Working with craft requires 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.
Stability has provided the conditions for us to think of organizations of all types as machines. We update, copy, scale, and own them. We think of organizations as having parts, and concentrate efforts on making them operate ever more cheaply. We think we can fix them. We want them to be reliable producers for us. Nonprofits want more programs. Governments want more services. Businesses want to produce more widgets. We think we can control its growth trajectory and invest in ways to make the same product or service newer, whiter, and brighter.
They make more, we consume more. That’s the deal.
This model works until it doesn’t. Natural resources are finite. People burn out. Markets get oversaturated. Given the amount of change with which we are forced to reckon, the flaw in this approach is that our perception of problems remains predefined. But there is growing momentum in the belief that business is not an independent machine. It does not ‘get fixed’ using interchangeable parts. It is a living, breathing network of people, interacting with supporting networks, and dealing with ongoing, adaptive crises.
The stability we think we have in the mechanisms of business are starting to unravel. Business as usual, with its dependency on scarce resources, is a dead end. This means that business as unusual will not feel natural at first. We might even need new words to describe it. We will need to reinvent what it means to lead or to work in an organization. We have to create for ourselves the firm foundation that enables us to question constraints we see today, engage with risk toward opportunities, and take the leap. Like a craftsman, we will need to create new tools to contend with problems as they present themselves. We must learn to improvise.
Evolution, adopting modifications over time, is the most powerful tool we have for dealing with change—and it happens with or without our consent. Evolution is caused by a change in the environment. It could be a competitor. Or, we can be the virus that causes the business to evolve. The opportunity for us is to be that agent of evolution. Waiting for the DNA to evolve will take too long. A random feature that is created when a strand of DNA, or an idea, is altered and then transferred creates a mutation. Seeking or creating positive mutations can increase an organization’s resilience to change.
Evolution requires grit. Change is not the problem. Our fear of change is the problem. Fear of deviating from a leading strategy and our dependence on top-down tactics make us miserable— not change. So we adopt small changes, hoping that as the company gathers steam, it will distance itself from its competitors and dominate markets by embracing the changes that will inevitably come.
Values require homework. Truly being open to change means we need to engage in the deliberate practice of modifying our behaviors. If we aren’t prepared to engage in the emotional labor it will take in the early stages of shifting our patterns, we won’t see the changes we aspire to through.
Beliefs need to be disrupted. Business models are less durable today. Once fixed in place for years, even decades, the basic rules of the game for creating and capturing economic value have changed. What works for the competition will not work for you. But now, business models are subject to rapid displacement, disruption, and, in extreme cases, outright destruction.
Consider a few examples:
Bitcoin bypasses traditional banks and clearinghouses with blockchain technology.[i]
Coursera and edX, among others, threaten business schools with massive open online courses (MOOCs).[ii]
Uber avoids the license system that protects taxicab franchises in cities around the world.[iii]
The distinction between simple and complex problems is one theorists have debated for decades. I am not the first to bring this issue up. Nor am I the first to suggest that subjectivity adds texture to decision making. Sorensen’s emphasis on judgment points directly to this idea. Yet, while the qualities that characterize craftsmanship (wrestling with uncertainty, dealing with ambiguity, complexity, change, surprise, choice, and uniqueness) are present in any challenging activity, little has been done to make use of this consideration. Few heads of state, presidents of major philanthropic organizations, or CEOs of major organizations would look to a craftsman when it comes to being effective in solving problems in the real world.
Executives looking to craftsmen for help? At first it seems a ridiculous proposition. If we’re to adopt the stereotypes for a second, craftsmen don’t have a tremendous amount of credibility in rational circles as refined problem solvers. When we think of successful, effective people craftsmen aren’t the first to come to mind.
But maybe we’ve been missing something. The important point to take is how they approach their medium. True master craftsmen see that cluster of subjective problems not as obstacles but as exciting opportunities to learn and flex their skills. In fact, they crave it. They view obstacles as exciting puzzles to work through.
And here’s something to wonder about: due to the daily discipline of immersing themselves in the potential of their medium and being in constant engagement with its constraints, when they are in the face of complexity, true craftsmen might display greater intelligence in their medium than many of us do in our own professions. This is what is meant by holding the tension of problem seeking and problem finding. Finding problems means you have the capability to predict qualities of your medium (be it clay, people, or a market) and how it will react in unique circumstances. For this group, it is often both mental and physical—and sometimes emotional.
Professionals can take valuable lessons from how craftsmen approach their work. Craftsmen seek ambiguity, disruption and surprise in the same way professions seek stability, efficiency, and permanence. They invite surprise by working at the edge of their knowledge and rubbing up against the constraints of their medium—on purpose or by accident. Taking risks is what keeps them vibrant and feeling alive. Craftsmen seek the kind of solutions that stimulate surprises, benefiting from the growth stimulated by the wonder of the unknown. As a result, they enjoy intensity, determination, experimenting, autonomy, motivation, satisfaction, purpose, creativity, learning, and transformation as they work.
Can craftsmen teach us how engaging problems differently can help us come closer to these sorts of experiences? Can we apply craftsmanship principles to shaping our businesses? Can the day to day tasks of our jobs be turned into the challenges of craftsmen? Can we learn to see the daily grind the way a craftsman views opportunity? How do I build a team of a company of craftsman?
Achieving craft in our decision making means learning to use judgment, imagination and improvisational discernment in our own work. Turning simple problems into craftsman’s problems means relaxing our grip on what we perceive to be objective data (there is none). We need to value subjective knowledge and better integrate our multiple intelligences toward creative solutions.
This post is part of a series #LookToCraftsmen set for publication in 2019.