Zen and the Art of Cathedral Building – an apocryphal tale

Introduction

Stories offer us a means to see and understand our individual worlds in new and enlightened ways. If you doubt this, reflect for a few moments on some of the stories from your childhood that affected you. The sources of these may have been books, films, plays or the spoken words of significant people in your life. I have no doubt that you’ll be able to identify at least one story that has been significant to your development.

‘Zen and the Art of Cathedral Building’ is the story of the building of the Sagrada Familia, or Gaudi Cathedral, in Barcelona. This story, which is part truth, part fiction, offers you a chance to think about management and leadership from a range of different perspectives. You can zoom in on the operational details or take the long view of the strategic content depending on your interests or current needs. You can then explore your own management and leadership challenges through the growing number of  A to Z sections that will be added to this blog, and which will link explicitly with this story.

The Characters

You will encounter five main characters in ‘Zen and the Art of Cathedral Building’. The manager is nameless – because she could be you! Wayne is waning; Payne is a pain; Sayne appears to be the embodiment of sanity; and Jayne is … well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. Each character is intended to be an archetype of people we have all encountered in the workplace.

The Story

Our exploration of management and leadership begins at the site of one of the longest-running building projects of the past two centuries, that of the Sagrada Familia, or Gaudi Cathedral. Antoni Gaudi was one of the most important architects of the Art Nouveau period and his work in and around the city of Barcelona took the Art Nouveau style further than that of any of his contemporaries. The Sagrada Familia is by far the greatest and best known of Gaudi’s buildings. Gaudi first presented his design for the cathedral in November 1883 and the building work began under his direction in 1884. As the project progressed, Gaudi became so committed to this grand design that he spent his final years living exclusively in the workshops surrounding the building site, taking on the appearance of a vagrant. On 7th June 1926, aged 74, he was hit by a number 30 tram on Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes. He died three days later in a pauper’s hospital, having not been recognized at the site of the accident.

Gaudi envisaged that the Sagrada Familia would be the finest structure in the Christian world and more than eighty years after his death the project attracts more than two million paying visitors each year. Many of those visiting return over and over again to observe progress on this remarkable icon of the Art Nouveau movement. In 1999 the Vatican agreed in record-breaking time to begin the process of establishing Antoni Gaudi as a saint, an issue surrounded by much controversy and still unresolved.

And now to the present …

Our story begins on a 21st-century spring day in Barcelona. La Rambla was just coming to life and a new construction manager was starting her first day on the Sagrada Familia building project. As she made her way along Carrer de Mallorca, first the cranes and then the ornamental spires of the cathedral came into view. As she approached the entrance to the cathedral, she decided to stop for a coffee at the Pastisseria Bomboniera and reflect on how she should approach her first day in the new job. Having reflected, she decided that it was important to get to know her new team members as soon as possible. She finished her coffee and made her way past the blue tapes at the entrance of the cathedral and on through the great iron gates that separated construction workers from tourists.

On entering the site, she passed pleasantries with some of her new construction management colleagues and then set about getting to know her new team. First, she introduced herself to Wayne and asked him to give her an overview of his job. Wayne mumbled his reply, ‘What do I do? That’s simple enough. I use a chisel and mallet to turn roughly quarried rocks into rectangular building blocks.’ ‘Mmm, right,’ said the manager, feeling that this wasn’t going quite the way she’d expected. Wayne continued, ‘And when this lump of rock has the right shape and dimensions I stack it with the others, get another piece of rock and start the whole process again. And I do that all day.’ ‘Okay,’ said the manager, wishing she hadn’t started this conversation. ‘Oh, there’s more,’ insisted Wayne. ‘When that pile of rocks over there is just about used up, a truck comes round the corner and dumps a whole load more.’ The manager politely excused herself and moved on to introduce herself to Payne.

‘Good morning, Payne. I’m the new construction manager. I’m introducing myself to the team and finding out what you all do.’ ‘Ah, I’m a master stonemason,’ said Payne with obvious pride. ‘You see that template block over there, the one everyone else is copying at the moment? Well, I made that – to within 2mm tolerances of the architect’s plan and with perfect 90 degree angles.’ ‘Impressive job, Payne,’ the manager replied. ‘Oh, thanks, but that’s not all. When I’m not making templates from the architect’s plans, I reproduce the current block as part of the manufacturing effort – to within 5mm tolerances and maintaining perfect 90 degree angles.’ ‘Sounds like you’re doing a fantastic job, Payne,’ replied the manager. ‘It’s going to be a pleasure working with you.’

