Innovation with Marco Polo

I spent a great deal of time in 2018 traveling across the world in search of innovation insights.  In countries ranging from Colombia to China to Azerbaijan to Bosnia-Hercegovina, I found examples of cases where modern and ancient civilizations applied creative thinking to solve problems.  I presented these insights to the readers of Innovation Excellence in a series of articles in which I attempted to provide modern innovation practitioners with tips on how they can leverage these examples to develop new approaches to solving the problems they face in their day-to-day operations in the field of innovation.  As I reflected on my peregrinations from last year, I spent some time reading what some scholars refer to as “the best-known travel book ever written.”  According to the British Historian John Man, Marco Polo’s Travels is well-known for three reasons: “it was the first Western book to shed significant light on Central Asia and China, it demonstrated a vastness of scale in terms of the subjects it covered, and it generally hewed to the truth – with more non-fiction that fiction content.”

The story of how Marco Polo became one of the greatest explorers and travel authors in world history is familiar to many readers but warrants a brief recitation.  In 1271 AD, Marco Polo, son of a Venetian trader, accompanied his father and uncle on an epic, two-decade journey across the vast central Asian landscape to reside in the court of the Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan, who ruled over a vast territory that we now know as China and Mongolia (and beyond).  Marco encountered all sorts of strange lands and fantastical peoples in his journeys and returned to Venice in 1295 and regaled his fellow citizens with amazing stories of the Far East.


Fortunately for future readers and historians, and unfortunately for Marco, the Venetian was captured by the Genoese in 1299 during a naval battle and spent three years in a jail in Genoa awaiting negotiations for his release.  During his incarceration, word spread through the town that a Venetian prisoner had traveled to the Far East and could delight a room with his tales from these exotic lands.  It is possible that Marco grew tired of constantly re-telling these stories so he befriended a fellow prisoner with literary skills named Rustichello with whom he collaborated on what would become the Travels.  Relying on his memory as well as a journal he kept during the trip (that his father was allowed to send to him from Venice), Marco and Rustichello created a masterpiece of travel writing that has inspired readers for centuries and that continues to delight readers to this day.  Indeed, some believe that Columbus was inspired to undertake his famous voyage in 1492 after reading Marco Polo’s book.

In a time where few people traveled more than a short walk from their homes, the length of Marco’s journey was quite exceptional as was his ability to survive the natural and human impediments in his way.  Marco’s narrative challenged the thinking of the era about the Far East among the Genoese and Venetians, as he spun tales of great cities twelve-times larger than Genoa or Venice, filled with exotic peoples and fabulous landscapes and edifices.  Previous travelers to the Far East were almost always traders who had an incentive to embellish their own narratives about the region, making it sound more exotic and more dangerous than it really was.  This is probably because the traders wanted to justify charging higher prices for the goods they brought back from the region and to discourage other traders from making the same journey and becoming their competitors.

Chinese Lion Statue

As I read various works about Marco Polo’s travels, along with much of the original text, I realized that one of the most interesting aspects of Travels is thinking about how Marco Polo relayed what he saw to his readers.  In other words, one can learn a great deal about how to see things today by analyzing what Marco saw, and ultimately chose to include in his epic story, versus those things that Marco chose to exclude.  Indeed, this area of inquiry is one that intrigues scholars of Marco Polo’s work, as some researchers have questioned whether Marco actually went to some of the places he says he visited in his book.  For example, some academics argue, how could Marco have traversed China and not mentioned the Great Wall of China, foot-binding, or tea?  Although there are over 150 different editions of the book, they all are quite lengthy, ranging from 60,000 to 140,000 words, and skeptical readers are correct to question the presumably obvious things that are missing from the narrative as well as some of the more fantastical things that do appear in the narrative, such as tents that shelter over 1,000 people or eagles that fetched diamonds from an inaccessible ravine guarded by serpents in Tibet.

For the modern innovator, it is worthwhile to spend time analyzing what Marco Polo saw (and dictated to Rustichello for his book), as well as what Marco Polo chose to ignore.  It is my expectation that by seeing how Marco Polo viewed the world around him and determined what was most memorable and worth documenting, the modern innovator can gain insights into how to direct his or her attention towards those areas that merit the greatest investment of time and energy in the field of innovation.


The Route

One of the scholarly critiques of Marco Polo’s Travels concerns his lack of specificity concerning the precise route he took in 1271 in his journey from Venice to the court of Kublai Khan in the famous city of Xanadu, where he arrived in 1275.  Mapping his presumed route against the present set of countries in the region would see Marco starting in Turkey and passing through Armenia, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet, and ending in China.  As John Man observes

[m]ore travel guide than diarist, Marco likes to give the impression of having seen every place he writes about, so it’s hard to make out his exact track – so hard, in fact, that some scholars have doubted if he went this way at all; but surely he did, for otherwise why choose to mention these places, rather than, say, those on the northern route taken previously by his father and uncle.

