Cathedral Thinking - Business Futures beyond the next Quarterly Report

Tiu De Haan

For so many of us, short term thinking dominates our horizon to such a profound extent that we forget to look beyond it to the bigger, bolder and more beautiful shape of our whole lives and to consider the lasting impact that we have on our world.

We are so acclimatised to looking for the temporary fix and the instant gratification, we seem to have forgotten it is not necessarily the best way. Succeeding at work is often about triumphing at the next quarterly report. Finding love is about the split second it takes to swipe left or right. Communication is about scrolling through a blur of news, images and snap judgements.

In an age of super-tasking, two second attention spans and multiple screens, it is quite a challenge to get to the end of a meal, a walk or even a conversation without checking our phone, let alone to consider producing something that will still be standing long after we are gone.

Yet our ancestors thought in different terms. The grand creations of antiquity were not designed with the quarterly report in mind. The builders of the great cathedrals thought in terms of multiple generations carrying out their work, to complete a dream that wouldn’t be realised until long after the originator’s death.

Cathedral thinking is a powerful antidote to the short termism that pervades our society. It is about a powerful expansion of the mind and the goals that such an expanded mind can create.

The Iroquois developed the concept of “Seven Generation Sustainability” - they think in terms of seven generations and make all of their decisions today based upon the interests of their great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren.

What a concept; to consider the impact of your actions today on someone– maybe within your gene pool, perhaps even of your skin and eyes and temperament – who will be alive 150 years from now.

Just imagine that. For a moment, just zoom out to see the context of your day, your time, and your actions from a whole new altitude. See yourself as part of a much bigger landscape, spanning hundreds of years. From way up there, where the air is clear and the time is vast and not a hurried headlong dash to completion, how does your contribution look? And are you up for creating a lasting impact that is measured in terms of centuries and not seconds?

Seeing the world from a whole new perspective not only makes us question our actions today, and how they will impact those who follow, for good and ill. It can also inspire magnificent ideas that have a lasting impact of great beauty, power and vision.

We could all do with a little cathedral thinking in our fast-paced world where short termism is leading to skewed priorities and a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction.

Dominic Barton, the Global MD of McKinsey & Company, gave a lecture in London in 2013 in which he recounted the story of the first meeting he had with Korean President Lee Myung-bak. Barton was helping him to develop a long-term vision for the country, and when he asked him what timeframe he wanted to consider, the President answered, “Sixty years.” “There must be a translation issue,” said Barton. “You mean six years, right?” He answered, “No, sixty. I am a little short-term in my thinking. We like to think about economic development in terms of generations, and as a leader, I should be judged a hundred years from now on what I was able to do in my time.”

We can all learn a lot from this kind of approach, especially when we consider the dangers of ignoring the bigger picture. The good news is that if your organisation starts thinking big now, you may just create a legacy that benefits those who will inhabit a future way beyond your lifespan. The dark side of this is that in neglecting to use cathedral thinking, we are creating terrible problems for those who will exist long after we are gone.

Cathedral thinking is about activating the big vision, the scope of which humbles us into remembering that we are just custodians of one small part of a much bigger process. Seeing with a fresh, epic, magnificent perspective necessitates an imaginative leap. It’s human to be more concerned with your day-to-day stresses than to imagine the life of your great-great-great grandchild and how they may be affected by your actions today.

But it is an imaginative leap we all have to make – that is, if we want our families, our organisations and our planet not only to survive but to thrive in the long term.

So just how does an organisation build the culture that encourages its people to create visions so vast and so magnificent, so awe-inspiring and audacious, that you have to exceed your wildest dreams in order to conceive of it, let alone realise it?

Start by asking yourself this question - if we were to build something with a life span of seven generations, not seven minutes, what would it be?

We can help you to shift your organisation’s gaze from the myopic to the majestic, by engaging you and your team in brand new ways of creative thinking. Atmosphere helps businesses ranging from blue chip to start-up unlock inherent creativity in order to realise their creative cultures potential and to expand their vision of what is possible.

To find out how to bring “cathedral thinking” to your organisation, contact us to discuss a bespoke explorer session and discover what happens when you and your teams will see your whole world afresh.

Tiu de Haan

Tiu de Haan is a facilitator, cultural analyst, writer, creative entrepreneur, singer and celebrant. In addition to helping businesses unlock creativity, Tiu is the creator and founder of Eyeshine, a successful not-for-profit devoted to reminding people of all ages how to see the magic in the mundane.


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