What I Learned about Creative Thinking from Michelangelo

davidMichelangelo’s masterpiece sculpture, David, revealed his ability to do what others could not. Back in 1463 the authorities of the cathedral of Florence acquired a sixteen-foot-high chunk of white marble to be carved into a sculpture. Two well-known sculptors worked on the piece for months and gave up, and the mangled block was put in storage. Forty years later, Michelangelo took the mangled marble as it now existed and sculpted David within eighteen months.

Sculptors in the 1400’s believed that you had to have a preconceived idea of what the sculpture will be. Then you use modeling clay to make models of your idea. Then you forcefully sculpt the marble to match your clay model. You build a clay model from the idea and use the model as a blueprint for the finished product.

Michelangelo took a different perspective. He considered the process of modeling in clay an “adding on” something to the marble that was not inherent in the stone itself. Michelangelo once wrote that a true and pure work of sculpture — by definition, one that is cut, not cast or modeled – should, as much as possible, retain much of the original form of the stone block and should avoid projections and separation of parts into something it is not.

In a letter from 1549, Michelangelo defined sculpture as the art of “taking away” not that of “adding on.” Michelangelo’s choice of marble block was key to his sculptural process. He believed that the form was already imprisoned in the stone and only needed to be discovered by the artist by taking away what was not needed to free the form.

Michelangelo’s genius was seeing what everyone else was seeing but thinking what no one else has thought. By thinking about the nature of sculpture from a different perspective, he came at his work from a new direction that resulted in the creation of “David,” which many regard as the greatest sculpture in the history of the world.

What can we learn from Michelangelo? How can we force ourselves to look at things the way he studied blocks of marble? What can we take away from our subject to create a new perspective? Think, for a moment, about your subject. What assumptions are you making? What would happen if you took something away?

For example, a designer wanted to create a new type of battery. Batteries are made of solid materials. What would happen, he thought, if I took away the solidity and created an elastic battery that was as strong as solid batteries?  He examined garbage bags that had the unique feature of bags blended with high performance plastics. This triggered the idea of entrapping a liquid electrolyte within an inert polymer sheet. This created an ultrathin, flexible battery that you can fold or roll up like a plastic bag. The expected market for the battery will be camcorders, cellular phones, laptops, pagers and games. It may even be considered to create battery clothing to replace battery packs for powering medical devices and so on.

In another example, a clothing retailer is concerned about the rate of garment returns. According to the store policy, a customer who returns a garment must receive a cash refund. What if you “take away” the cash refund? What can the store give the customer instead of a refund? His idea was to offer the customer a gift certificate worth 110 percent of the original purchase price. In effect, this gives the customer a 10 percent reward for returning the unwanted garment.

The policy would allow the store to keep most of the cash, and the customers are happy with the reward. The real payback occurred when the customer returned with the gift certificate. A customer who returned a $100 garment would receive a gift certificate for $110. Psychologically, this created a new buyer mindset and when the customer returned to the store, invariably, the customer would go to the higher priced garments. For example, instead of shopping for a $100 garment, the customer will be attracted to the $200 garments because, in their mind, it would “cost” him only $90.

Suppose you are the CEO of a large retail operation. One assumption is that for a CEO to run a profitable retail operation, it must be tightly controlled. “Take away” the assumption “tightly controlled,” and now you have an operation that is “not controlled.”

This becomes the paradox that might be stated as “the best control comes from not controlling.” The legendary founder of Wal-Mart, Sam Walton, was a living demonstration of this contradiction. Walton was normally in his office only from Friday and Saturday to noon. Yet Wal-Mart was considered one of the more tightly managed organizations in the retail industry.

Someone once asked Walton how he could possibly run Wal-Mart when he was out of the office most of the time. He responded by saying, simply, that this was the only way to run a customer-focused organization. He spent Monday through Thursday in the field interacting directly with customers and employees and seeing what the competition was up to. In fact, while he was alive, Wal-Mart stores were built without an office for the store manager for the same reason. The manager’s job was to be out with the customers and employees.

Much like Michelangelo studied a block of marble, Walton studied a retail operation and took away what was not needed. Walton got started in retailing after World War II when he bought a Ben Franklin franchise in Arkansas. At that time, the corporation pushed product onto the franchise and the owner to push the product onto the customer.

He suggested that the corporation take away that operation from headquarters and let the franchises order the products. His argument was that the franchise owner knows the demographics of his market and he knows what his customers need and want. His idea was to pull needs and wants from his customers and then to pull these from the corporation. So instead of pushing product, it would allow him to pull the product from the corporation. Walton later said that no matter what he said or did, he couldn’t get the corporate types to understand his retailing philosophy. So, he said, they forced him to go out and build his own stores and become the richest man in America.

Sam Walton and Michelangelo observed and studied what they had and by “taking away” what was not necessary, left only the essence to work with. One sculpted “David,” the world’s most beautiful sculpture and the other created a retailing empire that changed the nature of retailing.

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