Marco mentions numerous places along this route, as well as anecdotes that are unique to these places:

-Armenia – he observes the famous Mount Ararat, which he describes as “a very high mountain, shaped like a cube, on which Noah’s Ark is said to have rested.”

Mt Ararat Viewed from Yerevan, Armenia

-Baku – he notes the abundance of oil in and around the city of Baku, commenting that “[t]here is a spring from which gushes a stream of oil in such abundance that a thousand camels may load there at once […but t]he oil is not good to eat; […rather] it is good for burning and as a salve for men and camels affected with sores.”

Fire from Natural Gas Deposit outside Baku, Azerbaijan

-Baghdad – he discusses an attack that took place 13 year prior to his transit in which the city was nearly destroyed by an army led by the general Hulegu

-Persia – he writes of Zoroastrian fire worship (which was quite prevalent in Persia at the time) as well as a story of nighttime robbers in the area

Zoroastrian Temple in Baku, Azerbaijan

-Hormuz – he mentions the intense heat in the city from the hot desert winds, an attribute of Hormuz that afflicts modern travelers as well

-Afghanistan – he includes stories of Alexander the Great, rubies, lapis lazuli gems, and fast horses.  He also describes crossing the upper Wakhan pass which runs between Afghanistan and China, which is referred to as the “Roof of the World” because of its high elevation.  The bighorn sheep he saw on this pass would eventually (in 1840)  be named after him as the “Marco Polo sheep.”

-Pakistan – He records a great lake and the river running from it (the Pamir, which becomes the Amudarya).  He notes that fire was not as effective at the high altitudes in this region.

-Samarkand – Unfortunately Marco does include some information that strays from his presumed route, such as when he describes the Assassins, an extremist sect of Muslims who smoke hashish (the source of the name ‘assassin’) and murder their enemies.  The location of this sect in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, was 700 kilometers away from Marco’s route.

-Xinjiang, China – He also fails to mention an enormous fortress in the region (Tashkurgan) and a 24,757-foot mountain (Mustagh Ata) that looms precipitously over the valley.  Given that the high mountain passes even to this day basically force any traveler to cross at a precise point, it is difficult to understand how someone as observant as Marco Polo could pass through this region and not remark on these two features of the landscape.

Innovation Thoughts – When an innovator introduces his or her latest solution to an audience, there is a tendency for the innovator to jump directly to the new idea without spending much time on the background of how the team arrived at that particular insight.  After all, the innovator is usually extremely excited about the new idea, particularly if it represents a tremendous breakthrough after months or years of hard work.  Moreover, the innovator is usually cognizant of the fact that his or her audience has limited time to spend learning about the new idea so the vast majority of that time should be spent delving into the precise details of the breakthrough.  Although in some cases this “jump straight to the conclusion” approach may be the only option for a team, it is worthwhile for the innovator to think about Marco Polo’s route as a lesson on how others see what we relay to them.  Marco’s anecdotes about each of the key locations on his route illuminate his journey in a way that would not occur with a simple listing of place names with distances between each spot on the map.  The stories bring to life these milestones in the journey in a way that gives more credence to the overall journey.

An innovator should consider taking a moment to remind the audience of the starting point of the innovation journey in the form of the initial problem that he or she was tasked to solve.  Each important step along the way in terms of attempts to solve the problem may warrant mention, especially if these attempts can be relayed in a way that further elucidates the eventual solution and demonstrates the thoroughness of the efforts undertaken by the innovator.  Briefly sharing some of the trials and tribulations of the innovation work effort with the audience can also help to disarm attendees who might be tempted to challenge the proposed solution, particularly one that seems intuitive (as is often the case with many truly innovative ideas).

The examples of Marco Polo’s errors in the route story also warrant attention as a cautionary take for the innovator.  In the case of the Assassins, the innovator should be wary of adding a detail that, while interesting, may ultimately detract from the viability of the overall narrative because a corresponding element of that story (the exact geographic location of Samarkand) runs counter to the overall narrative.  Audiences will often latch onto a single factual error in a presentation and use that gap to discredit the entire idea, even if the error is only on the periphery of the actual innovation.  In the case of the Tashkurgan fortress and the Mustagh Ata mountain, the innovator should also spend time thinking about steps along the innovation route that might be obvious to everyone in the audience but that the innovator may gloss over for various reasons.  This highlights the importance of spending time thinking carefully about the innovation journey rather than simply jumping directly to the end point of the process.