Next came Sayne. His response to the manager’s introduction was to say, simply, ‘I’m a member of the stonemasonry team.’ The manager replied with a simple ‘Thanks Sayne, it’s a pleasure meeting you.’

Finally the manager reached Jayne, who saw her coming. ‘Good morning! You must be the new construction manager,’ Jayne began. ‘That’s right! I’m introducing myself to the team and making a first pass at understanding what you all do.’ ‘Excellent! Well, I’m building a cathedral, and what’s more it’s going to be the most fantastic cathedral in the world – just as Gaudi intended.’ Pleased at hearing Jayne’s obvious enthusiasm, the manager responded by saying she was looking forward to working with her and she then set off to find her new office and continue her first day’s work.

Over the next few weeks the manager looked through staff records and monitored the output and quality of her team’s work. It didn’t take long for a clear pattern of performance to emerge, so she compiled the information into a table to aid her analysis and began to reflect on what to do about the results.  The essential data was as follows …

  • Required rate for the production of blocks = 10 per day
  • Required accuracy for the production of blocks = + or – 10mm
  • Sickness absence = More than 8 per year constitutes a problem
  • Wayne’s rate for the production of blocks = 10 per day
  • Wayne’s accuracy for the production of blocks = + or –  10mm
  • Wayne’s sickness absence = 28 days in the past year
  • Payne’s rate for the production of blocks = 8 per day
  • Payne’s accuracy for the production of blocks = + or –  5mm
  • Payne’s sickness absence = 5 days in the current year
  • Sayne’s rate for the production of blocks = 11 per day
  • Sayne’s accuracy for the production of blocks = + or –  8mm
  • Sayne’s sickness absence = 3 days in the current year
  • Jayne’s rate for the production of blocks = 15 per day
  • Jayne’s accuracy for the production of blocks = + or –  150mm
  • Jayne’s sickness absence = 0 days in the current year

A month or so passed and one Saturday morning, while driving through the suburbs of Barcelona, the manager came across a newly opened DIY superstore. Walking around the store, she was attracted to a bright orange sign saying ‘Carbon neutral mallets – half the price and twice the durability of traditional wooden mallets’. On looking closer the manager discovered that the mallets were made from recycled plastic bottles discarded by some of the four million tourists that visit Barcelona every year. She couldn’t resist. First, there was the appeal of recycled materials. She was currently working on a research project for her MBA entitled ‘Sustainable Construction Methods in the 21st Century’. Second, she had been tasked by the cathedral’s Board of Trustees to cut construction costs. With no hesitation, she bought four mallets.

On her return to work the following Monday, she first approached Wayne and enthusiastically described her new find. But Wayne’s reaction was far from enthusiastic. ‘Have you seen the size of the latest delivery of rocks? And now you want me to use a new mallet as well. That’s it, I’m off.’ And off Wayne went on two weeks’ sickness absence, supposedly with a repetitive strain injury to his wrist.

Cautiously, the manager approached Payne and said she had some new mallets she’d like the stonemasonry team to try out. ‘Why’s that, then?’ Payne asked. The manager explained that these new mallets were half the price of traditional mallets and twice as durable. Payne inspected the mallet that was handed to him. ‘These look like they’re made of plastic.’ ‘Well, they are. They’re made from recycled plastic bottles that tourists drop. These will help us reduce our carbon footprint and cut our costs.’ ‘Oh, I get it,’ said Payne. ‘Cost cutting. People have been saying you’ve been brought in to cut costs. So we’re now expected to start using inferior tools.’ ‘Not inferior tools,’ replied the manager. ‘Ecologically and economically sound tools. These are the future.’ Picking up his mallet, Payne said, ‘I represent the fourth generation of master stonemasons in my family and all of us have used the traditional tools of the trade. I inherited this mallet from my father and he inherited it from his father. This mallet is a craftsman’s mallet. I’ve had it for over thirty years.’ ‘Thirty years!’ said the manager. ‘How can that be? We get through dozens of mallets every year.’ ‘Well,’ responded Payne. ‘When I say the same mallet, it’s had quite a few new heads and a few new handles – but it’s a professional mallet all the same.’ With a sigh, the manager suggested that Payne work with the new mallet and she’d see how he was getting on in a week or so. Payne clearly disapproved but didn’t respond further.

