Cathedral thinking – are we capable and willing?

In March’s Gardener’s World magazine Monty Don tells of the friends who introduced him to the concept of ‘cathedral thinking’.  He says, ‘You may be aware of this, but just in case you haven’t come across it before, the argument for cathedral thinking is that just as medieval cathedrals took hundreds of years to build  – involving generations of craftsmen devoting their entire lives to the task, despite having no chance of seeing the finished work – so we should plan and participate in work that benefits future generations and the world at large, rather than ourselves and our own narrow interests and lifespans.’

Monty Don has just planted a three-acre wood.  He explains, ‘We’ve called it George’s Wood because it is intended for him, my grandson – and his grandchildren – rather than my son and his wife, let alone Sarah or myself.’

Rightly, he asks the question how do you translate this benefit for future generations, if you don’t have 3 acres available to plant but simply a ‘normal (smallish) back garden attached to a normal (smallish) house’?

He proposes that we do this by ‘thinking and acting bigger than our lives, beyond the restrictions and constraints of our garden, our street and the limited world that inevitably we all inhabit.  … An awareness that we’re all connected and part of the bigger world is a huge liberation and means that sometimes we can think big – cathedral big – in our own backyards’.

The coronavirus pandemic offers us a unique opportunity to really think through how we want to approach the future – whether we want to take a short term, quarterly results perspective or the longer, cathedral, view, thinking big – armed with a moral compass pointing at what is good for society and what is the right thing to do.

My hope is that we aim for cathedral thinking,  going for the longer view and bigger thinking and this week I listened to four webinars with speakers expertly putting the case for just that.

The first was The upside of pestilence: how the virus will humanise our organisations, one in the excellent London Business School series ‘Leading through a pandemic’, the speakers were Dominic Houlder and Jules Goddard, co-authors of What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being a Better Leader.

They make the case for teaching leaders philosophy – ably debunking any suggestion that this is a ‘dispensable luxury’.  They remind us that Peter Drucker said, ‘Management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right thing’. In their view deciding what is right is a question of philosophy.

Their hope is that  effective leaders will use this crisis to develop resourceful humans – beyond human resources, building on three sources of capital:  physical capital – the sources of production, social capital – including trust, collective intelligence, reciprocity, genuine dialogue, and moral capital – meaningfulness, the conditions conducive to leading a fulfilled life, a sense of our own agency, a sense of purpose, a sense of identity and belonging.  They ask us to reflect, for our organisations, on the question, ‘how might the moral capital of the enterprise be measured and enhanced?’

The second was Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an unknowable future an LSE discussion with Mervyn King and John Kay, authors of a book with the same title.

They argue that contemporary approaches to dealing with uncertainty rely on a false understanding of our power to make predictions, leading to many of the problems we experience today. Nevertheless, we have to make decisions in conditions of radical uncertainty, where we can neither imagine all possible outcomes nor assign probabilities to future events. So, we crave certainties which cannot exist and invent knowledge we cannot have.  (Chapter 1 of their book opens with the Leo Tolstoy quote ‘All we can know is that we know nothing.  And that is the sum total of human wisdom’.)  They distinguish between puzzles (solvable) and mysteries (what we don’t know).  In their view, asking the question ‘what’s going on here?’ is not a simple or banal question but the start of a reflective process, starting from a premise that we don’t know and our models may not work.

The  third webinar, was Margaret Heffernan talking in the Jericho Chambers series ‘Life After the Virus’.  In this one – Uncharted: how to map the future together,  Margaret was talking with others on her message to ‘resist the false promises of technology and efficiency. Instead, mine our own creativity and humanity – give ourselves the capacity to create the futures we want and can believe in.’

In an opinion piece for Jericho Chambers, she talks specifically about cathedral projects, saying they ‘take more than a lifetime to complete … they are conceived in uncertainty’ She gives an example, ‘CERN is a modern cathedral project, even though it was designed to discover things that might not exist, using technology no one knew how to build, on a timescale that was impossible to define at budgets nobody knew how to draft. Mired in uncertainty, it both produced enormous breakthroughs in physics and has thrown off dozens of inherently unpredictable innovations, including the worldwide web. Not planned. Never predicted.’

I also heard Margaret speak with the RSA on ‘How to map the future together in this discussion she said,  ‘I would dearly, dearly love to think that this crisis will provoke, experimentation and openness to new ideas in a way that will enhance our democracy that is the best hope I can think of coming out of this.’ (She is a strong advocate of deliberative democracy).

The fourth was another Jericho Conversation Stakeholder v Shareholder Capitalism.  Panellists debated the question ‘Will a better, more responsible capitalism emerge from the crisis – or will the heat be on to return to “shareholder value” and the maximisation of profit and returns?’

The discussion is a useful mix of optimism and pessimism on what will come out of the crisis.  Panellists hoped that it would bring a better society and offered some thoughts on how this might be fanned into life – as Jane McCormick pointed out ‘none of us has all the answers. New partnerships and fresh thinking will be required – government, business and civil society working together’.

How are you and your organisation approaching the future – is it through ‘cathedral thinking’?  If not should it be and if so, how can we foster it?  Let me know.

Image: Quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery Wartime Writings 1939-1944

2 thoughts on “Cathedral thinking – are we capable and willing?”

  1. Interesting post. It made me reflect on one quote from Ricardo Semler’s book “Maverick!”, where he speaks about time management and the fact that we are all focused on the minutes and hours of a day, whereas his learning was that the only meaningful measures of time are “years and decades”.
    I don’t think, however, that many organisations have today this capability of ‘cathedral thinking’. First of all, because we have set most of our businesses for efficiency, and Time is a critical dimension, mostly measures in quarters and months (think ‘Just in Time’). Second, because the current pandemic situation has made too many managers look even in narrower terms.
    ‘Cathedral Thinking’ should mean also stronger visionary leadership, capable of really looking longer terms. So that people will start feeling like ‘building a cathedral’ rather than cutting stones…
    Yet again… hourly KPIs, monthly targets, quarterly analysts filings, yearly budgets, all seem to go in the opposite directions.

  2. Having read this Asher Rickayzen sent me a couple of paras from Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why.
    ‘Consider the story of two stonemasons. You walk up to the first stonemason and ask, “Do
    you like your job?” He looks up at you and replies, “I’ve been building this wall for as long
    as I can remember. The work is monotonous. I work in the scorching hot sun all day. The
    stones are heavy and lifting them day after day can be backbreaking. I’m not even sure if this
    project will be completed in my lifetime. But it’s a job. It pays the bills.” You thank him for
    his time and walk on.
    About thirty feet away, you walk up to a second stonemason. You ask him the same question,
    “Do you like your job?” He looks up and replies, “I love my job. I’m building a cathedral.
    Sure, I’ve been working on this wall for as long as I can remember, and yes, the work is
    sometimes monotonous. I work in the scorching hot sun all day. The stones are heavy and
    lifting them day after day can be backbreaking. I’m not even sure if this project will be
    completed in my lifetime. But I’m building a cathedral.” ‘
    An excerpt from Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why; Part 3, Chapter 6: ”The Emergence Of

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