Work worth Doing

We spend a huge amount on employee engagement consultancy. Estimates vary, but it seems to be around £350 billion a year. I suspect most of it is wasted, providing at best temporary snapshots in time, and short term impact. I wonder what would happen if we paid as much attention to the nature of the work people do?

There is much academic and anecdotal research on the nature of the work people do from a standpoint of engagement and performance, but it often gets subordinated to efficiency. When it comes to priorities, for the vast majority of businesses, efficiency trumps engagement.

When we prioritise quantity (maximum output for minimum input in pursuit of bigger margins) we put process ahead of product. A Capitalist equivalent of the command economy whose logical conclusion is maximum use of algorithms wherever possible.

This model relies on buskers – temporary people who will do a good enough job for long enough to produce an economic result. It works for a while, but rarely underpins sustained quality of work. It’s the pursuit of the finite game of performance rather than the infinite game of good work that benefits all.

For artisans, the work is the client. It is their means of expression, and the basis on which they assess themselves and others in the their community. They are not accountable to people, they are accountable to the work, and that requires that the work is worth doing for it’s own sake.

Scale and efficiency work directly against this. Producing x thousand identical, perfect items, whether of physical product or service to a precise routine keeps the shareholders happy, but is likely to leave an artisan heading for the window. For the artisan, every piece, every interaction and every situation is unique and requires to be treated as such. “Good enough” never is. It is in an artisan’s nature not only to produce the very best they can at the point of delivery, but also to critique it, to spot worthwhile new problems that need solving and move onto those.

Artisans are defined by their relationships with what they make, who they make it for and who they make it with. It identifies them. Before the Industrial Revolution and mass production, their craft was often their name – Potter, Smith, Baker and so on. They were identified by and with their craft, its history and it’s future. It carried a generational perspective.

I think we are entering an age of new artisans. In every aspect of work that matters, where humanity is needed to add value.

Work worth doing will be increasingly important in the next decade. Algorithms can, and will, pick up the rest.

Artisans are the new secret sauce. Provide the great work and the space to do it, and save the money being spent on surveys of the wrong thing.

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