, today we can reflect on this terrible chapter in history with horror.

But, there is a valuable lesson in leadership to be learnt from the evil Cortés.

When people have their backs against the wall, their instinct is to fight. When we have everything to lose, we give everything we have to win.

The Dark Night Leaps

In the third installment of Christopher’s Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – featuring Bruce Wayne’s Batman, there is an amazing scene that is reminiscent of the Cortés approach.

Wayne is jailed in an underground prison that is virtually impossible to escape. There is only one way, and that is to climb up a wall, towards the sunlight and then jump across a chasm. Everybody who had tried to cross had failed, except one.

Wayne tries a few times. He attaches the safety rope and climbs up the wall. Each time he fails and comes dangling down the rope, scraped and bruised. But then, an old prisoner befriends him and reveals to him the secret about the only one who has ever made the escape: Do it as the child did. Make the climb, without the rope. And fear will find you again. Leap, and if you don’t make it, you fall back down into the void to sure death. But if you get to the other side, you can clamber out and taste freedom.

So this is what Bruce Wayne does. He climbs up without the rope, leaps, and makes it across!

Again, like with the Spaniards under the command of Cortés, Bruce Wayne risks everything and uses the inherent fear of losing it all to make it across the impossible.

Burning the Ships in Our Modern Organisations

Today, in leading our teams and organisations, we need some of Cortés’ management strategies. We need the fear of Bruce Wayne. Because too often, teams are paralysed by the indecision of moving forward. Responsibility is divided and nothing of value and meaning happens. What would it look like in our modern institutions if we burn the ships? What is that safety rope that is holding us back?

The secret lies in framing the context. As a leader, you have to set an expectation and free people from the constraints of their everyday thinking. You have to implicitly, permit them to think ten times bigger than their day-to-day process. This is what JFK did when he announced the moonshot. He created the context for people to think bigger, to risk everything for fear of losing it all.

As a leader today, your challenge is to frame the context for your team. Make them feel the wall against their backs, and free them from the paralysis of indecision and fear of trying. In order to help people think bigger and give their all, we need to do the following.


Remove the Fear of Failure

Promote a culture of creativity and trial. This is the most visible way of cutting the safety rope. A team that is used to experiment is a team that is happy to try bigger and bigger things, building confidence, and winning consistently.


Smother the Blame

Never allow the blame game to steer meetings and conversations. Allow people to vent, but ensure everyone understands that what we’re doing is for the team and for reaching the goal: because failure is not an option.


Frame the Moonshot

Give purpose to where we’re going. To set the ambition, it’s all about the why, and less about what and how.

In summary. If anything stands in your team’s way that looks like a safety, burn it. Break it. Because humans are at their best when they have everything to lose.


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Invoking the Power of Story

Invoking the Power of Story

How a movie became a sword

China was the biggest importer of the planet’s trash. Where, tens of millions of tonnes of the world’s rubbish was trucked, shipped and flown to various cities around the country, where it was dumped, to be sorted, recycled or re-dumped. When you read this paragraph, it is difficult to imagine the real-life implications of it. But, in 2016, film director Wang Jilang released a documentary film called Plastic China – a labour of love that he’d been working on for four years.

The film swung the spotlight on an 11-year old Chinese girl, Yi-Jie, as she spent the day in, day out, working in her father’s trash processing facility. Potent scenes showed how she would brush her hair, dipping it in a tank filled with trash, even washing her face in the putrid greywater. She would cut cartoon characters from discarded toy packaging to fashion toys with which she would play during her short breaks. Every day, she and her family would live on this rubbish mound, working amidst the waste of the world, and breathing in the toxic fumes from the machines that would melt and soak plastic, turning it into sludge and then producing hardened pellets.

The film hit the international circuit where it was an instant success, winning accolades at film festivals. Importantly, it spread like wildfire through China, where the authorities eventually banned it. But, not before it enraged the Chinese public who could now put a face to the story. Within a very short space of time, the Chinese government launched a nationwide programme, called National Sword, that set out to overhaul and modernise the recycling industry.

Stories – the human success

The simple story is what makes us human. No other animal has this ability to use its power. It is what made us collaborate in large groups, enabling us to rapidly rise to the apex of the food chain, from whence, we began to rule the entire planet.

