Not shocking, but we still need to be reminded every now and then. As someone who built first-generation online consumer experiences, managed global business intelligence initiatives, and researches leadership, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about nagging questions:
What makes a healthy relationship?
What makes a great company tick?
What is great leadership?
Which is the coolest car design?
What makes us more productive?
How do you educate a child?
Are you a good parent?
How do we feed the world?
Our lives are filled with questions like this. Not so many are single answer questions. It’s hard not to want to provide a confident answer, as if there were only one. The dominant paradigm in which we’ve been raised conditions us to strive for a single answer, to preferably be first, and hopefully right.
We don’t really like the complexity of questions like these, not really. We tend to avoid them. We don’t like these kinds of problems because they have a certain set of features that most of us are not too excited about. We don’t elbow our way through a crowd to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity. We don’t want our lives to change just when we’ve gotten them sorted out. We don’t raise our hands to deal with situations where there are multiple solutions and we don’t know which is right. Complications are upsetting to us. We don’t seek to be overwhelmed by complexity. We like our problems simple. We like to be able to get our heads around them.
This insight fundamentally changed how I approached my doctorate. I wasn’t going back to school to debate this text or that. While the path I took to understanding learning was intellectual, I was compelled to develop an approach to practicing how to learn.
So I went interviewed as many leaders as I could about how and why they made decisions as they grew their organizations. Soon after, I came upon some documentaries about master craftsmen. Many of them used virtually the same language to describe their work as the values-based leaders did. I wondered if there was anything there about how this group went about their work.
Craftsmen, it turns out, are very effective at solving open-ended problems in their mediums. They do it all day long. That is what they are educated to do. They have explicit training and language to approach this issue.
In this book, I refer to this kind of thinking as subjective intelligence or thinking like a craftsman. Subjectivity is about being empowered to develop our personal perspective, beliefs, desires or path forward, versus those made from a data-driven, objective point of view. Within this idea are three basic capabilities that are usually kept separate:
Subjective reasoning: the ability to arrive at a conclusion based on intuition and/or experience. Craftsmen are analytical, and they also reason.
Flexible purposefulness: The ability to have an over-arching view and remain flexible enough to allow for adaptations as the experience unfolds.
Cognitive emotions: The ability to be involved emotionally to one’s work, and also very thoughtful and perceptive.
They do all of these things to solve problems and create work in their medium.
Why is this of interest to business? Because the world of business has taken objectivity its highest levels with artificial intelligence and predictive data. I argue that with so many decisions directed by data, our societal bias toward the quantitative comes at the detriment of developing our own subjective interpretation and judgment capabilities.
For people looking to increase their subjective skills to match their objective ones, a starting point would be to develop a systematic process for subjective, independent learning. Objective, data-driven learning has a long history in our education system. All of us have benefitted, more or less, from over 15 years of this kind of training throughout our lives. Objectivity and a focus on efficiency have lifted entire populations into the middle class. The Lean Entrepreneur is an example of a very popular methodology that has been highly influential in the technology and business community. To get a product off the ground, it has popularized a plan-measure-build approach too fast, iterative learning.[i] And, it’s highly effective. However, it is so popular that it is (over)used—for everything from personal goals, to corporate strategies.
We don’t get much exposure to formal subjective learning unless we study art, design, or industrial arts. When you are learning on the job, most people won’t even talk about subjectivity. Success is predefined. Advice toward this goal is generally trite and unhelpful: always be the person with the right answer, first; help your boss advance; or, take on big problems and solve them (but make sure it’s at the right point in the review cycle). If you go to a leader at any Fortune 500, in fact, most leaders, and ask, “What are the qualities I should develop and how do I do that?”—you will likely not get an answer where you can take productive action.
Some mentors might favor experience and say it all comes down to 10,000 hours of practice, grit, or an attitude of “Just Do It.” Others might recommend a tool like Tim Ferris’s The Four Hour Work Weekwhich gives a step-by-step guide to simplifying an approach to life and work in unpredictable economic times. Still, others might cite those less tangible qualities and say outstanding performance is due to being an outlier, motivation, or spiritual connection to work. And all of these people would be right. Those things certainly play a part in developing expertise, but not by themselves. We do not approach gaining expertise directly. There is no straight path, no “one thing” that will get us there—it’s all of those things together. The key to expertise is understanding how they integrate.
Prescribed solutions do not work for the perplexing, complex problems we face today. In order to adapt, we need to build up our subjective intelligence systematically.
Those of us who don’t have language for subjective qualities have to learn it. This often impacts us where it counts: following dreams or advancing professionally. If you are a person who consciously works at these capabilities, this book provides some insight on how to do it with deeper focus.
Craftsmen rely on the interplay between three kinds of intelligence: experiential, abstract, and orientation.
Experiential learning is a great teacher for building capabilities and sensitivities. Through practice, you develop a feel for an activity.
Abstraction taps our imagination. It simplifies ideas so we can better understand them. Good models and tools help us think through problems.
Orientation, or an overarching way of thinking that is not bound and limited by particular goals, help direct us toward our work. As we navigate the complexity of work and life, we will inevitably try things that won’t work. If we are not oriented toward an idea bigger than our own success, the journey can get frustrating and progress hard to gauge.
