| Lessons from Leonardo and
At a recent meeting of NASA Project Managers (PMs), I
noticed a striking similarity between an exercise in project
management and what I had learned in a drawing class only
a few days earlier. The art instructor gave a pre-class
lecture on drawing live subjects and showed us the following
drawings. (See figures below.)
The instructor asked the class to pay particular attention
to the horse's legs in the drawing (Figure 1) by
the great master (and scientist) Leonardo da Vinci. The
class had to chuckle because it appeared that Leonardo
couldn't decide where to place the horse's legs. The instructor
then asked the class to look closely at a Michelangelo
drawing (Figure 2) and try to determine which parts
were arms and legs.
|Fig. 1. "Nude
on Horseback" by Leonardo da Vinci (Royal Library,
|Fig. 2. "Christ
Rising from the Tomb" by Michelangelo (Louvre, Paris)
Next, the instructor presented a drawing by another
great master, Peter Paul Rubens (Figure 3), and
asked the class to guess how many limbs Mercury had
in this drawing. She then asked why the class thought
these Great Masters would have made such drawings? The
class pondered at length and offered their opinions,
but by and large they were all surprised at the answer.
It seemed strikingly self-evident. The Great Masters
knew that they needed to leave their options open until
the very last.
The placement of such important parts, such crucial parts
as the arms and legs, was so critical to the success of
the piece that the artists devoted the bulk of their time
and attention to this. The details such as the fingernails
were easy for the Master to draw and thus received the
least amount of time and effort. But more importantly,
the details are left for last for a much more significant
reason. If the artist were to draw say the ear in all
its glory and detail, and found the head was not sized
appropriately for the rest of the body or was slightly
out of position, then the time the artist spent on the
ear would have been completely wasted and may have required
him to scrap the entire piece.
|Fig. 3. "Study
for Mercury Descending" by Peter Paul Rubens (Victoria
and Albert Museum, London)
The human eye and brain are extremely discerning and
capable of detecting the slightest misplacement or disproportion.
Hence, the artist must spend the bulk of his energies
in placement and sizing.
Armed with this powerful insight, the class was instructed
to spend the next two hours drawing a live model.
At the end of 1 1/2 hours, the instructor had the
class pause to review each other's drawings. Many were
working diligently on their details such as the ankle,
the jaw, the hands, etc. She brought the class's attention
to one individual's drawing and said, "this is what
an advanced student's drawing should look like at this
point" (see Figure 4).
The instructor directed the class to step back from their
drawings and look at them from a few feet away. Sure enough
there were legs floating in air, arms looking emaciated
in comparison to the trunk of the body, and heads grossly
under and oversized for the body; but they had all added
too much detail to move or resize the figure. The instructor
reminded the class -- "you can add the details only after
you have worked out the placement and size... the master
artist will leave his options open until the very last."
|Fig. 4. A student
The following is from a textbook. "It doesn't matter
where you begin to draw, with what part of the figure,
because immediately you are drawing the whole thing,
and during the minute that you draw you will be constantly
passing from one end of the body to the other and from
one part to another." This sentence was taken directly
from a book on drawing. Note how applicable it sounds
with just a few words changed to make it relevant to
It was stunning to me to think about such similarities.
Lessons from NASA Project Managers
At the meeting of NASA PMs, the group was involved in
an exercise, presented by one of the group, on Requirements.
The exercise was as follows: "You are given a project
to develop the software for an Automatic Teller Machine
(ATM). Write four requirements."
The exercise followed a discussion by this presenter
on software requirements. The group was a mix of senior
and junior PMs. We broke into pairs to come up with
the four requirements for the ATM, and then we regrouped
to discuss our findings.
Several of the pairs consisted of one senior PM and
one junior PM. In three of these pairs, there was a
consistent difference in how the senior and junior PM
defined their requirements. All three senior PMs gave
requirements that were extremely brief and general;
the junior PMs offered lengthy and fairly explicit requirements.
An example of a pair of responses is provided here.
||Provide money in
the form of $20s with no fee and warn Home Office
of empty condition at least one hour in advance
of becoming empty.
||With minimal annual
maintenance, the ATM does not break down.
||The ATM communicates
with the Home Office continuously including a video
||The ATM accepts
at least 10 major credit cards and operates in 6
major languages with complete instructions provided
where a withdrawal transaction, including printing
the receipt, occurs in less than 60 seconds.
As in the case of the art class, the less-experienced
practitioners can easily fall into the trap of specifying
too quickly and thus minimizing or eliminating flexibility.
As the senior practitioners observed, and so did the
Great Masters, it is wise to leave your options open
to the very last.
- You should keep your focus on the entire figure
(project) and you should keep the whole thing going
at once (visualize the entire project as a whole,
not separate pieces).
Did the Great Masters discover an underlying fundamental
truth that can be used by anybody, or are these techniques
that can be successfully welded by experts? Can you think
of other endeavors where you should practice the art of
Search by lesson to find more on:
Michelle Collins is the Managing Editor of ASK
Magazine. She is currently on a one-year detail
to NASA Headquarters from Kennedy Space Center where
for the past five years she has conducted research
on air pollution control technology. She also is
responsible for the Knowledge Sharing Initiative
within NASA's Academy of Program & Project Leadership.
Dr. Collins has worked for NASA and NASA contractors
since 1985 as a facilities engineer, researcher,
and project/program engineer.