Stories created culture. They built communities and nations. With a simple story, a young man could be moved to leave the home of his parents, or his young wife, take up arms and go off to war, risking life and limb to defend that story. In 1940, Sir Winston Churchill rose to the dispatch box in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, as the country’s new Prime Minister and made a speech that contains these words:

“We shall go on to the end.

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.

We shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

These words, invoked a compelling story and a vision of bravery and victory, of good prevailing over evil. And they powered the Allied Forces through their immense battle with the German military machine.

There are countless examples of how fiction transforms reality. The Pay It Forward Foundation was launched in September 2000 on the back of the novel Pay It Forward – that eventually became a movie, starring Kevin Spacey. In the story, a young boy begins a chain reaction of good deeds by paying a good deed forward three times. This foundation has already helped to fund many schools, hospitals and helped out a multitude of people in need — all, from a simple story about a boy.

How story-telling can help transform your organisation

What worked for Churchill and the Allied Forces, will work for any organisation, company – or individual. Here are some tips for getting the power of story to work for you.

Make people relate to a character

Let’s say you’re having a conversation about the benefit of medical insurance. You could present impressive-looking slides and data, with points that make a case for the product. Or, you could tell the story of a young woman, in the prime of her life, who got struck by cancer. Healthy and fit, she never thought he’d get sick. Fortunately, after months of treatment, she went into remission, but the costs were so massive she had to sell almost all her possessions—including her apartment. By telling the story of this woman, you don’t need boring slides. You’ve made the case through an example anyone can relate to—even if they were sitting around a dinner table.

Make it personal

Stories are more powerful when the person who tells it has actually experienced it. It opens the mind of the listener on a primal level because the evolutionary advantage of story-telling is that we all learn from each other how to survive. When you tell a story about how you coped with something, we are all interested to hear because somewhere in the future we may need this same information.

Enshrine story-telling in your organisation

Encourage everyone in the organisation to tell the stories about your organisation and its day-to-day activities—the good, and also the bad. And make sure that everyone can contribute. The smallest anecdote from a call-center agent can alert the management of a significant systemic failure. The bad stories are teaching moments; the good stories are reasons to celebrate.

What’s your story?

Embrace the power of story in your organisation today. Use it to shape the future. Stories can teach, inform and most importantly, inspire people to greatness. On 12 September 1962, the young American President, John F. Kennedy made a speech at the Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas in which he outlined the vision to land a man on the Moon.

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

And we did. We did go to the Moon. Where will you go?

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Change Management: How to bring your people on board the rocket

Change Management: How to bring your people on board the rocket

The antidote to fear

Commander Chris Hadfield is arguably one of the most famous astronauts today. He was the first Canadian in space, flew two Space Shuttle missions and served as commander of the International Space Station (ISS). In total, he has spent 166 days in space. During his last mission on the ISS, he became particularly well-known for his photography of Earth from the ISS, and also for his rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, performed on the space station.

Once during a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) session, a Redditor asked him a question that astronauts get asked frequently: When you’re sitting in that rocket or that shuttle, and you are waiting for that incredible acceleration as all those highly flammable fuels is unleashed into the power rocket motors to thrust you into speed at almost 30 times the speed of sound—aren’t you afraid?

This was his response:

“By the time I am listening to the countdown get to single digits I have been trained for countless hours on every single emergency procedure and I have a deep understanding of everything that could go wrong and what the crew could do in each instance. That knowledge takes away the fear.”

It seems simple. But it is true. The only antidote to fear is knowledge.

Humans don’t like change

Today, more than ever in the history of humanity, we understand that the only constant to our world is changing. Nothing stays the same—and if it does, it will almost instantly become obsolete.

But most organisations are powered by humans. And most humans don’t particularly like change. Just ask Coca-Cola. In 1985 they introduced a new formulation of the world’s most popular soda, and they called it New Coke. But the reaction of the public was so severe that within months they had to retreat. Or monitor social media anytime any of the big platforms introduce a subtle change in their user-interface design.

People don’t like change.

