Restoring craft to work

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The innate desire to do a job well has greater motivational force than any corporate purpose.

You’ve probably heard these stories before. There’s the proud janitor at NASA who tells President Kennedy that he isn’t just sweeping up; he is helping put a man on the moon. And the gung-ho stonemason who tells architect Christopher Wren that he isn’t just hammering rock; he is building a cathedral to God’s glory. The stories are popular, even though they probably never happened. And they get told and retold to support the power of purpose. It’s the subtext that bothers me.

Invariably, the moral of these stories is that employers (a label that literally defines the rest of us as something to be used) need to provide employees with a purpose. This suggests that many jobs are, in and of themselves, meaningless. It also implies that people don’t care about the work they do — that they are wastrels.

I don’t know if the relationship between meaningless work and aimless wastrels is one of correlation or causation (or in which direction it might run). But a high-flown and inevitably vague corporate purpose — don’t be evil! — isn’t the solution to either problem. It’s more likely the solution lies in the concept of craft, which Richard Sennett, senior fellow at the Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia University, described in his erudite and engaging 2008 book The Craftsman.

“Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake” [italics added], wrote Sennett. “Craftsmanship cuts a far wider swath than skilled manual labor; it serves the computer programmer, the doctor, and the artist; parenting improves when it is practiced as a skilled craft, as does citizenship. In all of these domains, craftsmanship focuses on objective standards, on the thing in itself.”

Craft resonates for me in a way that corporate purpose never does. One reason is the fact that I’m a self-employed business writer and editor, who needs to be good at a craft to make a living. Another reason is plain orneriness: Why should I internalize a company’s purpose? Especially when I may only work there for a few years. That’s somebody else’s business (and profit), not mine.

Why should I internalize a company’s purpose? That’s somebody else’s business (and profit), not mine.

Granted, I’m not a typical employee. But I’m a lot less of an outlier today than I was 30 years ago. Now the gig economy is huge — surveys over the past five years found that 25 to 30 percent of the U.S. workforce is participating in it in one way or another, according to the Gig Economy Data Hub. (Companies want us to adopt their purpose, but they don’t want us on the payroll.) Far more payrolled workers are working remotely, too, which could threaten to weaken their connections to the corporate purpose. Moreover, it’s likely that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has bolstered the ranks of remote workers by tens of millions and the unemployment rollsPDF  in the U.S. by a staggering 20 million people, will propel both trends in the long run.

I’m not sure how company leaders are supposed to get people who don’t work on-site and whose jobs may be temporary to care about a corporate purpose. But like Sennett, I think workers already care about craftsmanship — about doing a job well — whether they are on payroll or not. I also believe that leaders can depend on that innate impulse, if they start supporting it instead of undercutting it.

Unfortunately, companies have been undermining craftsmanship since the Industrial Revolution. In his forthcoming book, Craft: An American History, scholar Glenn Adamson traces the relentless erosion of craftsmanship that occurred as the U.S. transitioned from a nation of artisans to an industrialized economy. In it, he retells a familiar story about Henry Ford and his newfangled assembly line with an interesting twist, which is worth quoting at length:

In the first year of the assembly line, so many workers walked out of the Ford plant in disgust that more than 52,000 had to be hired just to maintain a constant labor force of 14,000. Though the company had massively deskilled the process of assembly, each new employee still had to be trained. This was an inefficiency Ford had not counted on. Famously, he raised wages to five dollars per day, far above the industry norm, just to keep workers on the job. Later this was spun as a brilliant maneuver to help his own employees afford Model Ts, turning them into consumers. Actually, it was a means of coping with a self-inflicted management crisis. In any case, Ford did not have to pay these high wages for long. As the entire industry shifted to the assembly line—and then other sectors of the economy followed suit—workers had little choice but to submit to the new manufacturing techniques.

Maybe it’s time to stop looking for ways to distract people from the essentially meaningless tasks they’ve been assigned by scientific management and restore craftsmanship as the sine qua non of work. Leaders could achieve this in three ways.

First, make work meaningful again. Not by providing a nebulous connection to a higher purpose, but by connecting tasks into jobs that are purposeful in and of themselves. This is easier than ever, thanks to technologies — such as AI and robotics — that enable workers to stop acting like machines and start managing machines.

Second, grant workers dominion over their work. One of the principal arguments against remote work is that it will have a negative effect on innovation and productivity. Bosh. The drive to find ingenious ways to do work better, faster, and/or cheaper is an integral element of craftsmanship — no matter where it is pursued. Who invented the tools of mass production? Adamson points out that it was often artisans who were looking for better ways to ply their craft.

Finally, recognize, and reward, craftsmanship. You get what you pay for. So, why not pay for a job well done? Maybe workers should be paid based on quality rather than volume.

All the signs suggest that we are moving into a world where more and more work is done remotely, by workers who aren’t on the payroll. If this is the future of work, your corporate purpose is going to have less and less motivational power. Craft is a win-win replacement.

Ted Kinni

Theodore Kinni is a contributing editor of strategy+business. He also blogs at Reading, Writing re: Management and is @TedKinni on Twitter.



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