What it takes to drive progress in turbulent times … Learning from Einstein, Picasso and “the age of genius”

July 11, 2017

12 years ago I wrote my first book, “Marketing Genius”. Since then it has been translated into 35 languages, become a business book of the year, endorsed by Sir Richard Branson (he actually read and reviewed it), and I’ve followed it with 6 more books on strategy, innovation, customers and leadership, most recently “Gamechangers: How will you change your world?”

When I started writing that first book, my mind was focused on all the usual hyperbole of business, of being a better leader, focused on your customers, delivering high performance. A wise friend then said I needed to find something more interesting, and more personal.

My inspiration came from my own experience in business.

Having started out as a research scientist, on entering business I was always given the analytical tasks. For me, that was relatively easy, and from spreadsheets and statistics, you can gain all sorts of useful insights and clarity. But it didn’t excite me. I enjoyed people, collaboration and creativity much more. That seemed to move things forward much more. As a young brand manager, it was ideas and intuition that we used to inspire people with brands like Concorde.

My book therefore focused on the combination of these approaches – left and right brain thinking – or whole brain thinking, as Dan Pink wisely called it a few years later (of course the brain is much more complicated, but the simplification is a useful model for thinking about thinking!).

My twist was to turn to two of history’s more interesting thinkers – Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso.

Einstein, of course (as a nuclear physicist, I identified with him), was a great dreamer (right brain), but terrible mathematician (left brain). E=mc2 emerged out of his hypothesis (whilst walking in the Swiss alps) that there must be some connection between energy and mass. It was with his wife’s numeric help that he found the connection.

This type of hypothesis-driven problem solving lies at the heart of scientific progress – you need to use your imagination (hypothesis, intuition, right brain) to make the leap forwards, to find newness, to solve big problems – and then use your intelligence (mathematics, analysis, left brain) to prove it.

Picasso, meanwhile (studied under his mathematician father, went to Paris to learn from Toulouse Lautrec and the impressionist movement) soon put aside his following of conventions to disrupt the world of art. His knowledge of geometry (left brain) allowed him to think differently, and to make the leap to a new genre, to develop cubism. And then to embellish it with his creativity (right brain).

Einstein started with his right brain, and then moved to his (wife’s) left brain. Picasso started with his right brain, and then added his left brain. Whole brain, or connected-brain (interestingly women have 3 times more white connective tissue than men). Analysis and intuition, intelligence and imagination. Together they enabled Einstein and Picasso to leap forward, to progress.

I called this thinking “genius” thinking.

The point of “Marketing Genius” was actually to say “What would Einstein and Picasso do in today’s world?”

Given the challenges of fast-changing markets, new technologies, intense competition and relentless aspirations, how would Einstein and Picasso compete in markets, and win in business? And then to explore how data analytics can help focus creativity, and how imagination can create new spaces to optimise.

Since I wrote that book 10 years ago, the world’s has become a lot more turbulent – the VUCA (volatile uncertain complex ambiguous) effect of economic crisis, technological disruption, and social fragmentation. At the same time it has also become a lot more opportunistic for those who want to create the future  – VUCA seen differently (vibrant, unreal, crazy, astounding).

To progress in today’s world, you need to think like Einstein and Picasso, more than ever.

You need “genius” thinking.

Of course, I don’t claim to be a genius, and don’t even promise to make you one either. But I do believe that the combined thinking can help us all to think better, solve problems in smarter ways, to innovate and drive progress in every aspect of business.

The genius concept is also not unique of course. Philosopher AC Grayling recently published a new book “The Age of Genius” that seeks to learn from other great minds.

Grayling, who describes himself as the master of the New College of the Humanities, looks back at one of the most turbulent historical periods when science moved from the alchemy and astrology of John Dee to the painstaking observation and astronomy of Galileo, from the classicism of Aristotle, still favoured by the Church, to the evidence-based, collegiate investigation of Francis Bacon.

At the recent Telegraph Festival of Education, he argued that these transitions of thought created the modern mind:

Grayling tells of how once upon a time, not so long ago, people believed in a wondrous time called the Enlightenment, a particularly triumphant period in the story of human progress from barbarism and superstition to civilised rationality. Nowadays, it is more fashionable to dismiss this narrative as a secular myth, believed only by whiggish optimists.

The focus of “The Age of Genius” is on the 17th century, which he argues marked a radical turning point in human history. At the start of this century, the ways in which even the best educated and intelligent thought “was still fundamentally continuous with that of their own antique and medieval predecessors”. By its end, they had become recognisably modern. This followed a suspiciously neat linear progression from “thought’s obeisance to the demands of religious orthodoxy” through “a period of inflated hopes for mystical or magical shortcuts to the universe’s secrets” to “the triumph of the more accurate methods of mathematics and empirical inquiry”.

There is surely something to this, but even Grayling accepts it is not quite as simple as that. The question is whether acknowledging the complications requires serious revision or even rejection of the central claim. For Grayling, the answer is so self-evidently no that he wastes little time dignifying doubting fools with lengthy rejoinders. “Well, think what you like,” he tells them in the concluding chapter.

He gives similarly short shrift to historians who dispute that the Westphalian settlements created “a society of states based on the principle of territorial sovereignty” or “shifted the focus of politics from the religious to the secular”. “A glance at the map of Europe after 1648” is sufficient to counter the first objection, while “a cursory view across the landscape of the centuries since Westphalia” deals with the second.

However, the truth is not as self-evident as Grayling claims. He identifies several supposed turning points that support his narrative, but fails to make the case that these are one-off epochal pivots rather than part of the ebb and flow of history. Take, for instance, toleration of criticism of church orthodoxy. In 1686, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle published Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, outlining the new Copernican heliocentric cosmology. Grayling points out that 70 or 50 years earlier “he could not have published these views freely, without thought of punishment or proscription”. But he also notes that Copernicus published an early sketch of his theory in 1510, without problems, supporting the view that toleration for heterodox views has waxed and waned over the centuries and did not simply weaken during the 17th. For instance, the last execution by the Inquisition wasn’t until 1826 in Spain, while the medieval Islamic caliphate of al-Andalus was for long periods more tolerant than many of the Christian kingdoms that succeeded it.

Grayling occasionally comes tantalisingly close to grappling with the complexities of the debate. At one point he notes that rather than there being a series of two-way tussles between science and religion, religion and occultism, occultism and science, there was “a three-cornered relationship that was sometimes a fight and sometimes not, between each of the three and the other two”. But rather than develop this, it is offered simply as an observation at a chapter’s end.


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