It is not easy to write about Leonardo da Vinci, a man of genius. Various serious authors (i.e. more qualified than me) have written about him. Here are some notes following a visit to an exhibition at the Accademia in Venice.
Leonardo was perhaps the original Renaissance Man, highly competent in a variety of disciplines, from painting to engineering. His technical notes, much like his paintings, are both detailed and beautiful. He was incredibly advanced for his time – we are talking about the 16th century.
Leonardo used analysis and research to solve a variety of problems, both artistic and scientific. As a trained artist, the observation of reality was one of his priorities. He was also fascinated by mathematics, which formed the basis of his investigations.
It was interesting to find out that he was rather slow in execution. This infuriated some of his patrons. One of the most famous episodes is Leonardo’s horse, a sculpture commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. It took Leonardo 7 years to produce a clay model. By that time, the French had invaded Milan and ousted Sforza. French soldiers ended up destroying the model.
The conventional wisdom is that Leonardo was not particularly concerned with producing results but rather with tackling difficult problems. However, it could have been the other way round: the world around him was not sufficiently organised to channel his creativity, or his sponsors were too impatient to invest in what you would today label as R&D. There are other, more elaborate explanations for Leonardo’s behaviour, namely a psychological analysis by Merleau Ponty which suggests that Leonardo had a deep-rooted problem with authority.
While da Vinci was clearly a genius, today’s innovators are likely to share a number of traits with him, including the drive to solve problems in a new way. But innovation and speed of execution do not always go hand in hand. Specifically, product development often takes longer than expected and shareholders are impatient by nature. There is evidence that in the case of quoted companies under intense analyst scrutiny, managers feel pressure to meet short-term goals and invest less in long-term innovation projects. These managers are not slackers, they just tend to get more cautious when the amount of scrutiny increases. The other side of the equation is that equity research analysts are often knowledgeable about an industry but do not always understand the mechanics of innovation (to put it mildly).
From this perspective, the world has not changed much in the past 400 years.