Sayne showed an instant interest in the new mallets, observing that they certainly looked good but that the balance wasn’t quite the same as the ones he was used to. He then went on to say he’d be glad to give the new mallets a go and see how they worked out in practice. Relieved to hear the first positive response from a member of her team, the manager thanked Sayne.

There was no need for caution when approaching Jayne. ‘Aren’t those the mallets on sale in the new DIY superstore?’ Jayne asked. ‘Half the price and twice the durability?’ ‘That’s right,’ said the manager. ‘Using these will make a big impact on our tools budget over the next couple of years.’ ‘So there’ll be more money to be used on employing extra stonemasons,’ Jayne continued enthusiastically. ‘Something like that,’ said the manager – again relieved to hear a positive response from one of her team. Jayne had no problems adjusting to the new mallets.

A couple of months passed and it was time for the manager to go on her annual summer holiday. On the advice of a friend, she booked herself a week in Royal Tunbridge Wells. She wasn’t disappointed. The Pantiles’ restaurants served a good breakfast and there were plenty of opportunities for her to indulge her interest in looking around old churches. But she was disappointed to see the poor condition of most of the churches she visited. The one outstanding exception was the church opposite the Town Hall. The stonework was immaculate, the stained glass windows sparkled and the surrounding gardens were beautifully cultivated. And on stepping inside she was in for a further surprise. Instead of the usual open architecture, the interior of the church was separated into discrete areas. Close to the entrance there was a coffee bar, galleries along each side of the building displayed the work of local artists, and within an impressive central area a group of actors were rehearsing for that evening’s performance of Romeo and Juliet. Confused by all of this, the manager asked to speak to whoever was in charge. The events co-ordinator joined her and, following introductions, the manager heard the story of the Church of the Holy Trinity.

‘Many of the churches in and around Tunbridge Wells were built in the mid-1800s, thanks to local philanthropists. This was the first one, designed by Decimus Burton. Most of the parish churches have fallen into disrepair now, though, because of falling attendances. ‘But what prompted such a fine church to be used as it is now?’ asked the manager. The events co-ordinator continued. ‘In the mid-1970s Holy Trinity was threatened with demolition, so a large number of residents raised a petition to save the church. There were some heated public meetings, but then in 1976 the Church Commissioners approved the Civic Society’s proposal to restore the building and convert it to an arts and performance centre, and the rest, as they say, is history. So we now have the Trinity Arts Centre.

‘That’s really interesting,’ said the manager. ‘But what makes it so successful? Are the people of Tunbridge Wells really that keen on the arts?’ ‘That’s a different story,’ continued the events co-ordinator. ‘In Georgian times, Tunbridge Wells was the place to be seen in. People could mix with royalty and the aristocracy who came for the Chalybeate Spring waters down in the Pantiles and it’s still a popular place for tourists to visit, especially as it’s so close to London. So the Arts Centre benefits from this.

Captivated by the creativity and entrepreneurial sense that was embodied within the Trinity Arts Centre concept, the manager continued her holiday by visiting London, with a particular focus on some of the well-known sites designed by Decimus Burton.

When the manager’s week-long vacation came to an end she began the journey home. During the flight, she reflected on the Trinity Arts Centre with a feeling of unease. It took a while for her to pinpoint the reason for this, but as the plane circled over Barcelona prior to landing she looked down on the city and the cause slowly surfaced. Work on the Sagrada Familia had begun over 125 years ago and Catalonian society had moved on a long way since then. Barcelona has many parish churches, a significant proportion of which have fallen into disrepair because of falling congregations and a corresponding lack of funds. Given all of this, was she managing a redundant project? She decided to carry out some research when she arrived home.

Over the two months that followed, the manager spent much of her leisure time visiting parish churches across the city. She saw first hand the sparseness of many congregations and questioned people about their views regarding the Sagrada Familia. Would they and their families attend the new cathedral? The typical response was ‘No way!’ Those questioned went on to explain that their families had been attending these particular churches for generations and they were aware of the threats they faced from falling church attendance. They would continue to attend the parish churches and, moreover, promote further attendance at these churches whenever and wherever they could. It did indeed seem that the Sagrada Familia was in danger of becoming a white elephant!