The Great Wall, Tea, and Foot-Binding

Perhaps the strongest case to be made against the validity of Marco’s narrative stems from his failure in hundreds of pages of text to mention three aspects of China that any schoolchildren would readily identify: the Great Wall, tea, and foot-binding.  The Great Wall pre-dated Marco’s arrival in China by nearly 1,400 years, so clearly the Wall would have been in place during his sojourn there in 1275.  In fact, Marco’s route through China would have taken him alongside sections of the Wall for nearly 2,000 kilometers, so it seems illogical that Marco would fail to mention it in his narrative.  Yet as John Man notes, it is likely that the Wall escaped Marco’s notice because in 1275 it had been abandoned for at least 50 years and was no longer in use because the people against whom it was meant as a deterrent, the Mongols, were the ones ruling the country.  The wall was likely in disrepair and looked little like the grand edifice that we see today (which is, by the way, the result of modern reconstruction work).  Man writes that “Marco has been berated for not mentioning the Wall […] but the truth is there was not much worth mentioning.”

The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu

Marco’s failure to write about tea in the Travels is also a sore spot for modern historians, as tea is almost synonymous with China.  Yet as was the case with the Wall, the Mongol influence plays a role here.  Marco’s interactions in China were mostly with Kublai Khan’s entourage and these Mongolians preferred to drink fermented mare’s milk.  To them, tea was a foreign beverage and they preferred the drinks they brought with them from the Mongolian steppe.  The same is true as it relates to foot-binding, a practice that was relatively new in China at the time of Marco’s visit but was not practiced in Mongolian culture, thus it was not something that would be likely to appear in the Travels.  Interestingly, however, in one section Marco writes that Chinese women’s steps were so tiny that “one foot never goes before the other by more than a finger.”  Some scholars believe that in this sentence Marco is making a passing reference to the practice, though he did not consider it worthy of deeper discussion.

Innovation Thoughts – Marco’s failure to mention these three major elements of Chinese culture can serve as a lesson for the modern innovator in two ways.  First, in terms of what Marco is seeing (or not seeing) on his journey, these three items are clearly something that others would expect to see in a narrative.  Marco has logical reasons for excluding these topics from his story, but the omission of the Wall, tea, and foot-binding undermines his credibility unnecessarily.  Marco may have been focused on other, more important, details of his journey and intentionally left out these three (with the possible exception of his vague reference to the short steps of Chinese women).  For an innovator telling a story to an audience about a new discovery, it is important to remember that there may be elements of the new discovery that are so obvious to the innovator that he or she unwittingly ignores them in favor of other, more pressing details.  However, to an audience hearing about the innovation for the first time, those “obvious” elements of the story are quite important and necessary to enhance the credibility of the presentation.  This example serves as a reminder for the innovator to make sure to perform trial presentations of his or her solution to people with no background in the solution being presented (in addition to performing trial runs with reviewers who are knowledgeable about the solution, as they will provide a different kind of feedback to the innovator).

A second perspective on Marco’s lack of inclusion of these three key items about China can provide insight into how an innovator selects areas of focus for new thinking.  In working with Rustichello on his narrative about his journey to the Far East, Marco may have recognized that writing about stories that others have already heard about China would diminish the value of his narrative.  Other traders returning from the region likely spoke of the Great Wall, tea, and foot-binding, so Marco chose to spend his time discussing other, less conventional elements of China.  For the modern innovator, this can serve as a reminder that when choosing an area of investigation for innovation work, it may behoove the practitioner to start in areas that have been less explored by others.  Rather than launching a project to develop a new flagship product or service for a company, and innovator may be better served by working on small changes to a less popular product.  While there is always room for major market-disrupting projects, an innovator focusing solely on those types of efforts may miss the opportunity to find a successful niche to occupy along the way.


An Eye for Innovation

Although modern scholars focus on what Marco may have missed in his observations in the Travels, Marco clearly excelled when it came to documenting some of the truly innovative technologies that he encountered during his journeys.  As John Man writes, “Marco knew little of paper or block-printing […s]o the technology amazed him.”  Man notes that in Marco’s mind, it was quite “odd to mash the bark of mulberry trees to produce paper; to cut the sheets into various sizes; to put a stamp on each; and then – most astonishing of all – to get everyone to treat this scrap of stuff as if it were pure gold or silver.”  Marco also observes the Chinese use of coal, which he referred to as “black rocks,” as a fuel source to burn in winter for heat.  He describes the mountain which served as the source of minerals for the fire-repellent substance known as asbestos, and in doing so he correctly dismisses the European notion prevalent at the time which stated that the fire-resistant substance was derived from the wool of a “fire-dwelling salamander.”

In the water-poor, desert areas that he traversed for much of his journey to the East, Marco notices the existence of “quanaat” water wells, which were dug underground and used by inhabitants of these dry climates to transport water across long distances for agriculture and consumption.  Marco then writes about an episode where an engineer devised a massive trebuchet to assist Kublai Khan in a siege assault of the city of Xiangyang from across a long moat.  Historians suggest that Arab engineers actually built this contraption, but Marco changes the story so that he and his father and uncle were the ones who were summoned by Kublai Khan to build the siege weapon, which has led commentators to classify this as “an exercise in self-aggrandizing invention.”  Finally, Marco presents the reader with a description of what we now refer to as the Grand Canal of China, which ran nearly 900 kilometers from Beijing to the town of Guazhou on the Yangtze river.  Marco describes the canal as follows:

At this place [Guazhou] are collected great quantities of corn and rice to be transported to the great city of Cambaluc [Beijing]; for the grain for the court all comes from this part of the country.  You must understand that the Emperor hath caused a water-communication to be made from this city to Cambaluc, in the shape of a wide and deep channel dug between stream and stream, between lake and lake, forming as it were a great river on which large vessels can ply.

