Richard Walker

Cathedrals and Goal Obsession

Published on 1 Sep 2020 3 min min read
Cathedrals and Goal Obsession

I've read a couple of interesting books this year. The Pragmatic Programmer by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas and What Got You Here Won't Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith. There was a stand-out message that has stuck with me from each that has made me ponder. I've tried to capture my thoughts in this post.

The first is the Quarry workers creed quote "We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals".

One lesson explained from this is, however niche and small your role within a project may seem there is always room for individuality and skill. Solutions implemented a few years ago may seem archaic today as technology and thinking evolve. However, one can take pride in their contributions and approach. And like the large cathedrals built in Europe during the Middle Ages, our craftsmanship should still be honoured. It's previous work and learning that is passed on and feeds the way we operate today and shapes why technology is what it is.

The quote also implies that, however skilled an individual role is, it's essential never to lose track of the bigger picture. Understand the final objective and the expected outcome to which you are contributing. This mindset helps us to ensure our understanding of requirements, how our skills add value and ensure we're focused on the right tasks.

Great, that makes sense to me.


The second is an example taken from research done by Darley and Batson at Princeton in 1973. One group of theology students were told that they were to go across campus to deliver a sermon on the topic of the Good Samaritan. Some of the students were told that they were late and needed to hurry up. They believed people would be waiting for them to arrive. Along the route across campus, an actor played the role of a victim who was coughing and suffering. Ninety per cent of the late students ignored the needs of a suffering person in their haste to get across campus. On several occasions, a student going to give there talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as they hurried on their way.

This behaviour is a universal human trait and serves to remind us that becoming too obsessed with a task in front of us can lead to massive failures in the overall objective or what is important. At it's worst, you might be left stating "OMG, What have I done?"

One of my takeaways from this is to remind ourselves not to obsess too long over individual tasks in the name of keeping a customer happy or solving a problem. If spending two-thirds of your time on a single task that only completes ten per cent of the overall objective, and subsequently leads to the failure of delivering you might well be asking yourself "What have I done?".

The reminder here is to understand it's perfectly acceptable to have individuality, skill, and creativity, yet work as part of a team. It's equally important never to lose sight of the final overall objective. In the technology world, we need skilled individuals, experts in their domain. But who understand requirements and who can work well with others, all contributing and collaborating to build our digital cathedrals. Obsessing too long in your bubble can lead to missing the overall mark. Regularly taking a step back and assessing the big picture can save time and pay dividends, helping ensure our individual contributions add the right value and lead to the success of the whole project.

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