Human Action

In 1949, Austrian thinker, philosopher, and economist, Ludwig Von Mises wrote a famous treatise called Human Action. In it, he describes three requirements that need to be fulfilled in order for human beings to act toward change. These requirements are as relevant and acknowledged today as they were when it was written.

Dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs
A vision of a better state of affairs
A genuine belief that the better state can be achieved.

So how do you help people deal with change in your organisation?

Here are some tips and tricks that could help you fulfill Von Mises’ requirements:


Clearly define the Big Opportunity

Make sure that everyone in the organisation is aware of how much better it would be for everyone if we all reach for the Big Opportunity. Use storytelling and emotion to help everyone in the organisation have a clear understanding of what this better state looks like. Don’t leave people out. Dissenting voices who are allowed to whisper in hallways will hamper your efforts for building this cohesive North Star to which you want to navigate to. If people have questions and concerns, answer them in a clear, concise and straightforward way.

Make sure your Opportunity is framed in a purposeful way

Too often we look at situations in a superficial way. We deal with the what and the how instead of answering the most crucial question: the why. For more on this, see Simon Sinek’s excellent primer on his Start With Why premise.


Set smaller goals along the way

To instill the belief that the team can get there, we have to build confidence. The more a team succeeds, the more it nurtures a culture of success and that in turn, helps every one to get on with the job of winning. The goals could either be related to the Opportunity to which you want to go, or it could be completely unrelated. The desired outcome is simply that the team develops the belief that they are winners and that they can achieve whatever they set their minds to. Be clear to celebrate the wins in a demonstrable way. And if there are losses along the way, celebrate the effort and don’t hold back on discussing what could have worked better—of course in a non-judgemental way.

Be clear on what is wrong with staying in the same place

We want our team to develop that dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. So be clear that staying in the same position is not desirable for survival. As with painting the picture of where you want to go, be clear, transparent and allow for questions and comments until you are sure the entire team gets the picture.

In conclusion

If we empower our people with knowledge, we can help them overcome their fear of change. If we do it in a structured way, then we can systematically bring them onboard our rocket ship and take them to the stars.


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Visionary Thinking for Thought Leaders

Visionary Thinking for Thought Leaders

“When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned
skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
Leonardo da Vinci

Visionary thinking

What does the history of great design leadership teach us about visionary thinking?

For one, we have learned from the greatest innovators on our planet that they dreamed the unimaginable way ahead of their time. They boldly envisioned things to come in the future and started to conduct experiments others may have ridiculed or even suppressed.

So, how can innovation drive any form of design or art, policy or system to new heights?

What is your great vision?

One way to start is to identify a great vision. Zaha Hadid, one of the leading contemporary architects named “Queen of the curve” by The Guardian famously stated: “You really have to have a goal. The goal posts might shift, but you should have a goal. Know what it is you want to find out.”

What did Leonardo da Vinci want to find out? The legendary Renaissance artist is best known for the Mona Lisa and one of the first generation of painters to employ ‘central perspective’ in their work. Da Vinci had an insatiable curiosity about the mechanics of the world that surrounded him. Unbounded systems thinking led him to fill 15,000 pages with his notes, ideas, and concepts that took several hundred years and the ambition of countless yet unborn designers to realize. Most notable among da Vinci’s dreams was the machine that would fly, first generated by the Icarus myth from classical Greek antiquity.

What is the take-away for today’s thought leader? The mental image of human flight took more than two millennia until it was finally realized by the Wright brothers in the early 1900s, who themselves revisited da Vinci’s initial designs. Da Vinci and many other inventors and designers developed countless ideas. Many of them continue to linger in the digital realm as well as in archives and libraries, ready to be unearthed to help inspire and inform the next great invention.

Innovation and design

Cutting-edge business practices have been looking towards the field of design for discourse on creative professional practices. While skillsets and specializations were increasingly compartmentalized during the industrial revolution and much of the twentieth century, internationally leading business leaders and schools today promote more holistic, cross-disciplinary dialog and collaboration.

At its core design brings together rational thinking and creativity to create solutions that fulfill a need and inspire an emotional response in people. It is little wonder that much modern innovation is delivered with the help of design processes and thinking.


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