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Reinventing Vermeer

Tim’s Vermeer is a riveting documentary about inventor Tim Jenison’s quest to understand the genius of Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer.  The film chronicles Jenison’s discovery of a technique Vermeer may have used to create his photo-realistic paintings prior to the invention of photography.

History offers few clues to Vermeer’s life.  Most art experts have cited a genius of vision—the ability to see and paint reflected light in a singular way.  Jenison offers a different view; Vermeer’s genius may have been in his technique rather than in his eye.  He shows how turning a mirror to 45 degrees, any artist can perfectly match the hues on his canvas to the color of his object.  Matching the brush strokes is a bridge too far but Jenison replicates the reflected light that made Vermeer unique.

That Jenison is not an artist may surprise film audiences. Sometimes another point of view is all it takes to put things in the right perspective.  There’s a lesson here for leaders too.  Just as art experts had an intuition that made them blind to Vermeer’s technique, a leader’s intuition can make them blind to their problems as well.

Leaders express their will through an accumulation of choices. The best develop an intuition to effortlessly navigate their way through a daily web of complex decisions that would paralyze most of us. That intuition is a powerful elixir.  Research Psychologist Gary Klein explains that people with experience, “build up a repertoire of patterns so they can immediately identify, classify and categorize situations, and have a rapid impulse about what to do.” This impulse helps navigate the world in which they have developed their special expertise.

Organizations also create a cultural intuition that shape decisions. They have a rapid impulse about what to do when certain patterns emerge.  The art community’s cultural bias toward physical genius confused their thinking on Vermeer for 400 years.

Unfortunately for executives with strategic responsibilities, some decisions have existential implications and missteps can be catastrophic. We live in a complex, dynamic world where seismic ripples a world away bring down nations, organizations and businesses.  This environment is risky for strategic decision makers acting on intuition and cultural perspective alone.  Great leaders courageously seek to challenge their assumptions, cultural bias, and decision processes by inviting differing expertise and perspective to participate in their most important decision processes.  Do you?

Thoughts?

Follow me on Twitter @brianlayer

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