Marco also applies an innovator’s scrutiny to the Arab dhows that he views at the port city of Hormuz.  Although Arab navigators had been plying the seas over great distances for centuries, he failed to see the wisdom of their construction techniques.  “Their ships are very bad,” he notes, “and many of them founder because they are not fastened with iron nails but are stitched together with thread made of coconut husks.”  Yet as John Man observes, “[j]udging by comparison with European maritime achievements, Marco’s criticism of the Hormuz shipping is unnecessarily harsh.”  The Arab ships of the era were quite “seaworthy” and “reliable,” and “the Arab sailors were as accomplished navigators as any in Europe at that time.”  It is likely that Marco’s critique of the ship construction was due to his frame of reference of the famous Arsenal shipyards in Venice, where “oaken keel-pieces were seasoned under water for twelve years before being fashioned into the backbone of a war galley.”  Marco saw his city’s ships as state of the art and failed to see the wisdom in alternative designs, such as the need for the Arab ships to make use of materials of which they had in abundance (coconuts from the Indies) rather than materials that the Italians could readily obtain (such as oak trees).

Arsenal Shipyards, Venice

While in Kublai’s court Marco also experienced the marvels of the Mongolian Pony Express, by which Kublai could send a letter across his empire at a pace of between 200 and 250 miles per day, using a set of regularly-spaced stations stocked with riders, supplies, and horses.  A letter could move from Xanadu to Iraq or southern Russia in around 21 days, and this speed of communication would not be surpassed until the advent of railways centuries later.

Innovation Thoughts – Innovators like to believe that they have a good eye for the innovative work of others.  An innovator should be able to discern quickly whether something he or she encounters is a worthwhile improvement over a previous product or service or merely represents a small, incremental gain in capabilities.  Marco almost certainly encountered dozens and dozens of technologies throughout his journey that represented something different from what he was used to in Venice, but he chose to mention only a few of these: paper money, coal, asbestos, quanaat, a trebuchet, the Grand Canal, and the Mongolian pony express.  What these all have in common is that their effects are impactful to a large number of people.  In other words, these innovations have a societal impact more so than an individual impact.  When taking stock of the value of an innovation, a practitioner should make note of the extent of the impact of the innovation as a quick way of measuring its importance.  Conversely, Marco’s dismissal of the Arab ships reminds the innovator of the need to look more closely at a potential innovation to discern its true value, as that value may derive from a creative use of scarce materials.



Even today the mere mention of the word “Xanadu” conjures up images of an exotic destination.  Marco definitely visited Kublai Khan at Xanadu, though scholars continue to be puzzled by the fact that Marco did not write about his impressions upon seeing Xanadu for the first one.  One would assume that after a difficult journey of thousands of miles through inhospitable terrain, Marco would have been overwhelmed by the splendor of Kublai Khan’s palace and written extensively about this first encounter.  Although he eventually describes some of the details of the palace elsewhere in his narrative, it is surprising that this portion of the Travels lacks some of the verbosity that one would expect of such a scene:

And when you have ridden three days from the city last mentioned, between east and north, you come to a city called Chandu, which was built by the Khan now reigning.  There is at this place a very fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.

He goes on to describe in more detail a huge tent-like structure with cane posts that is portable in that it can be taken apart and transported to Beijing, where Kublai Khan spends the rest of the year (Xanadu was his summer home for June, July, and August).

This might have been all that was written in popular parlance on the topic of Xanadu had not a certain English poet come down with a stomach ache one summer.  In June 1797 in a farmhouse in Exmoor, England, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge decided to treat his ailing stomach with an infusion of opium.  After consuming this substance, Coleridge picked up a copy of the Travels and put pen to paper on some of the best-known poetic lines in English literature:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

Inspired by the opium, Coleridge continued to produce verse after verse of the poem until an untimely interruption occurred.  As Coleridge notes, “he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour.”  When Coleridge returned to his room to complete the rest of the poem, he found that the inspiration had vanished and he had to leave his work incomplete (he had written 54 lines out of an originally-planned 200-300 lines of the poem).  Indeed, to this day the term “a person from Porlock” is a metaphor for being interrupted in the midst of a creative flourish.

