Not being one for public displays of emotion, I am embarrassed to say that sitting in the pews of La Sagrada Família in Barcelona, bathed in the light created by the church’s multi-colored stained glass windows – and surrounded by hordes of tourists clutching tightly to selfie sticks – I started to tear up. The audio guide crackling in my ear told me that construction on the church had started in 1882, and yet I could still see cranes outside building the final spires. I felt simultaneously grounded in the past and tethered to the future.
The church is a visual narrative of Christ’s life, complete with 18 towers, 3 detailed facades, soaring stained glass windows, and bone-like columns that twist and branch toward the ceiling. Altogether, the church reflects a delicate symbiosis between natural form and Christian iconography. Antoni Gaudí began designing the structure in 1882, inspired by a far-reaching vision that extended well beyond his lifetime. Construction on the church is scheduled to wrap up in 2026. Remarking on his vision, Gaudí said, “It is not a disappointment that I will not be able to finish the temple. I will grow old, but others will come after me. What must always be preserved is the spirit of the work; its life will depend on the generations that transmit this spirit and bring it to life.” To capture this intention, he created blueprints detailing his design for a structure that he believed would connect people to a higher power. These blueprints have inspired generations of stonemasons, artisans, and engineers to work toward the realization of Gaudí’s vision over the past 135 years.
La Sagrada Família is one of hundreds of impressive churches and cathedrals built over many hundreds of years, including St. Peter’s Basilica (120 years), York Minster (252 years), and the Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral) (approximately 600 years). Despite living in different places and eras, all of the architects who created these structures shared a similar approach – now coined “cathedral thinking” – defined by the act of undertaking a visionary long-term pursuit that requires decades of foresight, purposeful design, and generations of motivated workers to complete.
For a concept that stretches back to the Middle Ages, cathedral thinking is remarkably relevant in today’s business context. Companies are facing pressure to adapt to an increasingly uncertain future shaped by rapid advances in technology and new disruptive players. At the same time, they are looking for ways to succeed in a purpose-driven economy where customers want and expect organizations to help solve some of the world’s most pressing social, environmental, and political challenges. Similarly, new generations of purpose-driven employees are looking for careers that allow them to become part of the solution. Cathedral thinking can be used by businesses as a transformational tool for imagining and planning for the future, infusing purpose into business architecture, and helping employees find meaning and motivation.
CATHEDRAL THINKING IN PRACTICE
01/ See It: Establish a Long-Term, Future-Oriented Vision
The first step to applying cathedral thinking to business is establishing a long-term vision that is grounded in an understanding of future possibilities. This is not a typical corporate vision statement – it cannot be written by executives sitting in a boardroom imagining their desired future state in 5 or 10 years. Conceiving a business future with the same type of vision required to build a cathedral demands thinking that extends far beyond the next 10 years. Family-run businesses are particularly successful at this kind of long-term thinking – for executives who know their children and grandchildren will feel the effects of today’s decisions, legacy is key.
Visions that cast further into the future must be grounded in an understanding of how things may shift over time. You could say that all cathedral architects were foresight practitioners; they were able to articulate a vision that stood up to many possible future scenarios. For businesses, creating future-oriented visions requires developing corporate foresight capabilities. Shell, one of the pioneers of corporate foresight, has been using scenario planning to imagine and engage with an uncertain future since the early 1970s. Organizations that practice strategic foresight make use of richly imagined narratives of possible futures to challenge executives’ assumptions about the future and encourage a long-term approach to strategy. In a world of short-term quarter-by-quarter thinking, creating an ambitious vision that looks generations ahead requires executive leadership and courage. Only with these qualities can an organization be guided to break free from expediency in favor of more far-ranging thinking.
02/ Plan It: Design a Business Built for Purpose
Once a cathedral architect has a vision, they begin the process of designing the structure and creating blueprints to communicate their design to future generations. Every element of the design process is driven by the greater purpose of creating a physical structure that serves as a vehicle for connecting people to God. For La Sagrada Família, Gaudí designed the pinnacles on top of the towers to stretch to the sky, which symbolizes elevation toward God. He designed the twisting, branching columns to evoke a forest, inviting introspection and prayer. Believing that God was light, Gaudí incorporated arches, which elevated the ceiling and skylights to illuminate the church.
How would businesses transform if each element of a business’s architecture were designed as purposefully as the pinnacles and arches of Gaudí’s masterpiece? An understanding of the fundamental purpose of a business should extend beyond a line in a strategic plan or a tagline in a new marketing campaign; it should inform strategy development, business process design, sourcing, relationships with customers, talent management, and evaluation frameworks. Together, the distinct elements of a business’s design serve as the blueprint for future action. Trying to build a business with environmental sustainability at its core? Start by incorporating sustainability criteria into evaluations. Building a business that will provide the best possible service to customers? The hiring processes established today create the people-focused teams that will realize your vision tomorrow.
03/ Build It: Motivate Teams with Meaningful Work
With their detailed blueprint in hand, the cathedral architect must next entrust their vision to the stonemasons, artisans, and engineers who will dedicate themselves to bringing it to life. No cathedral can be built by the efforts of one person alone; the world’s greatest cathedrals were built by generations of workers across varied disciplines, who could all clearly see how their work contributed to the greater purpose of the cathedral. Consider this popular parable: A traveler walks by two stonemasons working at a construction site. Intrigued, the traveler asks the first stonemason, “What are you working on?” The stonemason replies, grumbling, “I’m cutting stones to make a living.” The traveler nods, and then asks the same question to the second stonemason, who is working steadily and contentedly nearby. The second stonemason looks up and replies, “Can’t you see? I’m building a great cathedral.”
For businesses struggling to respond to a new generation of employees looking for meaningful work, the story of the stonemasons demonstrates how cathedral thinking can drive purpose beyond the work itself. Moving employees from feeling like they are cutting stones to knowing they are part of building a cathedral requires a compelling articulation of how their everyday work contributes to realizing a greater purpose. This communication must be backed up by a new approach to performance management and evaluation that focuses on recognizing and incentivizing long-term, purpose-aligned mindsets and actions. In an interview with the New York Times, Alan Mulally, former CEO of both Ford and Boeing Commercial Airplanes, reflects on the perspective-shifting power of purpose in his career: “Is the airplane really about an airplane or is it about getting people together around the world so they can find out how more alike they are than different? And is a car about just a driving experience or is it about safe and efficient transportation, and your family, and freedom?”
When business leaders can elevate the purpose of their company in this way, employees are able to uncover and connect with the meaning in their work. This makes them more engaged, more creative, and more willing to collaborate cross-functionally within a business.
Cathedral thinking has left us with inspiring structures that continue to captivate generation after generation. Incorporating a cathedral mindset can spark new life in businesses, provoking a shift from a focus on short-term shareholder wealth maximization to long-term shared value creation for multiple stakeholders – including those not yet born. With legal lives that stretch beyond any one person’s lifetime, businesses are in fact an ideal vehicle for taking on cathedral-sized challenges that require long-term, multi-generational action. Anchored in a vision that takes the long view, guided by a design for achieving purpose, and equipped with an interdisciplinary, intrinsically motivated team of builders, businesses can find new and more compelling relevancy in a purpose-driven economy.