What Michelangelo Can Teach Us about Innovation and Competition

10/09/2013 11:54 am ET | Updated Dec 09, 2013

On a recent trip to Italy I had the opportunity to visit both Florence and Rome, and to see the work of some of history's greatest artists, including Michelangelo.

In Florence, I saw David, Michelangelo's amazing sculpture. I also refreshed my memory about the history of that sculpture which is a great story of innovation, courage, and reinvention. Historians have well documented the fact that Michelangelo was very competitive with other artists. When other sculptures looked at the large piece of marble that was selected for this sculpture that was being commissioned, they decided it was not a good piece of marble and would be too difficult to work with. So they passed on it. 

But not Michelangelo. He said he could do it and he took it on. At that moment, he began to separate himself from the competition and he began his strategy to redefine sculpting. Therefore, he became the competition.

And that's what business needs to do. In Michelangelo's case, all of the depictions of David in the David and Goliath story, up to that point, depicted David as a very young boy. And, of course, he was clothed. Additionally, all of the sculptures up to that point were human-sized or slightly bigger. They weren't overly large.

So Michelangelo did something very different from his peers. He did the opposite and created a 17-foot tall David, made him an adult, and kept him unclothed. The only thing he had with him was his slingshot to get Goliath.

After working each day on David, he would study cadavers to learn more of how the human body worked. Taking what he learned and applying it to his work, he became the first sculptor to show veins and arteries and detailed muscle structures.

The result, of course, was absolute mastery. Anyone who has ever seen David understands that.

Michelangelo changed everyone's view. He redefined what sculpting was about and set a new standard. In other words, he went beyond the competition.

Years passed and Michelangelo had done some drawings and some paintings, but he considered himself, first and foremost, a sculptor. However, the Pope decided that he wanted Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Interestingly, Michelangelo didn't want to do it because he considered himself a sculptor. In a note to the Pope, Michelangelo even signed it, "The Sculptor, Michelangelo," pointing out the fact that he wasn't a painter; he was a sculptor. When the Pope wouldn't take "no" for an answer, Michelangelo left Rome.

The Pope sent guards to get him and bring him back, essentially forcing him into painting the Sistine Chapel. So Michelangelo reluctantly agreed.

At that time, all of his competition was painting pictures in 2D. In other words, paintings were flat with no depth to them.

Anyone who has ever seen the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel knows that Michelangelo, once again, redefined what art was by putting in amazing--even by today's standards--depth and 3D effects. Essentially, he once again went beyond the competition. As a matter of fact, while he was working on the Sistine Chapel, other great artists of the day would sneak in during Michelangelo's breaks just to look at his techniques. They were floored, literally, by what he was doing. And from that point on, other artists started to incorporate depth and 3D techniques into their paintings.

So what's the moral of the story? Look at what your competition is doing ... and don't do that. Why? Because they are already doing it.

Instead, raise the bar. Look at what the best of the best are doing ... and then go beyond them. Think bigger. Don't compete. Create. Innovate.