What the Renaissance and WW2 can teach us

You might have watched the Award winning movie ‘The Imitation Game’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. Alan Turing was the man who led the British team who during WW2 cracked the German Enigma coding machine. The Enigma was so sophisticated that the German military believed it to be completely unbreakable. But Alan Turning as his team did indeed break the Enigma, and it is generally accepted that this giant achievement alone shorten-ed the war by two years.

Now, what is interesting from an innovation point-of-view are two things:

  1. It took a team to crack the Enigma code – though Alan Turing was a genius he alone could never have broken the code.
  2. The team was a mix of really different people and skills: Alan Turing himself was a mathematician, but the team also included people with linguistic skills, knowledge of hieroglyphics and brilliance at playing chess. The only common thing across this very diverse group of people was that they all had to be able to solve The Telegraph crossword in less than six minutes to qualify for the team (others would claim that another common trait was that all code breakers were tweedy, pipe-smoking eccentrics).

The point here is that successful innovation is a team work and that the more diversity you can build into your team the more innovation you will find.

The realization that innovation is a team work – and that the more radically different the team members are – is something we first saw during the Renaissance. So let me take you back to fifteenth-century Italy and introduce to you the Medici family.

The Medici was an extremely rich banking family from Florence who was also very fond of art and science. The Medici family funded a wide range of creators and invited them to Florence to unfold their creative skills. So Florence saw in inflow of sculptures, scientists, poets, philosophers, financiers, painters and architects converge.

All these creators met, learned from each other and broke down barriers between disciplines and cultures. Together they forged a new world based on new ideas – what became known as the Renaissance. As a result Florence became an epicentre of a creative explosion, one of the most innovative eras in history.

I urge you to read the book ‘The Medici Effect’ by Frans Johansson who vividly tells the story of the Medici family and what he calls the ‘Intersection’: a place where ideas from different fields and cultures meet and collide, ultimately igniting an explosion of extraordinary new discoveries.

Applying the above learnings and insights in today’s business world I would ask you to think about the following when it comes to innovation and innovation teams in your company:

  1. Look for people who are smarter than yourself. Don’t see them as a threat, but as a gift.
  2. Look for people who do not just meet certain job criteria, but who think outside of the box, who challenge conventional wisdom and who – whilst they create flow rather than friction – are a pain in the a.. because they always ask why or why not.
  3. Ensure team diversity in terms of skills, background, culture, country of origin etc. A group of middle-aged Caucasian protestant white-collar males will only bring a clone to the party, not an original.
  4. Ask all to read the ‘Medici Effect!

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