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Strategy and the Artisan.
the path is made by walking...
One of the things I enjoy about writing is getting ideas out of my head in a form that can be shared to see what happens to them. It’s something much more difficult to do in an organisation where our “work product” is owned and expected to be perfectly produced, complete, on time and protected by an IP security blanket, so it is a joy to do it on my own account and see ideas grow in unexpected ways through conversation with those I trust. What is more, if the idea turns out to be a good one, with generous intent, it doesn’t matter if it gets “stolen” because other people will develop it differently to the way I will. What is important is that the idea takes root somewhere.
The thought struck home due to conversations I’ve had around the notion of different phases of our artisanal journey I wrote about last week. The idea of “initial education”, “career”, “post career”, and “post-work”. It was clear that the idea hasn’t finished with me yet, and that I will do better to share the thinking rather than try to “own” it.
Wilfrid Bion, one of the shapers of psychoanalysis, had a theory of thinking (link below for the brave) that argued we think because we have thoughts, not the other way around. I like the idea, whether it’s true or not, and it sits nicely alongside Elizabeth Gilbert’s line in “Big Magic” that we don’t originate ideas; ideas looking for a host find us, and if we don’t look after them, they will find somebody who will.
After we’ve finished our initial education, most of us will end up in employment, with the “brightest” (very subjective category when we look at the result) going to large organisations where we very quickly get to understand “up or out” cultures. This is a very difficult place for ideas to find us or for us to find the time to “think about thoughts” when the key performance metrics are productivity, efficiency and revenues.
There is also an inevitability that in an “up or out” culture, most of us will end up out. That is not a problem, of course, as long as we understand that and use it accordingly, rather than drink the HR “Engagement” Koolaid of “families”, “communities”, and so forth. As employees, we sit on the cost side of the balance sheet, not the asset side. It’s neither good nor bad, just reality.
This, surely, is the moment to gather up the hem of organisations from below–to think in smaller, more human scales, rather than monoliths, so that we can unleash the potential of the 7 billion people on this planet in all their human differences, circle by circle, to do what only human beings can do: create a better future.”
— The Social Brain: The Psychology of Successful Groups by Tracey Camilleri, Samantha Rockey, et al.
Perhaps a healthier way to think about this time in our lives is as an apprenticeship. It may be difficult as we enter a workplace full of enthusiasm and ambition, but I think a very conscious relationship with those who employ us is needed now, because the strong likelihood is that we will either be out of it in twenty-five years’ time or consigned to a dusty corner somewhere, hoping to make it to pension. Whilst I find it odd that organisations are prepared to sideline experience in favour of process, it is understandable in a market focused on near-term results.
During this period, before our usefulness is drained and newer, cheaper models or technology can replace us, we will learn much and gain experience way beyond the metrics we are assessed by. We will have a much more intimate understanding of the things that cannot be measured, from relationships and connections to insights and ideas. In artisan terms, we will go from “apprentice” to “journeyman(sic)”, perhaps through different departments or different organisations, and probably both, whilst we pay off our debts, perhaps bring up families and begin to understand ourselves and that hint of purpose around what we really want to do. With the right mindset, by the time we get into our forties, we will be in a position to enter a new productive and fulfilling part of our lives on our own terms. We will be ready to exercise our Mastery.
…As long as we determine our chosen area of Mastery before we get to the point where we need it. Also, the need for experience will not go away and will often have to be “bought in” by the organisations that lack it, so we can combine our experience, expertise and purpose into a profitable craft. It can give us the power to decide for ourselves whether we use it as an employee, or independently.
Our craft needs to be shaped in the crucible of the changes we are going through. Many of us will have been experimenting with the OpenAI platform, particularly ChatGPT, and have been impressed by its capabilities and perhaps more than a little scared of its potential. If we stop for a moment though, we can see where the need for experience arises; it’s in the gaps. Chat GPT has many of the qualities of a bright new employee in its ability to gather and parse knowledge, but less able to see where it will bump into the less tangible aspects of client work - emotions, histories and all the stuff of the complex relationships that make for sustainable business.
