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The Activist Artisan

By Richard Merrick


At the start of 2022 a small group of people running and advising a range of organizations started a discussion around the idea of the Artisan; someone dedicated to the mastery of a craft and whose work is their signature.


The private intent of this behaviour is pretty clear – it allows us to feel. When times are calm, Artisans are low profile. They dedicate themselves to their work, creating products and services that matter, and ones they are proud of and which people remember. They pursue natural and organic growth rather than “scale”. They don’t overly automate, and they tend to treat their materials and tools with respect and treasure their relationship with their clients. They are masters of their craft who treat maintaining mastery as a daily exercise. When times are turbulent however, they come into their own as leaders and catalysts. Mastery of their craft means they understand every element of it, and are natural systems thinkers, understanding causal relationships and have an exquisite awareness of what is happening around them. They are not blindsided by reliance on process automation, templates, or externally sourced best practices. They have an intimate understanding of and relationship with what they create. They are also defined by the company they keep. Artisans are linked by a mindset, less by what they make and more by how they make it. When things change quickly, they tend to have the quality of resilience and adapt to emerging conditions through conversation with others. Artisans are the ones that provided the networks that enabled the American Revolution. They are the ones who designed and developed the machines and techniques that powered the industrial revolution, and they are also the ones that created Silicon Valley. As we consider what is happening around us today, I sense a need for artisans now.

"Mastery of their craft means they understand every element of it, and are natural systems thinkers, understanding causal relationships and have an exquisite awareness of what is happening around them"

I see Artisans as activists of a particular sort. Not the “Loud Yes” or “Loud No” protestors, but the type who use their deep understanding to reflect on what is happening, sense what is emerging, and take those relentless, generous, and small daily steps to align with it. In the words of Kahane (2017) “Bill Torbert once said to me that the 1960’s slogan - “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”- actually misses the most important point about effecting change. The slogan should be: “If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution” (p.95). If, as Artisans, we can sense what is perhaps unhealthy in our own ways of working and address it, then the small actions we take will affect those around us in ways that work for them, not through instruction or even example, but awareness. Just because we cannot see the result doesn’t mean nothing is happening. What we do as a practice is the flap of a butterfly’s wing that might just cause a creative tornado somewhere we cannot see.

LETTING OUR BUTTERFLIES ROAM

One of the powerful consequences of our action to stay connected during the pandemic was the diversity of people I ended up conversing with and what we discussed. In an age where careers are often defined by hyper specialisation, the joy of being connected with people doing things I was unfamiliar with, in places I knew only vaguely, has generated waves of insights, large and small. I suspect it is true for many of us, and one of the reasons that efforts to try and re-cage us within the tight boundaries of a single organisation or office is doomed to failure. In that sense, the pandemic was one heavyweight butterfly.


Perhaps the more important question, concerns what happens to those other butterflies. Do we pin them to a card like a collector or IP lawyer so we can display them? or do we let them loose and encourage them to fly where they may trigger something important somewhere else? Artisans as activists are rarely leaders in the conventional sense. Their power comes from aggregated individual practice. They are less a movement when it comes to change, and more of a swarm. Satell (2019) writes about “keystone moments” such as a rigged election, or the firing of a key employee that causes the swarm to form. Similarly, Beckerman (2022) traces the origins of movements such as Black Lives Matter from their beginnings to them bursting into our awareness. In all these instances, we can see the outline of Artisans at work. The focus, the dedication, and the pursuit of the intangible. Individually, the flap of butterflies’ wings might not cause a tornado somewhere, but when they swarm, it certainly will.




“I suspect it is true for many of us, and one of the reasons that efforts to try and re-cage us within the tight boundaries of a single organisation or office is doomed to failure. In that sense, the pandemic was one heavyweight butterfly”

The times we are in will provide us with many keystone events around which swarms will gather, hence this begs the question of what might the implications be for us? Most importantly perhaps, we must be able to flap our wings. In other words, this looks like agency. Granted, that can be hard to exercise in organisations and systems bounded by defined rules, protocols, rigid rules of engagement, and a risk averse culture focused on short term deliverables. In such spaces and environments, we often have a well-defined role to play, and deviance from it does not usually end well. This could mean that we may well have to exercise our agency elsewhere. This is not something we do naturally, so how might we encourage and enable this?



“Conversations build connection, and connection creates the trust in which the Artisan in us has room to grow”

One of the key lessons of the pandemic has been the power of impromptu dialogue groups formed as we have been making sense of what is happening around us and finding support as we explore the implications of insights that arise from them. I have been part of, formed and participated in many such groups over the last three years, and have seen the pattern repeated often enough to be confident they are not “one offs”. Conversations build connection, and connection creates the trust in which the Artisan in us has room to grow. It has enabled people to regain agency and redeem their narrative in a volatile reality. The last century has relegated the Artisan to the quiet corners of the economy as industrialisation, process and technology has taken centre stage. That though is changing. The important elements of what happens in the next few years may well be facilitated by technology, but it will not be driven by it. The driving will be an altogether human affair as people who care about what they do, Artisans, connect and create it as they have in every period of major change. In the words of T.S Eliot “The definition of hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing”, and thus with I believe we all have an Artisan in us, no matter how deeply buried under layers of formulaic education and training. Now is the time to unearth it because it is the Artisan that puts beauty into practice.




 

References:

  • Beckerman, G. (2022). The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas. London: Crown. p.211.

  • Kahane, A. (2017). Collaborating with the Enemy. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

  • Satell, G. (2019). Cascades: How to Create a Movement That Drives Transformational Change. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.

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