Lessons in Innovation from Leonardo DaVinci

SEI is a company that breeds innovators at its core.  The corporate culture and environment are really something you have to experience to fully understand.  For example, it may seem odd to learn that a financial company uses emerging artists to inspire creative thinking in its daily work life.  But we do. And this week, a colleague of mine, Jon O’Neil, shares an inspirational post that explores the power of art and the impact it has had on innovation for centuries.

Leonardo da Vinci’s celebrity has sprung to the foreground of pop culture in recent months with a charts topping, New York Times best-selling biography and the recent sale of his painting, Salvator Mundi, for an eye-popping $450 million. What is it about Leonardo that continues to fascinate us and attract the globe’s attention? And what can we, as leaders, learn from this guy who lived 500 years ago, when it comes to today’s fast-moving world of technology innovation?

Leonardo was first and foremost a Renaissance man in the truest sense of the term. Unquenchably curious, he was driven to explore the nature of all things and to use a combination of boundless imagination with empirical experimentation in an effort to unlock the riddles of the natural world. He was a keen observer of scientific phenomena from animal life to human anatomy to optics to geometry and on to the full sweep of the laws of physics.

We are fortunate to have over 7,000 preserved pages of his notes and sketches filled with careful observations, and creative inventions. In these manuscripts Leonardo drew early designs of human-powered flying machines and mobile armored tanks a half a millennium before these concepts were turned into functional devices that would change our civilization in the 20th century.

As his biographer, Walter Isaacson described, we could view these musings as failures because Leonardo never fully brought them to life. Thomas Edison was known to say, “Vision, without execution is hallucination.” However, it was in his art, which was always deeply informed by his understanding of science that Leonardo truly strived for perfect execution. His Mona Lisa and Last Supper are testaments to his attention to detail, precision, and the application of numerous innovations he had mastered in his studies of nature.

Leonardo viewed himself foremost as, what we consider today,  an engineer.  In a letter sent to a prospective employer, he emphasized first his mastery in the design and construction of everything from cities to weapons.  Nearly as a throw away line, he added, “Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible…”

But as an engineer he was truly revolutionary.  Always willing to disrupt the natural order to find a better way, he constantly asked the question “Why not?”, with a burning determination to get to the bottom of a question and find a new way to solve a problem whether visual or structural.

Leonardo’s life is an inspiration to all innovators, and his ideas are certainly reflected in the culture of innovation at SEI.  New Ways.  New Answers.  is our company motto, and we really mean it.  Our CEO, Al West, founded our company and continues to drive it forward by always asking the question, “Why not?” We are not content to be bound by the constraints of incremental improvement. Break-through is paramount to our progress.

Recognizing the way that great art can act as a catalyst for the creative process even in software development or investment processing, Al and his daughter Paige have assembled the West Collection, one of the largest personal collections of contemporary art in the world. 1,500 innovative works in this collection are displayed in the halls and open floorplan spaces of all of our campuses.

Many of these works, whether paintings, photographs or sculptures, were selected for their ability to make the viewer think differently about a subject.  Some of them demonstrate raw beauty, others provoke dissonance, or challenge you to think twice and then a third and fourth time about something you haven’t considered before.  But they all work together to get the creative juices flowing.

SEI, Oaks, Pennsylvania

As a business we are consistently focused on what’s next.  For close to fifty years we have provided pioneering leadership to the wealth management industry. From the company’s first innovation of automating accounting software in 1968 through groundbreaking innovations of tomorrow like adviser-led robo advice and breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, we thrive in a culture of challenging mental models to foster limitless thinking. Inspiring artists enable creative thinkers and we are fortunate enough to work in an environment that wholeheartedly embraces both.

So, like Leonardo, we’ll keep asking “Why Not?”  Something tells me he would have liked working here.