An old story tells of three stonecutters who were asked what they were doing. The first replied, ‘I am making a living.’ The second kept on hammering while he said, ‘I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire country.’ The third one looked up with a visionary gleam in his eyes and said, ‘I am building a cathedral.’ 

The so-called Parable of the Three Stonecutters is often quoted across the Web and held-up on many business courses. It was made famous by Peter F Drucker, the writer and management consultant in his 1954 book, The Practice of Management.

According to Drucker, the third man is the true ‘manager’. The first is doing a “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” but “is not a manager and will never be one.”

He goes on to say that the second man is the real problem. That “there is always the danger that the true workman, the true professional will believe he is accomplishing something when in effect he is just polishing stones or collecting footnotes.

“Workmanship must be encouraged in the business enterprise. But it must always be related to the needs of the whole.” And that “…striving for professional workmanship in functional and specialized work…tends to direct a man’s vision and efforts away from the goals of the business. The functional work becomes an end in itself.”

Having worked with many businesses of all shapes and sizes, I’m always struck by how many people are striving to do the ‘best job of stonecutting’, or are merely ‘making a living’. Precious few are ‘building the cathedral’. The bigger the business, the more this seems to be the case.

If you and others working in your business are not ‘building the cathedral’ then perhaps whatever they are doing should be stopped, automated, or outsourced.

What does this mean for your business?