Reflecting on this further, the manager prepared a presentation for the cathedral’s Board of Trustees and called an Exceptional General Meeting. With all members present, the manager began her PowerPoint presentation by detailing the evolution of demographics in Barcelona over the past hundred years. She then presented a tabulated summary of findings from the research she had carried out over the previous two months and projected the potential future income of the Sagrada Familia based on this data. She finished with some thought-provoking questions regarding the potential viability of a cathedral-building project that was due for completion in 2025.

The members of the Board of Trustees were shocked and reactions were varied.

‘Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?’

‘I’ve always said we should stop the building work. We should leave it as it is – as a tribute.’

‘We’re tasked with getting the cathedral completed, not with getting involved in this sort of thing.’

‘I think things have already gone pear-shaped. Look at the new façade!’

‘Gaudi’s intentions were clear and that makes our job clear.’

‘Don’t worry. This is still going to be a fantastic building – everything will be fine.’

‘Are you sure you’ve got your facts straight?’

Once these outbursts had died down, the manager continued with the second part of her presentation. This detailed how many tourists visited Barcelona, the annual peaks and troughs, the facilities available and, most critically, the potential benefits of having a world-class venue for the visual and performing arts. The trustees listened on. ‘Given the size and designed acoustic qualities of our planned cathedral, it would take just a modest change in direction to build the greatest theatre and arts centre in Europe.’ With this, the trustees suffered their second shock of the evening. One trustee said passionately, ‘It may be a modest change in direction from a builder’s perspective, but it’s an enormous change in perspective from Gaudi’s vision of the finest structure in the Christian world.’ But the manager had done her homework.

‘Well, is it such a great leap? If we get back to the basics of Gaudi’s intention, it was to provide the people of Barcelona with the means to celebrate their faith. The Sagrada Familia was to be a thriving community – a community that would fill the cathedral with its presence. But, over a hundred and twenty years later, many of Barcelona’s parish churches are falling into disrepair, largely as a result of falling attendances.’ Nobody disputed her words so she continued. ‘Gaudi would not have wanted his great cathedral to fall victim to social change. An empty cathedral would serve no purpose. What’s more, he was a man of his times, an innovator and active participant in the modernist movement, which was all about accepting and working with change.’

The manager was on a roll now. ‘Organic structure and functionalism were the foundations of the Art Nouveau philosophy and there will be little function in a cathedral that doesn’t have enough people to provide a sustainable congregation or a sustainable source of income.’ The audience was primed for her finale. ‘What Gaudi wanted at its most basic level, his core vision if you like, was to provide the means for people to celebrate their Christian faith in Barcelona. What we’re seeing in this great city of ours is an erosion of facilities for people to celebrate their faith. If we create the Antoni Gaudi i Cornet Arts and Performance Centre of Barcelona, this world-class project will without doubt become the most successful arts venue in Europe, if not the world.’ The trustees were captivated. ‘And we can have the best of all worlds here,’ the manager continued. ‘In honour of Gaudi’s vision, 25 per cent of the profits generated by this grand design can be allocated to a new Gaudi Arts and Performance Centre Trust to be used for the maintenance and improvement of Barcelona’s numerous parish churches. In this way, a way that is sensitive to the vast changes we have seen in faith and society since Gaudi’s tragic death, we will be able to further his vision and place our city at the centre of the world’s cultural stage.’ She added detailed financial projections based on the new concept showing clearly the income that could be allocated to the maintenance of Barcelona’s parish churches. The trustees were so inspired by the manager’s presentation that they voted unanimously to make the arts and performance centre a reality.

The manager went into work the following day in high spirits to tell her team. First, she approached Wayne. ‘Hello, Wayne, good news. We’re no longer building a cathedral, we’re building an arts and performance centre. And it’s going to be the greatest of its kind in Europe – if not the world.’ ‘What!’ responded Wayne. ‘Have you seen the latest delivery of rocks? You want me to cope with that lot and build an arts centre?’ ‘Arts and performance centre,’ corrected the manager. This was a step too far for Wayne. ‘That’s it, I’m off.’ And with that, he was off for two weeks, supposedly with back strain.

