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Artisans - catalysts on the journey from metrics to meaning.
Hello Human, where have you been?
There is no data on tomorrow, and we can never be sure what lies over the next horizon. It makes a mockery of plans, and rewards reflection on where the stories we are telling ourselves may take us. It’s one of the reasons I find writing to valuable - it forces attention onto today and where our interest is focused, because that is where we’re headed.
Last week, I penned some thoughts of two aspects of rites of passage - the nature of separation, and the process of reintegration. My mind this week has been on the process that links them - transition.
We have a burgeoning transitions industry, full of people with models and processes that offer us painless, seamless transition in pursuit of corporate vitality. What bothers me about it is that it focuses on the health of the corporation and its performance, but less on the individuals and communities they are part of. I believe we have things backwards, and that it matters for those of an artisanal inclination whose interest is in the work they do more than who is hosting it.
Even a couple of decades ago, corporate lifecycles and career lifecycles were more or less aligned. We could leave education, train in an occupation, and be reasonably confident that would take us through our working lives - though maybe through several employers - and recognise that our success would be a function of social connection and luck and partially the “hard work” so beloved of our politicians. That relationship though is dissolving, catalysed by the shock to the system wrought by the consequences of covid, energy shocks, rampant technology and an increasing emotional disconnection between large organisations and those who do the work they rely on.
Meanwhile large organisations are, to take a metaphor from Monty Python, increasingly like John Cleese’s dead parrot. They are in the process of becoming no more, extinct, transitioning to ex parrots, and when the Swiss, who know more than a little about financial organisation, carelessly lose Credit Suisse, a one hundred and sixty seven year old institution, we can only imagine what is going on elsewhere.
And yet, the “Transitions Industry” insists, like the hapless purveyor of parrots, that the parrot is not dead, it is just resting. It is understandable. They follow “Suttons Law” (when Bank Robber Robert Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he is said to have replied, “because that’s where they keep the money”) and there isn’t as much money to be made working with unique individuals as there is to be made from selling homogenised training packages to HR.
If you’re reading this, the likelihood is you are already an artisan, or the artisan in you is awakening. What defines us in these times is our relationship with the work we do, not who we do it for.
What part do we play in transition when the hard fact of increasing separation from a world of corporate “security” is upon us?
I have written in previous posts around the idea of modern “rites of passage” - the frameworks or “containers” that can hold us as we transition from one stage of our lives and careers to another. Ways to consider and acknowledge what we are leaving behind, and prepare for what we are moving towards.
Rites of passage have very distinct qualities, not least that they are time bound, having a defined beginning and end, they take place in the context of communities to which we belong, and we end them a different person to when we started.
Time in transition varies by individual circumstance, but is rarely short. I have mentioned that my own, viewed in retrospect, took around five years. I have worked with others for whom it has been shorter, though still measured in months and years, not weeks. As with more traditional rites of passage, say from adolescence to adult, we have a good sense of when transition is starting, uncomfortable though that sense may be, and the need to prepare. Our more traditional corporate rites are less considerate, involving a short conversation or tweet from HR, and are not the time to start when we have bills to pay.
Community is more complex. We are transitioning not just for our own benefit, but for that of the community to which we belong, and are in turn “held” by. Transition takes us to a different role with different responsibilities, but is still for the benefit and sustainability of the community. Some of us will already be part of one such, most of us won’t; performative organisations rarely provide them as relationships are transactional “up or out” affairs.
What we have learned though, here in New Artisans, is that such communities can be created, online and off. They are small, but effective, and they work. More of this in a moment.
Becoming more. Most of us over forty have been through our working lives wearing pretty much the same label as we were assigned when we started. Accountant, Lawyer, Programmer, “Manager”, and many others. We have grown and progressed vertically, “through the ranks” gaining power and privilege along the way. I find it difficult to see that continuing, and it is why I think the idea of rites of passage is important. Many skills that our training have previously given us, upon which we have relied, are being eroded by technology, and the parts we haven’t trained for, the vital things we cannot measure, are becoming critical as who we are becomes more important than what we know.
James Hollis, a psychologist, writes about our “provisional personality”. It is the one that we bring when we first start work, shaped by nature and nurture, but not yet by experience or the insistent emergence of that part of us that is neither nature nor nurture. We have different words for this part of us, according to our culture - essence, anima, animus, soul, genius - it is the element of us that has a unique view and part to play, and which I feel is the motive force of the artisan.
It was relegated in the industrial age as we separated head, heart and hand in pursuit of efficiency and productivity. It is coming back with a vengeance as technology trumps separation, and we seek the wholeness that is our humanity as we wrestle with the intangibles of meaning and mental health. This, then, is perhaps the transition we need to consider. Not how the organisation transitions to new market conditions, but how we transition to ways of working that nourishes the soul as well as the economy. Harnessing technology more than feeling threatened by it.
Earlier this week I found myself in a conversation around this topic that was scheduled for an hour and which we had to force a close to at three. What came out of it (although we haven’t finished yet) was a consideration that we can have the dynamic conversations that explore this space with small groups of very senior people in an organisation, who have the power to bring about change, or with small groups of artisans in the business who have the autonomy and confidence to adapt by leaving obsolescent businesses, but not with those in the middle of the organisation who have neither the power to change it, not the independence to leave it.
When it comes to moving from talking about change to bringing it about, this matters. It is the small groups who are the kindling of the changes we seek, in the same way that artisans have always been the harbingers of significant system change because they have skills, motive and opportunity. Entrepreneurs sit within a system to exploit marginal changes. Artisans are those who bring about change in the system itself.
At the moment then, I’m interested in two rites of passage; firstly the one that takes us from dependent employee to more autonomous artisan, and secondly the one that takes artisans from community member to community catalyst as we make work something that builds social cohesion.
I do not believe this can be done at any form of scale (scale comes later, as Gal Beckerman teaches in in “The Quiet Before”. Artisans didn’t lead the industrial revolution, they quietly created the necessary infrastructure for it.)
Starting in April, I’m going to conduct three experiments to test this idea. Two of them are closed groups of those who may aspire to become artisans, to examine the concept of the first rite of passage.
A third will be an open group, limited to ten people, of those who already consider themselves artisans and who will meet up to look at working together in a “slow adventure” to explore the idea of the second rite, and consider how we might learn how to teach others to do the same. At time of writing (Thursday) there are a couple of spaces left. The list will close at the end of the month.
Starting in April, the format of NewArtisans will change slightly. There will continue to be free posts, as now, and in addition there will be paid subscriber only posts that more closely explore the opportunities for New Artisans, and ways to approach them.
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Regular Monthly Zoom
Wednesday 5th April. 18:00 UK.
I’ve had to move this call to 12th April, due to unexpected family commitments. My apologies for the hassle. I’ll remind you nearer the time.
The Middle Passage, James Hollis.
The Quiet Before. Gal Beckerman.