Monday, September 6, 2010

What's your cathedral?

There's a classic story about understanding the purpose of work: The Story of the Three Stone Cutters
Once, there were three stone cutters working together on a job.  A stranger came upon the first stone cutter and asked, "What is it that you're doing?"

"Cutting this stone into a perfect square block," answered the first stone cutter, continuing to focus with great care and precision.

The stranger moved on, leaving the first stone cutter to his craft. He came upon the second stone cutter, who was also working diligently on his pile of stones. "What are you doing?" asked the stranger, interested to see how this stone cutter would respond.

The second stone cutter stopped to look at the stranger and engage in the conversation. "I'm working here on this job to provide for my family. I have a loving wife and two wonderful children. I work hard here to make sure we have what we need and can take time to enjoy each other." The second stone cutter reached out a friendly hand. "I'm Alexander."

The stranger introduced himself and shared a brief story with the stone cutter about his own family. They said good bye, and the stranger moved on to another area of the project.

Around the outer edge of the site, the stranger saw a third stone cutter who was squatting behind a large carved stone, but staring toward the horizon. The stranger approached this stone cutter and asked, "Pardon me. May I ask what you're working on?"

"I'm building a cathedral," responded the third stone cutter without breaking his gaze toward the horizon, and into the future. "It's going to the new home for a parish that is renowned for it's financial generosity and support of the surrounding community. There will be a soup kitchen on the main level, a community garden in the courtyard, and offices for individual and family therapists. In three years, they expect to be providing services to over two thousand people a day."

The stranger stared into the distance, picturing the bustling crowds and smiling faces of the volunteers. "Thank you for sharing that vision," said the stranger.

Every time that I've heard this story in the past, I've identified clearly with the third stone cutter - I need to know what kind of structure I'm building and why we're doing it.  I struggle to find motivation unless I really understand the mission.

And, I've always felt sorry for the first two stone cutters.  I mean, the second one has a noble purpose and all.  The first one doesn't need to know his greater purpose to be a good worker.  The third one, though: he's the enlightened one!

Then, I started thinking about one of the last team building / motivational leadership meetings I was at.  We spent a long time talking about how to help other co-workers in IT connect to the fact that we are a Catholic health care service provider.  Our mission and purpose is all about providing care for patients, with a deference for those who are on the edges of society or in the greatest need.  A great purpose for the organization.  As IT leaders, we spend quite a bit of time working to help our staff understand how their day to day work of supporting servers and applications helps someone to do their job in Finance; and how that helps someone do their in Medical Records; and how that helps someone do their job in Credentialing; which helps us make sure that our physicians are qualified; which helps us make sure that patients are safe.  In the worst of cases, an IT co-worker can feel six or seven times removed from the purpose of the organization.  (I recently took a Gallup "strengths" survey and learned that "connectedness" is one of my strength, so I guess I don't really struggle with this too much.)

Still, I recently started to wonder if all of the leaders in that training were coming at things from the perspective that the third stone cutter is the only one who's really got it right, and that we're all supposed to strive to see the same metaphorical cathedral.

Recently, I've found at least as much satisfaction at work focusing on the quality of stones that I'm carving right now.  I've got a larger purpose in mind, though it isn't really the patient care we provide. As I contemplate how to push data management principles forward, my justification stops with "this will make our organization smarter."  Of course all kinds of great benefits will come from that, including improved patient care, fiscal responsibility, innovative service models, an end to world hunger, and peace for all.  Right now, though, it is completely satisfaction enough to have the purpose of making people better, smarter decision makers.

So, if my cathedral isn't better health care for our patients, then is it a stretch to think that the first stone cutter's cathedral isn't that one beautiful brick and pride in his craftsmanship; and the second stone cutter's cathedral isn't the quality of life experience that he's providing for his family and for himself.

What's your cathedral look like?  Is it right in front of your eyes, or off in the distance?

1 comment:

  1. Nice writeup Paul, loved the example/story.
    I'm in favor of adopting the point of view of all 3 at some point in time during the life of the project.
    The 3rd stone cutter while being the enlightened one could deviate from the other 2 worker's point of view which may lead to a flawed design of the cathedral or his family being ignored.