Innovation Thoughts – For the modern innovator, there are several lessons to be gleaned from the case of Marco Polo and Xanadu.  First, one should not underestimate the importance of first impressions.  When presenting an innovation to a new audience of stakeholders, an innovator should carefully capture their reactions and document as much as possible in terms of their feedback, as this initial reaction will often contain subtle insights that one might find valuable at a later date when one is either modifying the innovation or trying to come up with a new way to present it to an audience.  Marco either did not take notes of his initial reaction to Xanadu or spent so much time there that its novelty wore off on him.  Either way, information about his first reaction to Xanadu would have been a valuable addition to his book just as an innovator’s first impressions of a new idea or concept are worth capturing.

Second, an innovator should always be wary of the possibility that despite all his or her hard work to present details about a solution, an audience could walk away from the presentation having latched tightly onto with a single concept that is highly memorable.  For the modern audience, Marco’s descriptions of Xanadu pale in comparison to the elegant words penned by Coleridge.  Unfortunately, his words do not really harken to the details of Marco’s actual description of Xanadu (there is not sacred river Alph nearby, no measureless caverns, and the sea was nowhere near the site), other than the probably valid assumption that Kublai Khan did engage in pleasurable acts in Xanadu.  This can work both ways, for if an innovator comes up with a highly memorable concept for his or her audience, then those individuals will walk away from the presentation holding on to this idea.  A final piece of insight from the Xanadu example is a reminder of the importance of avoiding interruptions when one is in the midst of generating new ideas as part of an innovation exercise.  Interruptions in the modern era are infinitely more abundant than they were in Coleridge’s time (text, email, instant message, phone calls, workplace noise, meetings), but the impact, in terms of severe disruption of the creative process, is similarly painful.  An innovator should be on the lookout for the inevitable “person from Porlock” whose appearance can derail the creative process.


How to View the Ordinary

Another point of contention proffered by modern scholars about the Travels is the peculiar lack of detail provided by Marco about the everyday life of the people in the lands he traverses during his long journey.  As astute an observer as Marco clearly is when it comes to certain scenes (particularly those truly fantastical stories about which he goes into great detail), it is surprising that Marco fails to paint a tableau of the variety of people he encounters during his trip.  Yet this relative lack of information may be due to the fact that at this time in world history, the distinctions among different peoples in this region were not as severe as one might initially think.  According to John Man, “the life of a medieval Persian or Afghan peasant was basically little different to the life of [Marco’s] contemporary European serf.”  “Industrialization,” Man continues, “had not yet created the present contrasts and Polo did not waste words describing the commonplace.”  Man attributes Marco’s silence in this area “to the monotony of Asian life […where f]rom the Bosporus to the High Pamirs the lives of ordinary people have always been ruled by the common factors of climate and terrain.”  “The changes from one region to another,” he states, “are only very gradual, so that over the breadth of the Middle East everyday life is necessarily very similar […and f]rom Lesser Armenia to Badakshan the steady rhythm of existence lulls the slow caravan into unquestioning acceptance of the environment which makes comment seem trivial.”

Marco’s skills as an observer of daily life contrast sharply to those possessed by another great chronicler of ancient times, the Greek historian Herodotus, known as the “father of history.”  According to the historian Daniel Boorstin, Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus, which was a town in Asia Minor situated on the “periphery of Greek culture” which had been ruled by the Lydians and Persians.  “Far from the settled centers of Athens or Sparta,” Boorstin writes, Herodotus “was in daily touch with non-Greek peoples.”  He concludes that “[o]n the Peloponnesus, Greeks might look upon the ways of “barbarians” (i.e., foreigners) with amusement or contempt, but Herodotus, born under barbarian rule, hoped to learn from them.”

Innovation Thoughts – These two competing approaches to how to view society provide insights for the modern innovator faced with the never-ending search for new ideas.  The first approach, which leverages Marco’s view of the lands and peoples he experienced during his journey, calls for the innovator to look across a large dataset of diverse components to filter out these diverse items so that only the most significant data elements stand out.  By not bogging down his narrative in the myriad details of the hundreds of places he passed through on his voyage, Marco could zero in on the stories of the places that were most meaningful and, although he probably did not intend it at the time, the stories he chose ended up being ones that remained relevant for centuries.  The second approach, as evidenced by Herodotus, flips the tables and sees value in the diversity of lands and peoples.  Had Herodotus undertaken Marco’s journey, he might have focused more on detailing the daily lives of the people he encountered.  For this approach, the innovator would need to distance himself or herself from the common assumptions and perceptions of the time and focus more on the diversity of the environment around them.  The best way to do this, as Boorstin notes, is to see the “outsiders” not as barbarians but, rather, as people possessing attributes from which one has a great deal to learn.


Bitter Bread

One interesting passage in Marco’s Travels concerns a specific type of food he encountered on his journey.  While in Southern Persia, Marco found a bread that was “so bitter that no one can eat of it unless accustomed to it.”  He attributed this bitterness to the poor quality of the water used in making the dough for the bread, as nearby water sources contained large quantities of sulfur.  The historian Tim Severin, when retracing Marco’s journey in the region, interviewed a local agricultural researcher about the phenomenon to see if it was an accurate depiction.  The researcher noted that the bitterness of the bread derived not from sulfur but, rather, from “small black grains of diseased wheat included in the harvest.”  He also noted that there was only one small region in the country where this strand of diseased wheat appeared, indicating that “caravans, both ancient and modern, followed trails which are decided by natural features and maintained by necessity or tradition.”

