And here we go.
We’ve spent a year wandering around ideas of the artisan and have identified three broad areas to focus on - our craft, our community, and our confidence in being prepared to stand out.
Now, as we enter a New Year full of challenges, it’s time to turn ideas and insights into day-to-day Practise.
The answer is, of course, practice. Deliberate, incremental, stretching practice. The never-ending hard work of converting experience and insight into unique pieces of work that carry our signature, affirm our identity and leave our mark on the world in some small way.
This is not the work of a course. It does not carry certification or a professional body's (illusory) protection. It is the work of perpetual becoming, of vocation. We do it for its own sake because there are always easier ways just to make money.
For this first post of the year, I thought I’d start as I mean to go on by experimenting and adapting as we learn together what works, what doesn’t and what wants to be noticed.
I want to look at what we might learn about being a New Artisan, on our own terms, by looking at the world of work through five different lenses. An Academic, a Business, a College, an Anthropologist, and a Market Sage as a way of starting a dialogue via the chat capability here on Substack (and I’d appreciate a little forgiveness as I learn what I am doing with it!)
Gary Hamel is a well-known and influential iconoclastic business thinker. I have followed his work for many years, and he was a natural place to start as I considered how we might reflect on how New Artisans find their place in a changing business world.
I like the way he thinks about business and what he notices. He tends not to mince his words:
Bureaucracy is the technology of control. It is ideologically and practically opposed to disorder and irregularity. Problem is, in the age of discontinuity, it’s the irregular people with irregular ideas who create the irregular business models that generate the irregular returns.
A formal hierarchy overweights experience and underweights new thinking, and in doing so perpetuates the past. It misallocates power, since promotions often go to the most politically astute rather than to the most prescient or productive. It discourages dissent and breeds sycophants. It makes it difficult for internal renegades to attract talent and cash, since resource allocation is controlled by executives whose emotional equity is invested in the past.
For too long we’ve been fiddling at the margins. We’ve flattened corporate hierarchies, but haven’t eliminated them. We’ve eulogized empowerment, but haven’t distributed executive authority. We’ve encouraged employees to speak up, but haven’t allowed them to set strategy. We’ve been advocates for innovation, but haven’t systematically dismantled the barriers that keep it marginalized. We’ve talked (endlessly) about the need for change, but haven’t taught employees how to be internal activists. We’ve denounced bureaucracy, but we haven’t dethroned it; and now we must.
You get the idea. These quotes are taken from an article you can find here, and more on his Human Movement project here.
Barnes and Noble is a bookstore I had assumed was languishing under the sustained siege of Amazon. It isn’t, it’s thriving, lead by a CEO who turned around Waterstones in the U.K. by turning it into, well, an unashamed bookstore.
I discovered an excellent short summary of the turnaround here on Substack, courtesy of Dan Giota. Here are for me, the highlights:
When he was 26, Daunt had started out running a single bookstore in London—and it was a beautiful store. He had to borrow the money to do it, but he wanted a store that was a showplace for books. And he succeeded despite breaking all the rules.
The timing was awful. The COVID pandemic hurt all retailing, especially for discretionary items like books. Even worse, the Barnes & Noble stores were, in Daunt’s own words, “crucifyingly boring.” But Daunt used the pandemic as an opportunity to “weed out the rubbish” in the stores. He asked employees in the outlets to take every book off the shelf, and re-evaluate whether it should stay. Every section of the store needed to be refreshed and made appealing.
If you want to sell music, you must love those songs. If you want to succeed in journalism, you must love those newspapers. If you want to succeed in movies, you must love the cinema.
Daunt’s iconoclasm was to find the power to take the risks of following the love of books as a way to recover the business. He threw the conventional wisdom of discounting, publisher promotions, and cost-cutting out of the window.
Dan Giota’s article is short but inspirational if you find yourself in a more conventional corporate. There is hope…
We have become used to a financialised education system that has driven colleges to become businesses as much as seats of education. The end result is that we tend to produce standardised students who have been subjected to nearly identical curricula to feed a STEM marketplace. All very eggs and baskets. Fragile.
It wasn’t always that way. I came across this article on Black Mountain College. In 1933, a handful of renegade teachers opened a school in rural North Carolina that would go on to shape American art and art education for decades to come. It is a beautiful reminder of what can happen when education is given its head, and it appealed because so much of it resonated with the reading I have done on Artisans - books such as one of my favourites - “Why we make things and why it matters” and of course “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. Books that remind us of the pleasure and fulfilment to be had from doing one thing well.
“Art is a province in which one finds all the problems of life reflected,”
“There was a rare coming together of kindred spirits in an environment receptive to interaction, experimentation and a lively, imaginative exchange of ideas”.
The sense it leaves me with is one of loss. Suppose we cannot find ways of doing this in businesses without the everpresent measures of performance over time. In that case, we will (and are) making our businesses boring and shortening their lives.
David Graeber is one of my favourite authors. He had an incisive mind that cuts through orthodoxy without apology and often brutally. I first came across his work via his article on “Bullshit Jobs”, the rise of pointless occupations, summarised here in the New Yorker. My favourite though is “The Dawn of Everything”, summarised here in The Guardian.
The power of his writing is in getting us to question the frameworks we take for granted. Not least of these, for me, is how businesses are structured. I think it’s important because it reinforces the issues we have in the endless pursuit of growth and efficiency as the only way to grow sustainable economies.
