Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Business of the Artisan

I used to know a very friendly, very creative guy called String. String was one of those guys that art just came out of. In the same way that Jimi Hendrix played guitar, or Henry Moore sculpted, String would draw and sketch and paint. My creative endeavours are extremely contrived by comparison.

Anyway, as a young student, I remember listening to him complain bitterly about his art class, which he was failing. I found this somewhat hard to believe.
"How could you fail art? You're the most artistic person I've ever met!"
He laughed and told me that people were looking at his work and saying that it was " worth about an E - maybe a D". He couldn't believe that anybody could apply a stringent set of evaluation criteria to something that obviously came from an intensely personal endeavors, and try and rank it against other people's personal endeavours. The whole concept seemed entirely preposterous to him. Fair enough. String went on to fail art, and to draw and paint and sketch anyway.

The point of this story (apart from the obvious personal nostalgia trip) goes to the situation that I see frequently among truly creative innovative people, and their interactions with the mainstream evaluators. More and more it appears, the ability to execute is not enough in the modern world. Quality is an illusion.

Big customers are often unwilling to take a chance on a tiny company - despite the fact that it may have a superior level of skill and insight. As a project manager, and one who does risk management on an almost daily basis, I can understand making such a decision - but I also know that percieved risk and actual risk are mitigated the same way.
People who are smart enough to realise true talent, and a real artisan, are often not brave enough to commit to it, because they know other people will judge them harshly for their decisions, despite the little they understand about the situation.

Now this is all getting a bit mealymouthed, but the point I'm trying to get across is this: We should value creative skill and talent above all else, because that's where the big changes in our lives will come from. Process is important, but it isn't everything. A really skilled, cohesive team will transcend a poor process - but a poor team will never produce anything great, even with a perfect methodology and unlimited resources.

So there's the dilemma of the business of the artisan - somebody who's skilled in a field, who has to contend with a whole host of wacky criteria that don't make any sense to them - marketing, sales, product positioning, networking, professional appearance, indemnity, legality, insurance, taxation. And all the poor guy wanted to do was get paid for what he was good at - be it baking pies, or building houses or writing software. Sadly, many artisans end up hating what they once loved.

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