Innovation Thoughts – In the example of the bitter bread, Marco (perhaps unwittingly) leverages a particularly useful tool in presenting a concept to his readers.  It is likely that nearly all of his readers would understand the importance of bread, particularly those of his era, in terms of its ubiquity along the route of his journey and its importance in sustaining human life.  Easy to make and store and full of nutrition, bread was a key staple of anyone living in this era (just as it is today).  Marco creates a quite memorable concept by linking this beloved staple, renowned for the plainness of its taste, and ascribing to it a characteristic that one rarely associates with bread – bitterness.  Bitterness is typically used to describe a fruit or some kind of beverage, but is almost never used to describe bread.  By linking these two seldom-connected words, Marco is able to create a memorable concept for his readers.  The modern innovator can take advantage of this approach in combining rarely-linked ideas into a single concept in a way that forces the audience to make a mental connection that one has probably never made in the past.  This new connection will likely be more memorable than if one simply presented a basic concept without the contradictory juxtaposition.


Marco Polo versus Stephens and Catherwood

As I was reading about Marco Polo and preparing for a trip to visit ancient Mayan sites in Belize and Guatemala, I came across William Carlsen’s excellent book, Jungle of Stone.  Carlsen tells the story of two great adventurers, John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood and their 19th century explorations in Central America searching for ancient Mayan sites.  Stephens’ and Catherwood’s method of documenting their voyages in the 1830s provides an interesting contrast to Marco Polo’s Travels.  While it is not entirely appropriate to compare the intellectual sophistication of an explorer from 1271 to one from the Age of Enlightenment in the 1830s, there are aspects of the two voyages that warrant comparative analysis.

Mayan Site at Tikal, Guatemala

Prior to their multiple trips to Central America in search of ancient Mayan ruins, Stephens and Catherwood had honed their archaeological skills during explorations in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.  Stephens, an American, was famous for disguising himself as a Bedouin tribesman so he could secretly visit the Nabatean city of Petra, which was closed to foreigners in his era.  Stephens received acclaim in England and America for a work he wrote about his adventures titled Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land.  Catherwood, for his part, was a practicing architect in London who exuded a great passion for creating art illustrations of great ancient sites and structures.  Like Stephens, he explored the Mediterranean and the Middle East and managed to talk his way into surveying the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which was strictly off-limits to non-Muslims (on penalty of death).  Catherwood designed and published a highly detailed tourist map of the old city in Jerusalem, which Stephens likely saw in London and made the connection to his future traveling companion.  Stephens thus sought to combine his ability to document in detail his findings (as evidenced by his successfully published travel books from his trips) with Catherwood’s astounding ability to draw precise pictures of his surroundings with an architect’s eye for detail.  The two would combine forces for multiple voyages into Central America and would be the first Westerners to document in detail the key sites of the ancient Mayan civilization.

Mayan Site Covered by Jungle

When the amazing Mayan stone edifices (pyramids, temples, stelae) were first discovered, Westerners believed that the local native populations could not have built them because the natives were inferior in their skills and capabilities to other civilizations.  Stephens and Catherwood, on the other hand, correctly surmised that these were the works of ancient civilizations and descendants of the native populations who continued to live in the region.  As Catherwood notes in one of his works on the Mayan sites:

Mayan Site at Caracol, Belize

It is obvious that in the construction of these stupendous works, at a period when the mechanical resources of facilitating labour were imperfectly known, immense numbers of artisans must have been employed . . . that there must have been a supreme, and probably despotic power, with authority sufficient to wield and direct the exertions of a subordinate population to purposes subservient to the display of civil or religious pomp and splendor, – that, for the sustenance of the masses of people thus brought into contact, a certain progress must have been attained in the agricultural and economic sciences, – that many experiments must have failed, and many attempts made, before the degree of proficiency in building, sculpture, and painting, which we now see, was reached, – and that, in a country where only the rudest means of transmitting knowledge from one generation to another was employed, it is probably the traditional facts acquired by experience would be preserved by a sacred caste or tribe of priests, by whom, and for whose use, many of the buildings were undoubtedly erected.

Mayan Site at Tikal, Guatemala

As Carlsen notes, “[t]he next 170 years of discovery, excavation, and research would prove each of Catherwood’s observations prophetically on point.”  At a time when others dismissed the ability of the native populations to build these magnificent cities of stone, Catherwood saw that what the Mayans had achieved was quite remarkable and how “improbable” it was that the civilization they created “emerged at all – rising on thin topsoils in dimly lit rain forests – and that it had reached the heights of refinement that it did.”  In fact, the accomplishments of the Maya were particularly stunning given that they did not have large domesticated animals to contribute to moving construction supplies (or as food sources), nor did they have any wheeled carts or other means of transporting stone.  The Maya also did not possess metal tools (except for soft gold for ornamentation), so their work was done using other pieces of stone.

