In Good Soil: Goal-Driven vs. Muddling Through Strategies

“In Good Soil” is a well-written book on the founding of a new school and new monastery by a monk, Rev. Timothy Horner O.S.B., who was there from the beginning. It’s a story of a different kind of startup, full of insights and humorous observations.

In Good Soil: Goal-Driven vs. Muddling Through Strategies

In Good SoilTimothy Horner, OSB, recounts the founding of a Benedictine monastery in St. Louis and a related junior high and high school, St. Louis Priory School, in “In Good Soil: The Founding of Saint Louis Priory and School 1954-1973.” It’s the story of a startup that began when three monks traveled from Ampleforth Abbey in England to St. Louis in 1955 in response to a request from a group of local Catholic laity who had formed a corporation (referred to throughout “In Good Soil” as Inc) to bring a Catholic college preparatory  school to St. Louis.

“How a lay group in St. Louis, MO, persuaded the Benedictine Abbey of Ampleforth in Yorkshire, UK, to found a monastery and school in St. Louis, and how the English monks coped, with surprising success, with their American supporters and American boys, and vice versa.”
Cover summary to “In Good Soil”

The book recounts key events in the first two decades of the founding of the monastery and the school with considerable insight and humor. Three excerpts capture the challenge the monks faced jointly with Inc in establishing the school as a single 9th-grade class of 30 and scaling it up to six grades with 400 students. It’s written in the third person and blends journal entries, documents, and anecdotes from many of the monks who were community members in its first two decades.

A Priori or Goal-Driven vs. A Posteriori or Muddling Through

We visited the Thomas Jefferson School, whose headmaster, Mr. Robin McCoy, was a mathematician. The school reflected that. He laid down his first principles and deduced the school from them.

This was the most extreme case of a difference between the ways in which the American mind and the English mind instinctively, a difference which kept coming to the surface. As Mr. Churchill observed at one of the meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during World War II, the American instinct is to lay down a principle and then deduce action from it, the a priori approach. The English instinct is to start with what is there and to see what happens if we do this or that, the a posteriori approach.

[Footnote: Roughly a priori reasoning is deductive, from known or assumed principles down to their consequences, and a posteriori reasoning is inductive, from experience back to its cause. The reasoning of syllogism (all men are mortal; all monks are men; therefore all monks are mortal) is a priori; scientific reasoning is normally a posteriori.]

The successes of the former way can be glorious, but if the principle is at all flawed, the deductions tend to magnify the flaws. The latter way usually eliminates egregious error, but easily leads to muddling through. It comes naturally to an American to ask “What is your philosophy of … ?” and the English are often at a loss for an answer. Imagine going into an English pub, walking toward the dart-board and asking one of the players “What is your philosophy of playing darts?”

From “In Good Soil” by Timothy Horner, OSB

Another word for the a posteriori or “muddling through” approach is effectuation. It works from means at hand to consider the “adjacent possible.”

The scientist Stuart Kauffman has a suggestive name for the set of all those first-order combinations: “the adjacent possible.” The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. In the case of prebiotic chemistry, the adjacent possible defines all those molecular reactions that were directly achievable in the primordial soup. Sunflowers and mosquitoes and brains exist outside that circle of possibility. The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.
Steven Johnson in “The Genius of the Tinkerer

Sound principles suggest tactics or options for the next steps and allow for easy coordination at a team level (provided everyone has at least a roughly similar understanding of the situation or challenge presented). If you are facing a complex and unfolding situation where your level of certainty about not only the future but the present is uncertain, then a certain amount of experimentation is called for.

But experiments still involve a commitment of time, money, effort, and potential opportunity costs. So effort invested in understanding the strategic context and planning several moves ahead often pays off.

The monks and the Inc members had agreed upon a common mission and vision that formed a bedrock for effective joint action for the two decades the book covers. It’s a good outcome when a founding team can achieve this level of harmony and execute against it. And an even better one when early success leads to incremental investment and more significant partnerships. The Monastery – Inc. dynamic evolved into a more extensive success over time: the partnership led to the establishment of an independent monastic community and a well-respected school.

If It’s Unknown It Must Be Wonderful

Inc’s members were ready to express themselves with great freedom in our discussions, and then to abide by our decision; and on our part, we listened to them carefully and disagreed with them, when we did, only with caution and reluctance. Most often we were able to reach a British compromise with which everyone was content but in which no one got all they wanted. In this, oddly, being of different nationalities was at least as much help as hindrance. Omne ingotum pro magnifico (“if it’s unknown it must be wonderful”), and we may well have both given and been given for greater wisdom than was actually present. If a member of Inc made some snap judgement, we were more likely to think it commendable decisiveness than rash impetuosity; and if we dithered, they would take it for admirable British caution.

