So, is the craftsman’s approach to practical work as romantic as the images of the carpenter in his workshop? It is for some. It certainly was for Ben Proudfoot, who produced a beautiful series of documentary shorts called Life’s Work. In it, he featured 9 master craftsmen philosophizing over their work. “I think I crossed that line a hundred times,” says Ben. “I think their stories are worthy of glorifying. Ordinary people are extraordinary. These people are worth admiring. I have a real appreciation for masters. When I was ten years old I printed myself a stack of business cards that said ‘master carpenter.’ And my dad took me aside, he was very serious, and said, ‘Ben, you have to throw these out because it takes a lifetime to be a master. This word ‘master’, it’s only six letters, but they mean a wholelot. You can’t just throw them around. People dedicate their whole lives to be able to call themselves a master, and you are not that—yet.’ That had a huge impact on me. Growing up in a nonreligious household, that idea was religious.”
Tadd Meyers, creator of the American Craftsman Project, agrees. “I have a lot of ties to these craftsmen both personally and conceptually in terms of how I operate my business. I am growing it slowly. A lot of photographers get into commodity work, and that’s fine, but I never wanted to do that. It takes time to grow a business in the way that I’ve done it. It’s a lot slower. My work doesn’t fit every job.”
Something in these projects and in the many conversations I’ve had with master craftsmen since strikes me deeply. Throughout my career in technology, the marketplace has moved very fast and absorbed significant change. Frequently, people would get promoted into management or manage fast-growing business units and face situations for which they were unprepared but expected to perform with mastery. Operating outside of their expertise was challenging—for everyone. Business is more than producing widgets. Lack of management and leadership capability impacts the company’s performance.[i] It also impacts the quality of solutions they are capable of developing. So when it comes to open-ended problem solving and learning to improvise with what we are given; craftsmen have something to teach us.
Having to work with a material where they cannot be sure what will happen, is something they are used to. Improvisational thinking in the face of uncertainty is useful to leaders in addition to the more structured training and education offered to them today. Even in the face of countless books and articles about how important it is, most traditional business school programs and organizational training fail to address sophisticated thinking about ambiguous problems.
My doctorate research focused on how values-driven organizations grow and protect what makes them unique—a certain aspect of business that remains elusive to many. The leaders in my study shared many of the values as these craftsmen, literally crafting their lives and work. When it came to describing how they did it, they were just as stumped for language. What these leaders had in common with the craftsmen was a high degree of subjective intelligence—they thought like craftsmen. I wondered how craftsmen managed the uncertainty of various mediums and what they could teach to leaders across multiple organizational disciplines.
So I found a lot of craftsmen, and I asked them a lot of questions. This book highlights a small number of those who illustrate what thinking like a craftsman can look like in any discipline. Everyone has a different medium for creative expression. Much like business, each medium has its own set of particular issues. For most of us, our work is how we express ourselves. This book seeks to find a model that can be generalized.
This post is part of a series #LookToCraftsmen set for publication in 2019.