Mayan Stelae at Nimli Punit, Belize

Innovation Thoughts – The approach to exploration and documentation taken by Stephens and Catherwood differs from that of Marco Polo in several respects.  First, Stephens and Catherwood were responsible for their own writing and did not enlist the services of someone who had not been on the journey to perform writing duties, as was the case with Marco and Rustichello.  For the modern innovator, this serves as a reminder of the dangers of involving a person in an innovation project late in the project cycle.  Bringing in someone who does not have a full understanding of the history of the project, while it may sometimes yield interesting critiques of the project, runs the risk of derailing the project’s momentum and taking it in a direction that was not intended.  As John Man observes, “Marco and Rustichello have different agendas [in that …] Marco wants to give the objective if selective truth – as geographer, explorer, businessman, Christian – whereas Rustichello would be happy with marvels and good stories.”  Man writes that “[f]or much of the journey as Marco recalls it, the truth is tedious, and he has forgotten the details, and his notes are not good enough, and there is no juicy story […s]o Rustichello improvises, embroidering Marco’s scant information with romantic embellishments.”

While some of these embellishments are intriguing to the reader, they detract from the overall merits of the work and have opened Marco up to criticism from scholars throughout the ages.  We also see the importance of documentation by a firsthand witness in the form of the Italian gentleman-adventurer Antonio Pigafetta, who sailed along with the great Portuguese Explorer Ferdinand Magellan.  According to Boorstin, Pigafetta was “[p]ersonable, with a voracious appetite for facts and a boundless admiration for Magellan,” and his detailed journal of the expedition became the book Primo Viaggio Intorno al Mondo, “the most vivid of the eyewitness accounts of the great voyages of that age.”

A second difference between these two works concerns Stephens’ clever use of Catherwood’s visual representations of the Mayan sites in their book, whereas Marco relies only on Rustichello’s prose to describe the various scenes in the Far East (along with some limited but quite accurate maps).  The drawings by Catherwood, with his architectural savvy and attention to detail, bring to life the Mayan sites that Stephens and his workers hack out of the jungle.  Comparing some of Catherwood’s drawings to modern photographs, as Carlsen does in his book, show the amazingly precise details of Catherwood’s work and helps to explain why their work was so successful in the marketplace.  Had Marco been able to sketch out an image of Kublai Khan’s massive tent, his work would have been even more amazing.  However, including drawings might have limited Marco’s (and Rustichello’s) ability to diverge from the facts from time to time in their work.  For the modern innovator, this reminds us of the importance of relying on visual aspects when presenting or explaining one’s innovation to a new audience.  No matter how exquisite one’s words might be in describing an innovation, a detailed drawing (or an actual scale model) of the innovation is an extremely valuable addition to the presentation.

A final difference between these two works of travel writing concerns the way in which the authors analyze what they have seen.  Marco shows great insight in pointing out innovations such as paper money, asbestos, coal, and the quanaat water wells, but he does not apply a scientist’s scrutiny to any of these concepts by asking the critical question of “why.”  In other words, he presents these technologies to his readers, but does not perform detailed analysis of why or how these concepts work.  This contrasts quite sharply with the detailed analysis that Stephens and Catherwood perform in their assessment of the Mayan sites, in which they think about how an ancient civilization could have constructed these edifices, what challenges they likely faced in their projects, and what type of governmental structure might have been needed to complete such monumental tasks.  While it is not a fair critique to challenge Marco Polo for failing to use Enlightenment-type thinking hundreds of years before the actual Age of Enlightenment, it nonetheless shows the importance of the questioning mindset that the innovator must have in order to be successful.


The Place of Fallen Stones

While visiting ancient Mayan sites in Belize and Guatemala, I encountered one site with an interesting story for the modern innovator.  The Mayan site “Lubaantum” in Southern Belize is known as “the place of fallen stones.”  Located in the foothills of the Mayan mountains, this site was once filled with religious buildings and grand plazas that were likely used for various ceremonial festivals and marketplaces.  The site was active from around 300 AD to 900 AD then was abandoned to the dense jungle.  In the late 1800s rumors swirled about a lost city in the area near the Rio Grande River and in 1903, the amateur archaeologist Thomas Gann, Belize’s Chief Medical Officer, began excavating the lost city using methods that ended up causing great damage to the site. To speed up their work, Gann’s team used dynamite to blast open the tops of temples, resulting in piles of fallen stones all around the site.  While his intentions at the time were to reveal the city and remove the jungle and earth covering the ruins, he ended up causing more harm than good with his destructive techniques.