From “In Good Soil” by Timothy Horner, OSB

Because of this shared sense of mission, the founding monks–and those who soon came after–as well as the Inc members, were able to give each other the benefit of the doubt and assume in the case of disagreement that it was an argument over means not ends or values. It’s worth investing considerable effort to ensure that you have common goals and shared values with the other founders and early employees in your startup. Common goals and shared values enable a “full and frank” exchange of views followed by workable compromise. When everyone is a little dissatisfied, you have a real plan that considers the relevant trade-offs and constraints and factors them into a final course of action.

Crafting a Master Plan Flexible Enough to Allow for Trial and Error

Our third area of non-academic activity was architectural planning, in which we were all neophytes. Having remodeled the existing buildings in a way that would see us through the next two years, that is through June 1958, we now had to make plans for the monastery and school from 1958 on. This did not give us much time, a little over two years in all. It was, consequently, alarming to hear that a neighboring school had taken ten years over planning their campus.

We had started from the very beginning to think about planning of this kind, and had recognized that we must first make an overall master plan and then realize it piece by piece. The pieces might be whole buildings or parts of buildings, but if we built part of a building, then we had to be sure we left room for the rest of it.

This turned out to apply to the monastery, to which additions could be made at either end, and to the library, which could be extended southward. At the same time we wanted, especially in the early stages, to avoid building anything which would predetermine later buildings. We mentioned above the American instinct for an a priori approach to planning and the English instinct for an a posteriori approach. Subconsciously we were trying to have the best of both these worlds: to have a master plan (a priori) but to keep it flexible and to allow for trial and error (a posteriori). A general plan of some sort would help to keep us from constructing a formless mess, and it would be up to us to stop it becoming a strait-jacket.

From “In Good Soil” by Timothy Horner, OSB

Initially, they modified and repurposed the existing buildings–houses, barns, and outbuildings–on the four farms they had purchased to create temporary offices, monastery rooms, and classrooms.

Just like a bootstrapping team might work out of their homes, coworking facilities, and short-term subleases of larger firms’ offices, labs, and industrial space.

But at some point, the monks and Inc had to make decisions with long-term consequences and start “pouring concrete.”

Our hypothetical team of bootstrappers would need to make critical architectural decisions about their software, hardware, or service definition. They might decide to work with a very demanding beta customer or early adopter to better understand what the product should look like. Of course, if they pick the wrong early customers, the startup may be lured into a cul-de-sac of customized features or capabilities that few other firms are interested in, much less willing to pay for.

This section accurately captured the challenge that changes that could have been implemented with an eraser on the drawing board will require a sledgehammer in a finished structure. A more significant risk is that mistakes missed in the planning stage can lead to losing credibility and trust with prospects and potential partners impacted by poorly thought-out words or actions.

You can always make more money or add additional features, but it’s hard to regain lost trust and impossible to regain lost time.

On the engineering side, proof of concept models, feasibility studies, and prototypes are ways to make small bets that yield more information about what’s feasible, given team expertise, funding, and schedule constraints.

On the customer development side, interviews, on-site visits, detailed workflow, and requirements analysis lead to project plans that map the path from customer evaluation through onboarding to value realization events that drive the internal adoption of your offering.

In the case of Priory, this was a high school education that included religious instruction and enabled entrance into first-tier colleges and Universities.

SKMurphy Take

Harry Truman remarked, “the only true surprises are the history you don’t know.” I attended St.Louis Priory High School from the fall of 1969 to the summer of 1976. I started in seventh grade, or what the British call “Form I,” and graduated in the summer of 1976. Two of the three founding monks were still active in the school, and I knew them fairly well, but I was not familiar with most of the events detailed in “In Good Soil” and found them to be insightful revelations.

I marvel at the difficulties the early monks had to surmount, navigating the cultural differences of England vs. America, negotiating with bureaucracies–temporal and Catholic–to establish their independence and accreditation, building trust and a sense of shared mission with Inc., and getting the word out to college admissions officers.

“Every successful enterprise requires three men–a dreamer, a businessman, and a son of a bitch.”
Peter McArthur (1904)

Of the three founding monks, Luke Rigby was the businessman, Cary Elwes was the dreamer, and Timothy Horner was the warrior. Horner had served as an officer in the British Army and seen bitter fighting against the Japanese, retiring with the rank of Major. Horner shares details of his wartime experiences in his memoirs “Learning All the Time” and “There’s a Bulldog on My Gas Tank.” Together the founding monks planted institutions that survived them.

About Timothy Horner, OSB

The title for the book is taken from Luke 8:5-8 “The Parable of the sower”

“A sower went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up.
Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture.
Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants.
Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”
Luke 8:5-8

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Image Credit: Licensed from  123RF Mee Ko Dong

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