It’s often people who are just slightly odd who become leaders; the truly odd can become spiritual figures, but, even more, they can and often do serve as a kind of reserve of potential talent and insight that can be called on in the event of a crisis or unprecedented turn of events. Dawn of Everything. p96
Craft is neither outdated nor irrelevant, and I would argue that as we enter ever further into a time when technology will be able to do the vast majority of “bullshit jobs” those occupations that weave the genius, soul and signature of the individual into their output will become ever more important.
For context, I took a blog series I like on technology as we start the year. Prof. Galloway is one I often refer to - it’s not “right”, of course, and many others are available but as with everything else, what is valuable is the thoughts and conversations it engenders. Here are some of them for me:
The Tech Paradox
Just as technology is really getting its teeth into us, it is going through a financial storm. Values are collapsing as reality bites, and the honeymoon ends. The result will be, paradoxically, that profits will soar not as a result of growth but of overhead rationalisation. Many people employed in tech will hit the streets, and I wonder what will happen when those skills meet new opportunities.
Just as streaming dissolved cable TV, so now TikTok, it appears, is dissolving Streaming.
The Chinese company took just five years to reach a billion users — three years less than Instagram and four years less than Facebook — and those users spend 100 minutes/per day on the platform. When young people are asked to choose between TikTok and all of TV/streaming … they choose TikTok.
Think about how you get your news and how those you work with get theirs. How different are the worlds you think you live in?
Tech of the Year?
I can’t help but think this is a big issue. We’ve been on the receiving end of hype for years about AI, but somehow for most of us, it has been distant. Now though, as OpenAI starts to give us not just insight but application, it’s real. Educators are in a flap as Chat GPT answers questions to exams as well as a “B” grade student, and it has capabilities across language, code and graphics. Because it doesn’t produce the same narrative twice, it seems impervious to plagiarism software. The implications for communication are profound. Whose missives will we trust?
The Importance of Developing Artisanal Practise
It feels as though 2023 will be a time of transition, whether we’re ready or not.
On one side of the equation is a Recession, and its messy, sometimes knee-jerk consequences. The reality is that it is a time for reframing and reconfiguring, although many will hunker down, waiting for some sort of normal to return. The forces in play suggest it won’t.
At the other end are the collective forces of technology and global markets that will feed off the appetite for short-term cost savings, with the result that the “emotional distance” between producer and consumer will increase. We will be served, but will not be sure who by.
This is why I think the “New Artisan” idea is important. When things are uncertain, relationships matter and trust is a major arbiter. People buy not just what we do or make but how we make them feel and who they become in our company.
I think it opens up the opportunity for a whole new range of “crafts” based on a deep understanding of subject, material, and relationships with users. Is there, I wonder, a latter-day Capability Brown of technological landscapes? (His name came from his ability to see “capabilities” in landscapes rather than his actual ability to bring them about. That seems relevant.)
I also think the idea of “scale” matters. Much of recent growth has come from abilities to spread a product or service far and wide with minimal real individualization (we can have technical and service “ready to wear”, but “Haute Couture” is a different, more expensive matter. As we enter a time when genuine personal attention may attract significant premiums, it carries real implications for how we work, who we employ, and how we train them)
Previous epochal changes were similar, from the first agricultural revolution, through the Middle Ages, to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Artisans - those who put their skills into midwifing the emergent - were catalysts.
To close. I think this is where we start. The idea of Craft in whatever we do, a sense of community to whom it matters, and developing the confidence to start when we’re not quite certain what we’re doing.
The first Zoom call of the year will be on Wednesday, 11th Jan at 18:00 UK. It will be a quick catch-up and review of what we’re doing, what we’re noticing, and where we might best take this inquiry. See you there!
Now that we’re on Substack, I’ve created a chat facility for us to share thoughts and ideas as we go.
This is a conversation space in the Substack app that I set up exclusively for subscribers — kind of like a group chat or live hangout. I’ll post short prompts, thoughts, and updates that come my way, and you can jump into the discussion.
To join our chat, you’ll need to download the Substack app, now available for both iOS and Android. Chats are sent via the app, not email, so turn on push notifications, so you don’t miss conversations as they happen.
How to get started
Download the app by clicking this link or the button below. Substack Chat is now available on both iOS and Android.
Open the app and tap the Chat icon. It looks like two bubbles in the bottom bar, and you’ll see a row for my chat inside.
That’s it! Jump into my thread to say hi, and if you have any issues, check out Substack’s FAQ.
That’s enough for a first post. Lots to go at here, and I look forward to doing that with you.
Wishing you happiness, health, and a very artisanal 2023.
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To see the artisal, we need to develop an awareness of the micro cultures that provide a personal and social context for the artisan. Here in the US, The Woodwrights Shop has served as a guide to people who love to work with wood. https://www.pbs.org/woodwrightsshop/. Roy Underhill has been the host and artisan for 38 seasons. How many people, I wonder, started shaping wood, and then took it to a richer depth of speciality as they learn the disciplines of being an artisan. We need examples and mentors. Richard, I really like where you are taking us. Thanks.
Yes. Most of us, whatever we do are normally constrained by process, protocol or politics. That doesn't stop the artisan in us teying to find its voice however. Almost everyone I talk to harbours a wish to put their own mark on what they do.
I've just been out and bought a writing desk (watch my writing improve :-)) and the gut who sold it to me is a qualified bespoke tailor, selling desks because tailoring has moved elsewhere, and we spent most of the time talking about his love of the craft.
We have an opportunity, maybe a duty even, to give these conversations a home.....