The Expert, the Artisan and the Entrepreneur

There are areas where accreditation is much to be desired. If I’m hiring a builder, an accountant, a plumber or a brain surgeon I want to see accreditation. We’re dealing with the known where rules apply. I want to know your capabilties have been tested by people who know more than you, who have track records and that you’re part of a community to whom you’re accountable. I’m paying you for testable skills.

On the other hand, there are areas where accreditation is a drawback. When we go from the known to the unknown, trying to make the problem fit what we know is dangerous. We enter the world of groupthink, of unconscious heuristics, ego and hubris where those who know a lot about a little enter an area where it’s easy to assume knowledge trumps curiosity and humility.

When I’m playing with known unknowns, in the presence of unknown unknowns, I want an artisan. I want curiosity, purpose, passion and I want somebody who will travel with me, not advise from a distance. I want skin in the game.

We’re leaving an era where expertise was dominant. We were in a growth phase, and being better at what we knew about paid dividends. Efficiency, marginal gains, speed and scale paid handsomely. We will always need experts to accumulate, order and improve what we know.

Covid has shown us though how fragile that is really. Expertise has given us a vaccine in record time, for which we should be enormously grateful but expertise will not give us the solution to what we have found is deeply broken in our businesses and our society. We need to challenge ourselves and tread the ground that makes experts nervous. Nothing makes experts more uncomfortable than not knowing. It offends them, and when we understand so little of what surrounds us, from the deep oceans to dark matter, that leaves a lot of scope.

An artisan takes everything that is known, and pushes beyond it. Artisans have a relationship with the boundary between expertise and the unknown. It is a form of “Jeu de Main” or “play of the hand”. An ability to take what is known and manipulate it, deconstruct and reconstruct it to find something new, or a path, or a hint to something new. Artisans thrive on not knowing, on feeling their way into the uncertain, and on the mistakes from which we learn.

In the next twenty years we have to deal with the threat of climate change, adapt to the fact that technology is better at expertise than most of the current experts, and that current levels of inequality – of opportunity, income and wealth – are just unsustainable.

We need experts to build and refine our stock of knowledge. We also need artisans to push the boundaries and find new ways of understanding, to find their way through the undergrowth. We also need entrepreneurs who sit in the space between the two. Entrepreneurs spot the gaps the artisans find, create a source of value, and scale it.

We need our artisans, experts and entrepreneurs to work together, each recognising the value of the other. We need them is business, in education, in our communities and perhaps more than ever in our politics.

As we enter 2001 we need all three.

Which one are you?

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