• Robb G. Best

How to Run Your Company Like Da Vinci

It's hard to overestimate the power of whole-brain thinking. Sometimes defined as "systems thinking", it occurs when your creative right brain is in balance with your analytical left-brain. Leonardo Da Vinci is a classic whole-brain thinker. He was able to dream up fantastical flying machines but also to follow it through with detailed schematics. He studied math and engineering along with sculpting and painting, and his careful research of anatomy gave him a huge advantage in bringing his grand visions to life.

Da Vinci was an artist and a scientist. It's one of the things that made him, well, Da Vinci.

Imagine if all of us could achieve this balance.

Of course, it’s not that simple. First, your left and right brain are not strictly compartmentalized—there is a certain amount of overlap and redundancy. And to the extent that the two differ, most of us veer strongly towards one side, either focusing on emotions and big ideas (right brain), or logic and details (left brain).

Corporations, companies and organizations tend to demonstrate this bias as well. When it comes to organizational strategy, we often see a bias towards a left-brained, analytical approach. And for financial decisions, the beating heart of most companies, the left side tends to reign supreme.

So how does a company try to ensure its fiscal success? Many procure best-of-class software and find a process to follow, a blueprint of sorts. Deming’s 14 principles, Six Sigma, and A3 are but a few of the methods currently in vogue. Armed with these modern tools and analytics, an organization can conquer the world, or at least take a serious bite out of their competition, right?

Well, only if you would describe the magic behind a great concert pianist’s skills as "all about the left hand." In truth, the missing component of the left-handed piano theory is, of course, the right hand. Likewise, even the most cutting-edge, well-designed software and processes are useless without a team of engaged, educated people. Yet many businesses neglect time for proper training and getting real buy-in from a workforce. They neglect the human factor.

The problem is compounded by one of the striking findings in neuroscience: when this human factor is ignored, it is disturbingly easy for brain biases to step in and gum up the works. Nobel Laureate economist Daniel Kahneman and famed psychologist Amos Tversky identified at least twenty of these in what they call Prospect theory.

Prospect theory asserts that people make decisions based on their perceived value of potential gain or loss, and not necessarily on what would be in their long-term best interest. In other words, when it comes to decision-making, we tend not to be all that logical or rational. Prospect theory tells us this is especially true when it comes to financial decisions.

We saw these biases in full bloom among traders during the recent financial crisis.

There was confirmation bias, or only accessing sources that agree with one’s point of view. There was overconfidence effect, a tendency to believe we are right far more often than we actually are. And there was status quo bias, following an existing process or strategy despite new emerging information. Together, these human errors contributed heavily to the disaster still reverberating through the marketplace. To top it all off, cognitive bias blinded the financial experts to the looming dangers on the horizon.

The human mind has amazing creative potential, but the built-in evolutionary flaws mean we cannot function as machines. We bring a whole host of variable behaviors and idiosyncrasies to any work setting. Factor in a worker's tendency to stick with previously built habits (a form of status quo bias), and we begin to see the challenge with the proper implementation of new software and or processes in an organization.

Buying a Steinway piano does not guarantee your prowess at the keyboards any more than acquiring the best software or adopting an awesome process alone will guarantee your success. Ignoring the human element can result in failure on every level, from group morale, to the product quality, to earnings.

Whole-brain strategy requires left-brain analytics to make sure that you are solving for the correct problem, and then right-brain empathy to understand and adjust for the ramifications of those decisions on a workforce. For many businesses, this last bit is the crucial missing step. Unfortunately, whole-brain strategy is not an off-the-shelf purchase. Training, educating, and listening to your people requires investing considerable time and energy.

Concert pianists understand that musical harmony is about hours of practice to make both hands work together. The same could be said in business about process and people.

Da Vinci understood this better than anyone, and 500 years later, his work still testifies to the power of combining the analytic with the creative. The whole-brain lesson alone might qualify him as one of the greatest thinkers of all time.


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