The Making of a New Artisan
The Nature of Craft in 2023
We ended 2022 considering the reality of artificial intelligence by experimenting with OpenAI, and beginning to understand its potential in text, coding and image generation. I think it’s fair to say it gave us all pause for thought.
We are entering 2023 mired in uncertainty. On one hand, we have those calling for increased productivity, whilst on the other levels of discord in the workplace that make the dialogue necessary to achieve it ever more difficult. All of this is in the context of a global recession and the glare of the bond markets.
The result is the traditional response of cost-cutting in all areas, from the technology darlings to the High St. We are entering a time, I think, unlike any we have seen in our lifetimes as we find ourselves with not so much a blip within an economic cycle, but at the end of a much bigger global cycle of Western dominance. It is challenging to see how this will turn out, other than it is doubtful that it will be a return to what we have been familiar with.
If we are entering such a time, how do those of us reading this make our way through the turmoil and come out of the other side of it, not just whole, but in better shape than we are going in?
How do we turn the observations we have considered here over the last year into practice? In a time of change, I think that whilst evidence is important, we need to start with our own sense of what we do.
We have been educated and trained to fit our thinking into frameworks. I think times like now require us to balance that by creating frameworks from our thinking to balance our intellect with our embodied senses. They rarely lie.
I believe we are in a time when the technocratic (adjective: relating to or characterized by the government or control of society or industry by an elite of technical experts.) will no longer work in the way it does in more stable times.
Best practice processes rely on developing and improving what has worked previously within a continuing system, and the system isn’t cooperating. I think where we are left is in the intertidal, liminal space between the complex and the chaotic. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Model best defines the “recipe” for this space.
We find ourselves on the left-hand side of the model in a world designed for the technocratic right-hand side. When it comes to our existing business, we have to “probe-sense-respond” to see how best to adapt, and when it comes to innovation, to “act-sense-respond”.
In other words, we just have to try stuff and see what happens. Exciting eh?
I’ve been considering how best to act in this complex/chaotic space when what we do is likely to be different for each of us because of the systems we are part of. I’ve come to the view that to make a start, we adopt an “OODA loop” approach because John Boyd’s thinking was made for times like this. Here’s a quick reminder:
To recap, we have spent a year observing. We need to orient.
To get going, I’ll make a start. I’ll use my transition from “Executive” to “Coach Expert” to “Curious Scribe” as a means of making what I’m noticing, sensing and feeling transparent in the hope that
a) it triggers something actionable for you,
b) we might notice things that help each other and
c) we might be able to extract some lessons that we can codify.
I took the photograph at the top of this post from a Substack I follow on Japanese Craft. It is of a Kudo Swordsmith after six years of training making his “Masterpiece.”
The sword was considered to be the soul of a Samurai, and as we seek our own edge in a changing world, it seemed appropriate.
As artisans, our craft is, I suggest, a vehicle for our soul.
I made my way to “coach expert” via the collision of two cultures. First, ten years as an R.A.F. officer that instilled a discipline of looking after others to get things done. The second was twenty years in corporate business, where the dominant culture was the opposite (I’m exaggerating to make a point, but the point holds).
My move into coaching was a way for me to work out how the two might be reconciled.
What has this got to do with an idea of craft? What I understand in retrospect is that like all us, I was taught, assessed, and promoted based primarily on proficiency in skills, as the easiest and most direct correlate with performance.
The output of a skillset is a product or service, which in turn can be measured in terms of performance. It doesn’t really make much difference whether that is flying, selling, marketing or profit achievement. Function over Form. How we do it on the other hand - Form - is what turns skill into craft.
It is, I think, the thread that runs through the different elements of how the skill is practiced. It might be preparation, awareness, intuition and I believe a systemic mindset - an understanding of, and commitment to, whatever we are making or producing is a part of. It is involved in an understanding and an empathy of the “raw materials”, whether that is wood, clay, software, or people, that informs the way we execute process.
I think it is about how we handle constraints, whether flaws in materials, idiosyncracies in people or idiocies in protocol. As Picasso is supposed to have said
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
It’s not an easy path. If we’re committed to a holistic definition of outcome that involves relationships as well as income, there can often be degrees of conflict. If we’re working for ourselves or in a smaller organisation, it is easier than in a corporate where data, more than dialogue, is the prime determinant of performance. Work can maybe be measured in ten-minute increments, but the development of relationships that may pay back further down the road cannot, and the pursuit of efficiency rarely accommodates unintended consequences, whether good or bad.
Craft and Career (v. 1590s, "to charge at a tournament," from career (n.) "move rapidly, run at full speed") are rarely good companions when personal values enter the picture. “Mastery”, on the other hand, carries an entirely different connotation, implying a weaving together of skill and values to produce craft.
However, back in the real world, how do we reconcile the necessity of a career for which we have been trained and which pays the mortgage with developing a craft that expresses our values?
It’s different for each of us. Quite by coincidence, I found a metaphor on a programme about young potters and wood turners trying to establish their own businesses. The advice they received translates, I think, into turning whatever skills we have into a craft.
Work on your “masterpiece” - a work that defines you, and becomes your brand, but in private without any intention of selling it yet.
Find a way of producing smaller, less intricate, simpler versions in volume (via a mould or a machine) but to which you can add a personal touch to provide an income and establish an identity.
Bring the two together in individually crafted pieces that will cement your reputation as someone to be noticed, and turn identity into brand.
Then, show the masterpiece.
I can imagine that process working whatever we do if we have a skill and a commitment to craft. Finding ways of expressing our uniqueness, originality and commitment in incremental steps. The (often difficult) key to it is ensuring we have the time to do our own work whilst working for others in a process, mass production, driven organisation.
So let me reflect on that in terms of where I find myself.
I have a clear idea of (1) but am not yet ready to bring it out.
I have been doing (2) for the last five years as I have ventured into writing and what I write about.
What you are reading now are my first tentative steps into (3). On a personal note, I don’t believe it matters when we start. I’m starting (3) in my 73rd year, learning lots and finding it deeply satisfying.
Getting to (4) would be good but not essential. As my climbing friends tell me, “The Summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”
That, I think, is enough for this post. I’m learning that around 1200-1500 words are generally short enough to read but not so long as to be skipped. If you think or find different, I’d really like to know.
I’ll continue this idea next week. In the meantime, I’d be interested to know what you think of the “stages 1-4” idea above. What is the skill you have that you’d like to turn into a craft? It would be good to turn this post into a conversation via chat that we can pick up when we talk together.
We have our monthly Zoom call coming up on Wednesday, 11th Jan; 6:00 pm UK (one week later than normal due to the break - apologies if that caused any confusion)
We will have a speaking/discussion slot before the end of the month. Details to follow shortly.
Also, some people have had problems accessing this blog. I’m working out why that may be. If you’re receiving this by email ok, and then having problems accessing direct, would you mind just letting me know, please? email me
Have a great weekend
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