Return of the Artisan?

For the last couple of decades at least, the path to a well paid career was pretty straightforward. Go to University (the bigger the brand the better), followed by a top MBA. Spend ten years working for a big name consultancy, and leave before your stamina drains and your dreams display as powerpoints to join a company as a C level exec.

It was pretty reliable and lucrative. It depended though on a degree of standardisation, that the models you learned and the problems to be solved didn’t change too much, and that best practice stayed a reliable solution. The biggest challenge was the brands we collected on the way. Russell Group and Big Five worked.

That was changing before Coronavirus, as the happy hunting ground of complicated – the domain of experts, scalable good practice and repeatable solutions – was eroded by unpredictable, rapidly evolving complexity. Expertise in a single domain being eclipsed by expertise across several, and theory being eroded by hands on experience. It is perhaps becoming similar to counselling, where it’s difficult to help people in circumstances where you haven’t been yourself.

It doesn’t replace domain expertise and great qualifications, but it does moderate it. Dealing with complexity requires us to experiment with “safe to fail” projects as we probe the fog of uncertainty to find out what works and to what degree. The prospect of failure requires involvement, “skin in the game”, and in turn that requires a degeee of involvement with the client that goes well beyond detached “charged by the day” consulting.

I think there is something of the need for “artisinal advisers” emerging. Those who will get involved, and will walk alongside the client into the unknown. In Roman times, bridge builders, or members of their family, had to sleep underneath newly built bridges for a time. If it collapsed, the builder lost too. I think advisers may have to learn from that.

There are other areas that impinge here. Whilst theory can be learned in school, the craft of the artisan is learned in practice. In emerging and rapidly changing markets that are not mature enough for the best practice on specialist consulting have time to emerged, “learning on the job” is a critical skill, with all the messiness and failure that it incurs.

As the changes we have been going through anyway are accelerated and brought into sharp relief by Coronavirus, jobs are being reconfigured by demographic changes, geopolitical considerations and artifical intelligence. Additionally, surpises will emerge in response to climate change, biodiversity, inequality and the other rapidly evolving pressures we face. The business of change will itself evolve and value attitudes, disposition, character and experience of the practicality of leading people who are uncertain and afraid.

For those of us who advise, we need to up our game. We still need all the theory and creativity, but we also have to be prepared to sleep under our own bridges. For those whose jobs are disappearing and being commoditised by technology, there has rarely been a better time to captialise on who they are, and what they actually do. What is emerging has pressed “Ctrl/Alt/Del” on the keyboard of change, and we’re learning from a new base. A new operating system is emerging.

As Sherlock would say, “The game is afoot”


For those who want to explore this new landscape, pop along to a website I’ve set up to do just that with those who are interested. We’re looking for a first conversation later this month.

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