Galileo statue

Can a scientist born in 1564 teach us anything about the modern world of business? The answer is yes; the man is Galileo, who challenged nearly every convention and dared to view things differently, even when it was unpopular and impolitic.

Each year I welcome new students with an exploration of Galileo Galilei’s life, legacy and leadership to remember as they embark on their programme. While Galileo’s scientific discoveries were significant in their own right, his life and work also have important lessons for the world of business.

Alison Davis-Blake, dean of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business
Alison Davis-Blake is dean of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business

Galileo lived when the prevailing theory was that the sun, moon and all the other planets revolved around the earth. While this was accepted by nearly everyone, despite early efforts by Copernicus and Johannes Kepler to suggest otherwise, Galileo was dissatisfied with the lack of scientific evidence and took it upon himself to produce some. In 1610 he pointed his telescope not at the sun but at Jupiter, where he witnessed four large moons orbiting the planet, rather than earth. His discovery was the first piece of significant evidence that the universe was not geocentric.

Galileo taught us the importance of evidence-based management, demonstrated by his rejection of an accepted theory and use of his telescope to gather evidence. By readjusting his lens, he persevered in his quest for evidence and highlighted the transformative effect of this approach.

In doing so, Galileo provided a lesson for business leaders in today’s fast-paced world, where more than ever there is a tendency to immediately act on information that is in front of us and appears true.

Instead, we need to stop and ask ourselves if we have gathered all the evidence that is reasonable, used all the tools at our disposal and carefully examined each piece of information. It is a simple lesson, but one that is frequently forgotten, often with important consequences.

This was demonstrated in 1985 when Coca-Cola replaced its classic recipe with a formula marketed as New Coke. There was a massive public outcry and boycotts, and the company quickly reinstated the original brand and recipe. While Coca-Cola conducted consumer research and blind taste tests, all in favour of New Coke, it did not take into sufficient consideration customers’ emotional attachment to the original recipe and brand. By focusing on taste comparisons, Coca-Cola failed to fully utilise its “telescope”, thus making a big decision without collecting all the necessary evidence.

Each year during my discussion of Galileo, I tell students they will hear professors teach theories they find hard to believe as they are not something they have seen previously in their career. When this happens, I say, they should not automatically assume the theory is incorrect but instead do as Galileo would: pick up a telescope, point it at Jupiter and take note of what they see. While you do not have to believe everything other people say, it is critical to at least readjust your lens and take a look.

The applicability of the Galileo metaphor extends beyond education and into the business world. Galileo surrounded himself with a variety of telescopes, each with a different gauge and purpose, so that he could see the world from many angles. In business, it is critical to incorporate diversity into every situation, to surround yourself with a variety of people, each of whom will view situations through his or her unique lens.

I have found that many important business decisions have benefited from diversity, some in a transformative manner. A wide range of perspectives means information is assessed from different angles and new solutions are often found.

In business education, diversity is particularly important as students are building and refining their own telescopes based on their experiences. These may include work leading up to their course, management simulations, case studies, action-based learning and, most importantly, their interactions with other executives and faculty who have different experiences and perspectives. Each of these experiences is built into in a student’s telescope and affects his or her view of the universe.

Galileo’s perseverance with his array of telescopes has changed the world, in more ways than he could have imagined. The most fundamental, transformative piece of his story was his ability to develop an instrument and use it to uncover new evidence. In doing so he empowered countless generations to do the same — and to use the evidence they discover to effect positive change.

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