In talking it through with people, it seems clear that as individuals seeking to do distinctive, memorable work in changing markets, we need a strategy framework all of our own that considers the possible stages of our work lives. In increasingly non-linear “career” phases, who do we “apprentice” with, and why? Once the first flush of a regular paycheck dissipates, what is it about the work we are doing we want to focus on? - or do we just want to do it for the money, whilst we put serious work into developing an area we do want to develop - something more serious than a “side hustle”?
There is a powerful opportunity here for personal “scenario planning” rather than the more mechanical approach of playing the LinkedIn recruitment game.
Traveler, there is no path.
The path is made by walking.
Traveller, the path is your tracks
And nothing more.
Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking.
By walking you make a path
And turning, you look back
At a way you will never tread again
Traveller, there is no road
Only wakes in the sea.”
―Antonio Machado, Border of a Dream: Selected Poems
Of course, as Gandalf tells us in Lord of the Rings, “not all who wander are lost”. On the other hand, some who are lost wander, looking for a path.
Developing a framework is not something we can do over a weekend, nor is there a guide; it is a path we will make by walking together. It is the stuff of the “slow adventure” done in the company of trusted others.
It is time to consider some important questions for our futures, such as:
“Will management as we know it today be a job in a world where technology will do more of the heavy operational lifting, and leadership and creativity become more human”?
“At what point will our ability to organise as small individuals and groups become a more agile and responsive alternative to corporate hierarchies?
“How might we design work to be in service of communities rather than have communities in service of work?
These questions and many others will shape how we craft our futures. It requires us to learn to think differently, to unlearn things we have come to take as read, such as how we work, and to consider the sources from which we learn and the people we surround ourselves with. Perhaps, most of all, to reacquaint ourselves with the art of serious thought that enables us to imagine, envision and create beyond the narrow expectations of working for others.
We know how to walk.
Many of you reading this will have experienced or regularly participated in the “conversations without agenda” we hold. You will understand the power of noticing, floating ideas, and the sort of discussions that characterised our student days. In the three years we have been doing it, they have triggered changes for those participating that have been as welcome as they have been unexpected and underlined the power of trust in small groups.
In our monthly catch-up last Wednesday, I sensed the possibility of a path, and for the remainder of this month, I will pull the threads together with a view to a small group of us walking together with purpose of creating a path. What I am imagining is something focused on individuals more than organisations and rather wilder than the coaching and training that has become domesticated in the service of corporations - something that helps people organise around developing their own mastery, more than be organised around profit.
There are lots of complex questions to be answered, with many unknowns, and I suspect trying to do a conventional “plan” is a fool’s errand. I suspect the best way to find out is just to start and see where it takes us without being attached to a predetermined outcome. I think it will be instructive, and fun.
I’ll post more here during this month and expect to have a framework for discussion by the end of it.
If the idea interests you, you can let me know here:
I hope to have an exciting speaker for later this month - we’re just trying to tame diaries. I’ll post as soon as confirmed.
In the meantime, here are the sources I’ve used in this week’s post:
Elizabeth Gilbert. Ideas look for us. Irish Times Article.
How Strategy is changing. FT on Ikea and scenario planning. (what might we learn from this?)
Why non-linear careers are the future. Forbes Magazine
The Master Archetype. John Durrant in “Ordinary Mastery” on Substack.
The difficulty of finding purpose at work. Ted Bauer on LinkedIn.
The making of art is not a competitive act. Our work is representative of the self. You would be amiss to say "I'm not up to the challenge". Yes, you may need to deepen your craft to fully realise your vision. If you're not up to it, nobody else can do it. Only you can. You're the only one with your voice. Rick Rubin on Self Doubt. The Creative Act. p73/4