Lessons from three stonemasons

In Obliquity, John Kay says:

“An old story tells of a visitor who encounters three stonemasons working on a medieval cathedral, and asks each what he is doing. ‘I am cutting this stone to shape,’ says the first, describing his basic actions. ‘I am building a great cathedral,’ says the second, describing his intermediate goal. ‘And I am working for the glory of God,’ says the third, describing his high-level objective. The construction of architectural masterpieces required that high objectives be pursued through lesser, but nonetheless fulfilling, goals and actions.” (Obliquity – p40)

I’ve shared this story on many occasions because I believe it has very valuable lessons:

  • Organizations often struggle to get everyone bought into (or even aware of) objectives; the flip side of this coin is that many members of an organization don’t know how their tasks contribute to an overall objective, and this hurts morale and leads to apathy
  • Different people can be involved in the same task but have very different ideas of its meaning and significance
  • High level objectives are often unquantifiable
  • A golden rule of leadership: Objectives–>Strategies–>Tactics
  • Motivation is a complex beast

Dan Pink's TED talk about motivation

Dan Pink’s TED talk about motivation

If you’ve read Drive, by Daniel H. Pink, then you know that for complex tasks we need to tap into intrinsic motivation with autonomy, mastery, and purpose. If you haven’t read the book, then check out one of the video links to get a summary.

RSA Animate video about motivation, based on Drive, by Dan Pink

RSA Animate video about motivation, based on Drive, by Dan Pink

I find the stonemason story interesting because an argument could be made for different types of motivation depending upon each particular mason’s answer to the visitor’s question. Nonetheless, I think the best results would come from an intrinsically motivated mason who’s trying to make his God very happy. And this goes for everyone on the cathedral job site, and applies to pretty much any company or organization: you’ll get the best results if your employees and team members know the mission/purpose and the associated strategies.

…and for goodness sake, that purpose or strategy had better not be “to maximize shareholder value (as Jack Welch says, “That’s not a strategy you can touch. That’s not a strategy that helps you know what to do when you come to work every day. It doesn’t energize or motivate anyone.”).

I also like that this story highlights an oft-ignored reality about high level objectives. In Kay’s words, “High level objectives are typically loose and unquantifiable – though this does not mean it is not evident whether or not they are being achieved.” (Obliquity – p41)

I run into this all the time at work and in life, and people are probably tired of hearing me go on about the relationship between objectives, strategies, and tactics. In fact, I’ve written about this subject before, in A Golden Rule of Leadership:

I’m busy reading Lessons from the Top, by Gavin Esler.  In one passage, he describes how Alastair Campbell explained at a conference that any significant act of leadership has three parts: objective, strategy, and tactics: First, the objective must be absolutely clear, as it provides the followers with a common purpose. By clarifying a common purpose, a leader unites the group in a quest for achievement. Second, you must determine the strategy by which you will achieve your objective. It is critically important that every part of the strategy is dedicated towards achieving the objective; any distraction will lessen your chance of success. Third, you must select and employ tactics that enhance the strategy (and in turn support the objective).

Just the other day I jotted out a “how to” for creating a marketing campaign:

  • Top-Down, Indirect: one or more objectives, supported by one or more strategies, supported by one or more tactics
    • The objectives determine the strategies, which then determine the tactics…
    • Often a complex relationship (e.g., a single tactic might support several strategies)
  • Method
    • Campaign owner establishes objectives first, after consultation/discussion with other folks (e.g., subject matter experts, account teams, functional leaders, etc.)
    • Then the owner discusses strategies with functional leaders (e.g., “How do you think we can work to achieve , Y, and Z?”)
    • Functional leaders determine tactics, which are then collected by the campaign owner to identify efficiencies/synergies
    • And only then worry about metrics
    • Campaign owner coordinates execution, as formally or informally as required

What’s the objective of the work project in Kay’s story? To glorify their god. The strategy? Build a kick-ass cathedral. A tactic? Precisely cut a whole whack of stones. How do you measure the success? Well, you can track project progress by counting the number of stones cut, the efficiencies, and the percentage of the cathedral completed, but good luck quantifying how glorified your deity is – but that doesn’t mean that you don’t know when you’re on the right track.

Homer the Great...such a good episode.

Homer the Great…such a good episode.


Lee Brooks is the founder of Cromulent Marketing, a boutique marketing agency specializing in crafting messaging, creating content, and managing public relations for B2B technology companies.

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Posted in Books, Leadership, Management
2 comments on “Lessons from three stonemasons
  1. […] too common for me to encounter people who jump straight into tactics without even considering what the big picture objectives and strategies […]

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