So while the well-meaning advice above is helpful, it is the interplay of all three categories that create movement forward. How do you balance this approach in a climate where objectivity rules? You have to create for yourself the steady ground that allows you to question and risk and leap. And, you can’t care too much. What keeps craftsmen motivated through tough times is that that the experience is worth having—regardless of the results. If you want the experience you have to go develop it yourself. There won’t be a lot of external help. You might not even be able to pay someone to care about your progress. Even if it’s hopeless, you go forward anyway because you want to gain that experience or move in a particular direction. It becomes imperative.
Your commitment to your current way of thinking is what allows you to question its value. Much has been written about the turbulence between creativity and efficiency. However, it is the individual person that has to learn to deal with that turbulence—within themselves and as they seek to change a system around them. It comes down to you and your tolerance for uncertainty. How long you are willing to dance with uncertainty? What kind of change you are looking to make? How will you develop and get better at what you do?
Artist Ann Hamilton has said, “labor is a way of knowing.” In other words, what we work on is what we understand about the world. If this is true, and I think it is, then those of us who have disproportionately relied on principles of efficiency over innovation and data over intuition, have disproportionately benefited from the most profound kind of principle of the industrial age: efficiency and data only cover part of the problems we face. Predefined problems no longer dominate our workdays. Our world is becoming more complex. We can no longer limit ourselves to playbooks, worksheets, and top ten lists. Those tools help but are ultimately limiting. If something happens that the playbook doesn’t account for, you are left wondering what to do, able to shift blame elsewhere or hand the problem down the line.
Now, this means that in a climate where new technology quickly becomes obsolete, and whole business sectors are being born and dying every day—the objective view, the traditional problem solving of plan-test-adjust, is no longer working as well as it once did. Subjective skills are being called upon. So the question we need to ask ourselves is not only, “Where do you want to go from here?” but, “How do you want to go from here?” Success is yours to define. School focuses on exercises, problems with pre-defined solutions and the right answer. When we leave school, the problems we solve and how we go about solving them will be in constant flux. The common denominator is how we approach our own development. So the more we understand our gifts and create supportive communities of practice, the better off we will be.
The overall premise I’m discussing here is the foundation of a book I’m working on–a business book. It offers ideas for consideration in business school curriculum and for anyone looking to get better at what they do—a way to develop their craft. Why, then, are we about to meet a ceramicist, a stone mason, a wood turner, a fiber artist, a metalsmith, and a mold maker alongside CEOs and leaders of professional organizations?
My answer is based on a simple idea: The most perplexing problems confronting us are the ones we haven’t directly experienced (yet). We are, in fact, dealing with exponential changes amplified by changing technologies and globalization. Issues and information are coming at us at a faster pace. Regardless, I think every generation has felt the same sense of overwhelm when looking at what they need to accomplish.
In our day-to-day work we confront every type of problem. Some problems take us to the edge of our thinking and experience. Yet, over and over again we rely on tools, operational excellence, best practices, and proven methodologies—only to repeat the same mistakes or get caught up in recurring issues. We like to return to what we think we know.
Our best solutions to problems, I believe, are not just in better tools but in fundamentally different approaches to our work. Specifically, an approach that follows from using our work as a creative medium and nurturing a craftsman’s mind in our given profession.
The concept of craftsmanship explores the dimensions of skill, commitment, and judgment in a particular way. It focuses on the intimate connection between head and heart. Every master craftsman conducts a dialogue between thinking and doing. This conversation evolves into habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem-solving and problem finding. Working with craftrequires distinct attitudes and capabilities of solving the problem at hand, but also the intellectual vision and insight to find new problems. Seeing what is missing involves the application of ingenuity.
“Ingenuity” used to mean the quality of being ingenious, of having a capacity for invention, but it also could mean being open and frank. At one time, frankness was not just a personal characteristic; it was an indicator of social status, of being “free-born” and having full access to all that society might offer. In many ways, craftsmen are the embodiment of this idea. They are untethered from the factory. They work with great freedom at the edges of society breaking boundaries in their mediums. The lost meaning of ingenuity as being open to knowledge and opportunities in order to shift awareness is a recurring idea throughout this book.
Learners of any age—even children—have the ability to reason. They lack the knowledge and experience of what they are trying to learn. The shift toward inquiry is a movement from the traditional approach that asks “what do we want students to know?” to one that asks “what do we want students to be able to do and what do they need to do it?”
Thinking like a craftsman, as I’ve come to call it, is not about investing in maintaining the status quo. It is about investing in the imperfect path toward tapping our multiple intelligences. The interplay of these ways of knowing tap the ingenuity needed to progress us as individuals, as organizations, and as a society. We may really listen to and follow early interests. We may learn on your own like I did. We may form learning communities within organizations. It’s good common sense, right? And yet, the desire to fit into a template defined by an organization or by society has often made us dumb about learning. The most reliable path toward ingenuity is found in how integrated we are with our ability to reason subjectively, to be flexible in our purpose, and to manage ourselves well in the presence of uncertainty.
This stance toward problem-solving is significant and necessary at an individual level, in our work and in society now more than ever.
This post is part of a series #LookToCraftsmen set for publication in 2019.