8 min read

The Craftsmanship Manifesto: Part I

We are Craftsmen: we do a job well for its own sake. The technocrat and the anarchist. The importance of (mastering) ideas. Administrative evil.

We are Craftsmen

We do a job well, for its own sake.

For craftsmen
The only measure of a job is how well they have done it.
For independent craftsmen
There is a tension between the work they do to meet their own standards
And the willingness of someone to pay for that work.

But invariably there are rules in place that prevent us from doing so.
Differing performance metrics,
Changes in focus,
A new organisational crisis,
A change of heart.

Often this means going independent, carving our own path.

But many of you cannot do that.
You work for a large organisation
Let's say 100 - 2000+ employees
And, by and large, you enjoy your work.

Sure, there are things that could be improved
Hindrances that could be removed
Relationships that could be nurtured
But, overall, life is okay.

Craftsmanship is something that conjures up images of working with one's hands

Of blacksmiths forging metal
Of goldsmiths turning out extraordinarily beautiful pieces
Of embroiderers stitching pearls onto fabric
Of cabinet makers selecting and working different timbers into a fine piece of furniture

These are skills that can be developed and improved over time
Because the product stands before our eyes
We can see the defects
We can touch the finish
We can feel its weight.

But in an office, where you are most likely working
How do we introduce this notion of craftsmanship
And why should we?

We'll come back to that later, but right now, we need to look at why it is so difficult
And why so many people leave large organisations to go and work on their own

The Technocrat and The Anarchist

I don't know about you
But I've come to realise that the technocrat is the bane of our existence.
Ken Loach's extraordinarily beautiful film, "I, Daniel Blake" shows it.
The work of Jesse Dillard on administrative evil shows it.
Our everyday experiences with IT, Finance and HR, and bureaucracies in general often show it.

What to do?

The first thing to realise
Is that technocrats operate according to their own rules.
And the core of those rules means that they don't care,
About you, the individual.

They can't.
Their systems would dissolve,
Like the brown sugar witch.

Their rules can't handle human variation.

These rules exist for one reason and one reason only
To protect the greater good.
And the sacrificial lamb in that case is the individual.

It is Stalinist in its thinking, also Fascist
This technocracy.
Adam Curtis had a bit to say about this myth of "No Alternative"

Have a look here before we go on. It's a long read but I'll wait
Eye-opening, no?
For me the key is Hayek's realisation that he had to make capitalism technocratic.
He borrowed from the left, to entrench the right.

Why is this important?
It gives us context.

We're well and truly there now. No doubt.

And that means that, from the perspective of the individual,
It is no longer the collective vs the individual, the classic left vs right argument.
No, we're beyond that now.
Because technocrats frame both left and right.
The antagonists are now the technocrats and the anarchists.

What does that mean for you?
Several things.
It means we have to find ways to be a bit subversive if we want to get anything done.
Because rules are, well, meant to be broken.
But broken intelligently.
Breaking rules intelligently means having a deep understanding of why they were formed and the impact they have on the organisation in which you work.
And how far you can push the limits.

That has to do with risk.
Your appetite for risk.
You need to be a risk taker in order to be a craftsman.
And all change makers are craftsmen.
They craft.
Sometimes they're crafty.

The bigger issue is about technocrats.
Because they now provide the context. Nay, they are the context.

In days gone by
The battle was between the communists and the anarchists
See Lenin and Bakunin for some insightful correspondence
The anarchists were fighting against
The weight of the state.

No longer.
The weight of the state has been replaced
By the tools of the technocrat.

Douglas Rushkoff has something to say about it here
|The really important part is tucked away towards the bottom,

The very essence of what it means to be human is treated less as a feature than bug.

So all those foibles that make us creative are bugs.
To be squashed.
Or updated out.

The Importance of (Mastering) Ideas

One of the most common quotes
On the importance of ideas
Comes from Keynes

Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back

― John Maynard Keynes, 1953

Ghoshal expands those practical men
To managers…

This is precisely what has happened to management. Obsessed as they are with the “real world” and sceptical as most of them are of all theories, managers are no exception to the intellectual slavery of the “practical men” to which Keynes referred. Many of the worst excesses of recent management practices have their roots in a set of ideas that have emerged from business school academics over the last 30 years.

- Sumantra Ghoshal, 2005


Everything we have
Everything we do
Everything we are
Has its origin in
An Idea.

To fix something, we must first understand it.
To understand it, we must get at the ideas behind it.
To get at the ideas, we must think.

Much of the hard thinking in your organisation
Has been done outside it,
In the business schools referred to by Ghoshal
In the consulting companies you refer to for advice
In the technology companies you engage
To stay ahead of the competition,
Or increase efficiencies.

