Renaissance Men Wanted: Big Problems Need Big Innovators

CIOs should look to the ancient Greek polymaths -- also known as Renaissance men or jacks of all trades -- for inspiration, writes Vinnie Mirchandani in his intriguing, new book. Too bad so few of these big problem-solvers run today's software companies, he says.

Think innovation inside today's corporation is lacking, and that no one is tackling complex global problems, such as climate change, renewable energy, health care and financial catastrophe?

New Polymath book
The New Polymath

The answer to that is a resounding "no," according to The New Polymath: Profiles in Compound-Technology Innovations (Wiley, 2010). There are, in fact, dozens of companies thinking on a grand scale, as described in the New Polymath, an uplifting read for curmudgeons who believe that nothing truly innovative is taking place.

The book is the debut effort of Vinnie Mirchandani, founder of software-buying consultancy Deal Architect and a former Gartner tech industry analyst and outsourcing executive with PwC. He's also catalogued corporate innovation efforts during the past six years on his New Florence. New Renaissance blog.

As he explains in an interview with Senior Editor Thomas Wailgum, "new polymath" companies are creating works of innovation that weave together specialist skillsets into a tapestry of products that aim to solve the world's most pressing economic, health and climate problems. For those commoners who are not as enlightened you and I, what is a polymath?

Vinnie Mirchandani: It's a Greek term, and it translates to "Renaissance" person, like: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, somebody who was good at many, many things. Da Vinci was an artist, sculptor, architect, city planner—there were 15 or 20 disciplines that just naturally came to him.

But my book in not about historical polymaths. It's about a new type of enterprise that is learning to blend our incredibly wide palette of technologies: one that is taking a bunch of information techs, clean techs, health techs, and biotech and nanotech components to come up with a new set of solutions that we couldn't create five years ago. And they're not just doing it to show off to the world; they're doing it because they are solving some big problems we face. Isn't it just a fancy way of saying "jack of all trades," or is it more than that?

Mirchandani: It is, and it isn't. If you're just a jack of all trades and not a specialist, it shows. Look at automobile manufacturers now: Some of their cars are so sophisticated they have 100 million lines of code and hundreds of sensors in them. In effect, an automobile manufacturer has become a technology vendor.

You can imagine that if they were just an ordinary software developer, compared to a Microsoft or SAP, we'd have all kinds of problems. They have to be very specialized to be able to match so many different technologies. How does one become a polymath? History seems to tell us that if people refer to you by just one name—Michelangelo, Leonardo, Plato, Aristotle—that will probably help your cause.

Mirchandani: It starts with really having some grand challenges that you define for yourself. You have to think much bigger than what your contemporaries and what your industry peers are doing. And that's a big challenge for companies today. They are just tweaking—Wall Street tells them not to spend more than a single digit on R&D; so there's a "new and improved" mindset, like a small molecule change in toothpaste.

The new polymaths featured in the book are setting ambitious goals for themselves that don't come from the industry. Those may come from a government or the United Nations that say: We have a severe water issue or a severe health-care deployment issue. Mind you, these companies are not doing this just for charitable purposes; they see a business opportunity to solve some really big problems.

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