The manager approached Payne. ‘Good morning, Payne. We’re changing our plans and building an arts and performance centre instead of a cathedral.’ ‘And what effect is that going to have on us?’ asked Payne. The manager responded by saying that the project architect was drawing up some modifications to the internal structure and there was likely to be an additional entrance area, galleries down the sides and a stage constructed at the centre of the building. Payne started to engage with the manager enthusiastically. ‘Sounds as though quite a lot of new building blocks are going to be needed. When the revised plans are finished let me see them and I’ll start getting my head around the production of the templates. I expect you’ll be wanting the usual 2mm tolerances on those.’ ‘Absolutely,’ responded the manager.

She then approached Sayne and told him of the change of plan. Sayne challenged the manager by saying, ‘So, arts and performance centres are the new cathedrals!’ Defensively, the manager said that her research had led to that conclusion. Sayne went on to express an interest in seeing the research. The manager agreed to show him the results and moved on to approach Jayne.

‘How did the meeting go with the trustees last night?’ Jayne asked. ‘Really well. They’ve agreed plans to create the Antoni Gaudi i Cornet Arts and Performance Centre,’ responded the manager. Jayne gave a very cool reception to this news, but the manager was not overly concerned. After all, Jayne was consistently her most enthusiastic stonemason.

It came as a great surprise when, two weeks later, Jayne gave in her notice.

‘But why?’ the manager asked. ‘You’re our most committed and enthusiastic stonemason.’ ‘I was committed and enthusiastic about building the Sagrada Familia, not some arts and performance centre that simply bears Gaudi’s name. For the past ten years I’ve been bringing my children here, showing them how we’ve been getting on. We were going to adopt the Sagrada Familia as our family church. And for the next hundred generations, our family members were going to be christened, married and buried in this cathedral. And now you tell me it’s going to be some theatre attraction, a money spinner for the city. Sorry, I’m not interested. I’m going to spend the rest of my professional life working on my local parish church, leaving it in a better condition than I find it.’ And with that, Jayne left.

A hour later, Payne too gave in his notice. ‘And you can keep your plastic mallets!’ was his final comment.

On her way home that evening the manager started to reflect on the growing list of issues that now needed her urgent attention. First was that of recruiting some new stonemasons, and traditional stonemasons were in short supply. Second was that of Wayne’s sickness absence which had taken a significant turn for the worse of late. Third was finding the time to get back to Sayne on his question regarding her research – and she was starting to feel uneasy about that. Fourth was an issue of planning permission. According to a report in the newspaper El Pais, it was surfacing that Barcelona’s planning officials had never responded to two requests to change the plans for the cathedral, one in 1916 and the other in 1990. It seemed someone was beginning to stir up some trouble. Finally, there was breaking news that the construction of a high-speed train tunnel could threaten the foundations of the Sagrada Familia. Giant tunnelling machines were due to bore a 40ft-wide tunnel through the sandy, waterlogged earth passing within yards of the cathedral’s foundations. A group of surveyors and geologists were concerned that this may cause subsidence or flooding. The manager’s honeymoon period was clearly over.

Postscript

Before engaging with the A to Z sections of this blog, you might reflect on a few general points from our story – and maybe add comments to bring this blog to life.

•           Where do you think the manager showed good judgement?

•           Where was her judgement poor?

•           Specifically, what would you have done differently?

Putting in the time to note down your responses to these questions at this time is not necessary, but it may enhance your experience of the A to z sections.

I look forward to engaging with your comments!

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About theknowledgebiz
Carl Taylor Born in London, my early career spanned research in marine science, corporate strategic planning, internal consultancy and new ventures development - all within the Shell International Group of Companies. Following my assignment in new ventures, I took an 18 month sabbatical and ran a business development agency. This opened my eyes to the realities of leading and managing a non-corporate small enterprise and in recognition of my efforts I was granted the Freedom of the City of London in 1990. On returning to the corporate fold, I was instrumental in leading the development of a Shell/Philips joint venture. In 1990 I made the decision to move into independent working and have provided consultancy, executive coaching and leadership programmes to an extensive client list. I live in Kent with my wife and two children. Scarlett Taylor Born in Kent in 2001, I love horses! My contribution is the 'Punki Ponies' section.

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