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Innovate Like Da Vinci

One of the biggest questions about innovation is “how do we maintain it over time?” After all, there are lots of one hit wonders, but only a few people can continue to come up with innovative ideas on an ongoing basis. Many companies seem innovative for a short time, but quickly lose steam. While Google is considered to be an innovative company, it has more than 47 thousand employees, most of whom are young curious and creative techie types. While there are companies that do prove that it is possible to not be innovative with a similar workforce, the truth is you have to make some serious business decisions to stifle innovation on that scale. The real question is, how do we as individuals make sure we stay innovative for success in our business dealings?

One of the best ways is to study other innovators. See what we can learn from what they did and how they did it. Some people like to look at Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Other people like to go back to innovators like Sam Walton or Richard Warren Sears. Personally, I like to go way back to one of the most innovative and creative minds in the history of the world. I like to study Leonardo da Vinci. While mostly widely known as a painter, he was really more of a polymath. He also had notable achievements in sculpture, architecture, musician, mathematics, engineering, anatomy, geology, cartography, and even botany.

While it would be impossible to do justice to this genius in one blog post, I will share the Seven Da Vincian Principles that help define da Vinci’s approach to life and as such innovation (Gelb, 1998). Those seven principles are:

  • Curiosita: An insatiable curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning. After all, have you ever met a successful person who does not claim to be a veracious learner?
  • Dimonstrazione: A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence and a willingness to learn from past mistakes. This is pretty much the scientific method applied to everyday life. Thinking back to our WD 40 example in an earlier discussion, it wasn’t the first effort that worked, it was the 40th.
  • Sensazione: Continual refinement of the senses as the means to enliven experience. To be innovative we must be aware of what is going on around us. One of the important business topics that it relates to that is active listening. Far too often in business we only listen passively and as a result miss vital information that could serve as the inspiration for some new idea.
  • Sfumato: The literal translation for this term is going up in smoke. It is about our willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty. As the old saying goes, the only two things that are certain in business are uncertainty and change.
  • Arte/Scienza: Developing a balance between logic and imagination. After all, imagination without logic is day dreaming, and logic without imagination is boring. Other terms for this are balancing between art and science as well as whole brain thinking.
  • Corporalita: This is about maintaining a healthy body as well as a healthy mind. Have you ever seen a really unhealthy person who was creative? While there are a few exceptions here and there, they are very rare. One of the core concepts of da Vinci’s approach is keeping our bodies fit being a function of keeping our minds fit. Fit minds lead to more innovative and creative solutions.
  • Connessione: This is the simple recognition of the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena. As we talked about early on, it isn’t always just an issue of coming up with something totally new, sometimes it about seeing the links between how to use old things in new ways.

While the Gelb book is 332 pages of instructions on how to apply these concepts, most of them break down to awareness of our own lives and remembering to pay attention to these things so that we can be more innovative. And we look at innovation, that paying attention to the world around is often the most important part.


Gelb, M.J. (1998). How to think like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven steps to genius every day. New York: NY Delacorte Press.

Related Benedictine Programs

If you’re interested in learning more about innovation, Benedictine’s MBA in Entrepreneurship and Managing Innovation focuses on instrumental success factors to assess and explore new business opportunities including managing creativity, building a business plan, and financing your venture. Benedictine University also offers online Undergraduate degree programs. To learn how an online degree from Benedictine can help you in a new business venture talk to a Program Manager today.

About the Author

Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with eighteen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard.

He can be reached at or via Twitter @jimmybrownphd