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Artisans and Alchemy

Businesses built on convention harness scientific management thinking. Models, evidence, plans, design. When we know what we want to do, it works well. We can target demographics, map competition, measure acceptance. Make sure the client is getting what they want better from us than from the competition. It works, it’s proven, and it’s average. The very act of marketing for volume growth using the known puts us in the middle of the distribution curve, and if we’re really good towards the top couple of deciles. We make money, but not much of a difference.

Artisans are different. There is something of the alchemist in them. They make what they make because it wants to be made, and hope somebody will like it. They’re the ones who when you say “I was thinking of something like this” are likely to respond “no you weren’t, you were looking more for this”. Their response has a compelling combination of assuredness and humility in it. They understand what you have described differently, and in my experience they are right far more often than wrong. Their skill requires deep understanding of their craft, and of us, whether they are accountants or carpenters. They unerstand the whole, and the part that what we are asking for plays in it, whether that’s a business plan or a library.

Alchemy is a fascinating process, starting with breaking down what we’re looking at into its fundamental component parts, then taking from that what’s important to what we want to do, and reassembling it into the form that will deliver. The process of taking the base metal of what we offer them, turning it into gold, and giving it back to us.

The trick is of course everything that they need is there. In our aspirations, our perceptions and the materials. It’s not about adding some new magic ingredient, it’s about rearranging what already exists, and bringing what’s under the surface into view.

Michaelangelo was an artisan and alchemist. Whether it was bringing the David out of a block of Marble, or the Creation of Adam, he spoke volumes to us using what was already there.

Artisinal Businesses are alchemical. They are rarely led by the “hair on fire” entrepreneur, but rather they take things we already know and use, and make them better. More functional, more memorable, more beautiful. At the corporate level. Apple is an artisan, Microsoft an entrepreneur. Facebook is an entrepreneur, ello is an artisan. At the smaller business, it is Hiut, Patagonia, Peak District Artisans

We’re entering the age of the artisan. We don’t need more stuff, we need what we have to be better. We need less of the mundane, and more of the beautiful, and it’s down to us to do it.

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Artisans and Independence

In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Self-Reliance

As we leave the industrial era behind, perhaps rather more rapidly than we thought a few months ago thanks to Coronavirus, I think we might take note of one of the key attributes of artisans; their independence.

Back before the industrial era, those who had their own businesses, the “Masters” were fiercely independent, and their work original. Artisans do not copy or plagiarise. use preconceived business models or templates. They do the work they felt born to do. They had apprentices who learned from them until such time as they became their own masters and set off on their own path, and journeymen who worked for them. Not all of them of course made it, but the principle was clear.

As I read and study, and share the conversation that yield the insights I am able to share with those with whom I work, the ideas they often feel like old friends. I am familiar with them, but had not recognised them for what they really are. Ghosts of a previous opportunity.

It’s a feeling I’m sure we all share. We all have shades of genius in us, and mostly they get submerged as we tread the road of compliance or convention or company policy and they never see the light of day. We miss out and so do those we work with. Genius doesn’t have to be huge, but like truffle oil a little of it goes a very long way in the right circumstances.

Whatever our work environment looks like in 2021 as we hopefully mitigate Covid-19, I’m fairly sure that more independence will be a necessity for all of us. There are more similar shocks awaiting us; they just won’t announce themselves and if we’ve learned anything from this episode it is that being masters of our own destiny is vital. It is at the heart of resilience and opportunity. Anti fragile may be a buzz word, but it is important.

Independence doesn’t mean not working with others. It’s an attitude.

Whether we work as Masters with our own business, or as skilled journeywomen and men we can develop a sense of independence and develop the capability for interdependence that gives us freedom. Working with others because we want to, not because we have to.

I think that has two major inplications:

  1. Take charge of our own development. HR works for the business not for us, it’s their job. As artisans we serve our work. There has never been more comprehensive, accessible, low cost options to extend our skills. We need to use them. Become a part time apprentice in something new.
  2. Pay attention to our “community of practice”. We become the average of the people we most associate with, and our originality is a function of the conversations we have. It is true diversity and inclusion is both socially and developmentally important and it’s our job to do that, not the company’s. It has never been easier to meet people outside our own comfortable clique and develop those conversation where ideas are born.

As we go through a heavily moderated Christmas, we have six to nine months before the impact of vaccines really kick in. That’s a lot of winter months, and a good time to increase our independence. Whenever whatever normal kicks in, it will be much more difficult.

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Do not Recycle…

I had another blog planned for today with more on my views the importance of artisans. It will wait until tomorrow. Sometimes, things appear before us that trigger a thought that has to be expressed.

As I was making my dutifully healthy breakfast of muesli and fruit, I noticed that the beautifully designed packaging, expressing all sorts of healthy connotations from Mr Sainsbuy, was not recyclable. It was a moment of real cognitive dissonace. What sort of nonsense was this. An undeniably delicious and healthy product in cahoots with landfill?

It may have been the lingering thoughts from Leandro Herrero’s blog I had read earlier. Some things should just not be recycled.

  • Businesses that take more than they give back. Fast Fashion. Mining. Oil. Hedge funds.
  • Businesses that regard people as commodities. Many of the above, plus the Gig Economy.
  • Businesses that greenwash
  • The arms industry. Trading jobs and profit for people’s lives.

All of the above are products of an industrial era predicated on infinite growth, and it’s over.

We should not recycle them. Whatever new normal is, it does not need them. Covid-19 has brought them into sharp relief.

Back to Artisans tomorrow. We have much better work we can do together.

I needed to just say this out loud.