Mayan Site at Lubaantum, Belize

Innovation Thoughts – When one visits the Lubaantum site today and compares it to other Mayan sites where archaeologists performed careful excavations of the ruins, one is struck by the sheer brutality of the dynamite-enabled methods utilized by Gann in 1903.  Piles of stones abound at the site and one is left wondering what many of the structures actually looked like before these destructive techniques were applied over a century ago.  From an innovation standpoint, this reminded me of one of the pitfalls of our field.  We are taught to embrace Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction, in which innovation often comes in a disruptive form as new products and services upend the existing marketplace in favor of approaches that are more efficient or more effective.  Innovators search for these disruptive ideas and sometimes have a tendency to advocate a new method merely because it is new without thinking through all of the consequences of the change.  Gann almost certainly believed that his new method of excavating ruins quickly using dynamite was a faster and more efficient way of removing the overgrown jungle from the site and getting into the interiors of the stone structures.  Yet hindsight now tells us that his methods which may have been seen as “innovative” at the time were actually so destructive that they resulted in damage that can never be remedied at the site.  Innovators must be careful when trying out new approaches not to embrace a change simply because it is something new and different.  Our value as innovators lies in our ability to apply our knowledge and expertise beyond simply serving as advocates for merely trying something “new.”

Mayan Site at Lubaantum, Belize

A modern story with interesting parallels concerns the failed medical device company Theranos.  Founded by Elizabeth Holmes, who dropped out of Stanford University at age 19 and raised billions of dollars from various investors for her company, Theranos claimed to have developed a technology that would perform a range of medical tests simply by taking a single drop of blood from a patient.  This would have revolutionized medical testing, but over the course of several years it turned out to be an impossible task and the company is now charged with falsifying test results and defrauding investors.  As relayed in a recent BBC World Service Business Daily podcast, the author John Carreyrou notes that Holmes charmed her investors by likening her mission to that of the Silicon Valley technology startups where she would “move fast and break things” and apply technology to solve the world’s problems.  She tailored her financing pitches to unsophisticated but wealthy major investors and scrupulously avoided the medical device industry investors who would have been able to see through her proposal.  She appealed to those with a mindset focused on moving fast and abandoning the ways of the past and for years was seen as a true innovator, but in the end the true innovator is the one who knows how to leverage industry expertise in making sure that what is new is truly better and not just “faster” or “different.”



Perhaps the best summation of Marco Polo’s Travels appears in the Epilogue of the work itself:

[t]here was never any man yet, whether Christian or Saracen, Tartar or Pagan, who explored so much of the world as Messer Marco, son of Messer Nicolo Polo, Great and Noble Citizen of the City of Venice.

Marco was ahead of his time not just in terms of the extent of his journey across Asia, but also in his ability to recall intricate details from his trip.  Although some historians understandably express frustration at the fantastical elements of his story (the diamond-filled ravines mined by swooping eagles) or his failure to mention key landmarks along the journey (the Great Wall), one cannot help but be impressed by the amount of detail that Marco is able to embed into his work given the circumstances in which he wrote the work.  The factors conspiring against him were several-fold: he was in prison while dictating the work, he relied on a scattered set of notes and his memory from a 20-year journey, for an entire year of the journey Marco was reportedly quite ill (when he traversed Afghanistan), he had to collaborate on the work with a novelist with a penchant for exaggeration and embellishment, and he did not have illustrations to help convey the images from his journey.  Given these myriad challenges, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the Travels is that it was written at all and has survived over the centuries.

Historians have analyzed in detail every word of the work and have found remarkable accuracy and cleverness in his writings.  For instance, John Man notes, “Marco identified five different types of cranes as well as many other birds, and 20 years after the event he was able to recall them in detail to Rustichello.”  “Modern ornithologists,” he continues, “have taken Marco’s notes and searched for birds in the regions of China where he was traveling and concluded that his descriptions were very accurate.”  A final lesson that the modern innovator can derive from Marco Polo rests in this attention to detail that is all too often missing from innovation work given the rapid pace at which this type of work occurs.  Like Marco, we often face numerous challenges when putting together our innovation projects and we know that, like the historians critiquing Marco’s work today, our proposed innovation will have to withstand great scrutiny to receive the approvals it needs to proceed through the development process.  It is my hope that in thinking about how Marco put together the Travels, a modern innovator can develop creative approaches to solving some of these same challenges.



Photos provided by the author

John Man, Marco Polo: The Journey that Changed the World (New York: Harper Collins, 2009)

Tim Severin, Tracking Marco Polo (New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1986)

Manuel Komroff, Editor, The Travels of Marco Polo 1271-1295 (New York: The Heritage Press, 1934)

Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself (New York: Vintage Books, 1985).

William Carlsen, Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya (New York: HarperCollins, 2016).

John Carreyrou, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (New York: Knopf, 2018)

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scott_bowdenScott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a consulting firm focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.

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Scott Bowden

Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a firm consultancy focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.




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