Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Essence of Risk

By Sr. Laura Coughlin, SC Federation Under Ten Years Professed

      Click HERE to learn more about Laura

      Click HERE to learn more about the SC Federation

Our community divides itself into conferences according to the Vincentian model. Conferences in the early history of the Daughters of Charity were meetings whereby Saints Vincent and Louise could accomplish two goals. The first was to instruct the sisters, and the second was to listen to their hearts by inviting them to lift up their concerns so that these concerns could be treated through a dialogue.

The conference to which I belong recently read and discussed an article written for Global Sisters Report, “Metaphors for the Future,” by Sister Janet Gildea ( There, Sister Janet talks about the famous Duomo added in the fifteenth century to the great cathedral in Florence, Italy. When the dome was begun, the main body of the cathedral had been finished for about forty years. A huge gaping hole in the church’s ceiling reminded the city’s leaders that they had, to paraphrase Jesus, built a tower without first counting the cost, without first knowing whether they could finish it, and without first considering how painful it would be to be mocked for the embarrassment of an incomplete temple of worship. In other words, the city’s venerable had taken a risk even Jesus suggested as imprudent.

To confront their shame, Florence’s wool merchants hosted a competition between architects for the work of the dome. Filippo Brunelleschi, known to be a difficult and aggressive person, won the competition by a trick he performed with an egg, and by a commitment to his own non-transparency! Why avoid transparency? Perhaps because this showman wasn’t too sure about how to fill in the hole either.

What Brunelleschi had was confidence in an idea inspired by the Roman Pantheon, a building which even today possesses the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The architect knew that Florence’s great embarrassment would be turned into an even greater victory if he could discover the secrets of the men who had succeeded in finishing off the Pantheon.

In her treatment of the Florence cathedral, Sister Janet likens the unfinished church to members of religious orders who have built a foundation. The gaping hole stands for the aims of younger members desiring to take risks. These unfulfilled aims are a challenge to our communities because they speak to a lack of effectiveness, perhaps owing to fear. They are, however, connected both logically and imaginatively to the dome, a hope-filled metaphor for the bringing to fruition those dreams of younger members.

What is required by the foundation builders, suggests Sister Janet, is a willingness to risk. I’d like to elaborate briefly on this particular concept since I too think we need to take more risks, and since what I know of Brunelleschi’s story connects with what I know of effective risk-taking from my former work in the technology industry. It often strikes me that the facilitators of meetings of women religious talk about risk, but avoid the precise qualities of the concept that make a mission effective. Here are some things that ought to enter into our conversations about risk:

Effective risk is not only, or primarily, about gambling, but about learning.

Large professional organizations have whole departments established to absorb the failure of experiments. These they name R&D, or Research and Development (in healthcare, Risk Management) Our way of life proscribes grand expenditures for experiments, but surely we can test the waters in small ways and cultivate what success comes of these “trial runs.” Are we willing to expand small plans into greater ones when we experience momentum and success in our efforts? Are we willing to abandon those projects that have become ineffective?

Effective risk involves speed.

Do you remember the days when Microsoft dumped one lousy OS update after another on the market? Ok, yes, they still do that! Microsoft [and Apple] taught both the world and IBM a lesson about the effectiveness of bringing a bad product to market quickly. You read that right – a bad product. They were even energetic in their efforts to unload bad product because what was bad in the buyer’s world was only imperfect in theirs. They knew that the customers’ first negative impression would be transformed by improvements that followed on the heels of the first run.

As is true of most entrepreneurs, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs understood that imperfections in both product and project can be resolved on the journey through people who are engaged, energetic, and intelligent. To those in Florence who expected a finished church, that hole in the cathedral ceiling was bad, but to those with vision it was a problem sure to be solved by the right person. A sad fact of our contemporary world is that the growth of technology has ratcheted up the speed of innovation now expected by the culture. Waiting to act on good ideas today is far more deadly than it was in Brunelleschi’s time. It is important that religious women act with patience and prudence, but these qualities must be balanced by agile risks that open up opportunities and space for younger women to imagine themselves really belonging within the futures of our communities.

Effective risk involves a thorough evaluation of existing models.

Brunelleschi looked at the Pantheon to advance both his own and the city’s aims. Thus, we must ask, ‘what successful models exist that would help us to move forward?’ Have we evaluated why such models are successful? Even the greatest minds don’t work without reference points. The rhetoric of meetings of women religious often comes across to me as too ethereal, or as operating on an expectation that God should perform another creatio ex nihilo just for us. In the service of remaining open to mystery we are perhaps too frequently asked to down-dial rationality, to stay away from problem solving, and to limit the concern we have for effectiveness. The good intentions of those who lead our meetings are directed at helping communities imagine and dream. Nevertheless, their concern to avoid an excessive pragmatism is an overreach in my opinion.

Imagination can’t be fruitful unless it is disciplined by reason, and dreams remain dreams unless we bring some technical skill to bear. God gave Brunelleschi a model that was more than a thousand years old and filled with secrets begging to be revealed. Was the Pantheon a mystery to the architect? – YES! Was it meant to remain a mystery? – NO! Brunelleschi’s vision was tightly connected to the challenging details of problem-solving, yet he didn’t just reproduce the Pantheon’s dome in copycat fashion, but built an icon of a new age from what he learned about the ancient structure. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if we could say of our younger members, “they are building the icon of a new age from things ancient!”

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