As a mid-level manager in a corporation or bureaucracy,
You deserve better.
You hold the threads between
Top-management's strategic intent and supervisors' day-to-day travails.

You are the glue, the implementers, the change makers of an organisation.
You hold the institutional knowledge,
You know how things work, and how to make them work.

You are maligned, criticised, down-sized and gutted.
Often by people who have no idea of the real worth of your work.
Often by people who have adopted
A particular vision of an organisation
And the ideology that goes with it.

That's the idea I want to talk about with you today
That's the framework I hold shapes your work environment
And guides your actions.

That framework is technical rationality.
According to Guy Adams, co-author of "Unmasking Administrative Evil", it is…

a way of thinking and living, (that is, a culture) that emphasises the scientific-analytical mindset and the belief in technological progress

The first, the scientific-analytical mindset is largely positivism
The second, a belief in technological progress,
Underpins another, more recent phenomenon
The California Ideology, which itself
Drives the obsession with digital transformation.

It is this mental framework we need to, at least,
Be aware of.
Better, to understand,
So we can, little-by-little, replace it.
Not improve, replace.

In the words of Buckminster Fuller,

If you want to change a system, don’t fight the existing forces,
Design a version that makes the old one obsolete.

Technical rationality enables the rise of technocrats
It puts the emphasis on analysis but not synthesis
It promotes technological progress as the solution to all problems
(Think back to Elon Musk's solution to the Thai cave rescue and compare that to what was needed)

But this is less about technical rationality than what it enables…

Administrative Evil

While philosophical underpinnings are important
It is the things that can happen as a result that are more so.

Here's the full quote from Keynes,

…the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.
Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.
I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest.
But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.

Barbour and Adams write extensively on administrative evil.

While the term may sound a bit provocative and extreme,
It is worth keeping.
It refers to the situation in which decision makers are so far removed from the impact or consequences of their decisions that they are immune to the human suffering those decisions may cause.

The common characteristic of administrative evil is that people can engage in acts of evil without being aware that they are doing anything at all wrong.

 - Guy Adams

Much research has been done on the Holocaust in this regard.
More recently, Ken Loach's film "I, Daniel Blake" (mentioned earlier) captures the essence of this administrative evil admirably.
The rules are the rules, not matter the human indignity they may cause.

As a middle manager,
You are just far enough away
From the consequences of the decisions
For it to be possible to be an inadvertent perpetrator of such evil
But also close enough to see the consequences.

You are also in an ideal situation to experience
What Hannah Arendt terms "moral inversion".
This occurs when we are confronted with an immoral situation
But rationalise it away through dehumanising the impact.
"I was just doing my job" is an example.

This puts the emphasis on administration
Rather than leadership.

Middle managers need to know about how their organisations work
More than ever.

In large part
Because that is where the power and influence lie.

On the face of it,
And a very superficial face it is,
The smooth, political operators seem to wield the power.
But the truth is that power is held by the technocrats
Those who create the underlying business rules,
Those who set up the systems.

Because systems drive behaviour.

In an organisation, this is your Corporate Services
They set the culture, the rest is just fluff
Or, as a colleague once said, the "foam on the cesspool".

It is the hidden workings that hold the power
Not the charismatic leaders, the people people.

As a middle manager you understand this
To be able to navigate your way through the myriad conflicting
Messages and statements that come from

On high
From each side
From below

Listen to those coming up from below
They are where the truth can be found

Management is a craft
It holds together leadership and administration

The technocrats (Corporate Services) have shown
That it is perfectly possible to run large organisations
Without charismatic leadership
The machine just keeps turning
Middle managers don't have that luxury
They are subject to the whims of those leaders

The key to combatting the technocrats
Lies with understanding the administration.

Everyone of us who works in an organisation
Is subject to the thinking done elsewhere.
The harm done by those who write the software has been described as administrative evil by Jesse Dillard, in his paper, "Enterprise resource planning systems: A physical manifestation of administrative evil"

It behooves us to have at least a cursory understanding of the thinking behind it.

Generally, unless we understand why,
It is very difficult to follow an order or instruction.
To really understand why,
It is necessary to understand the thinking framework in use.
To this end, the only reason I did an MBA,
And later a Certificate in Company Direction,
Was to try to understand the thinking
Being taught to managers and directors.

Turns out it's the same and it turns out
That it is underpinned by this technical rationality.
Trouble is, no-one tells you that so you either just accept it - not always easy - or you go through life with a vague sense of unease.

To continue on this path, that's all you need,
A vague sense of unease.