The Master Craftsman

A friend recently received his performance review. The verdict was that he was a master craftsman at the tasks associated with his job. The question was, how could he grow from there? Could he build a studio around him?

This is an image that has stuck in my brain, and I think is a useful way to think about a particular challenge of the knowledge economy. Many of us do creative work these days. In a competitive world, we have internalized that we need to be “Brand You” as Tom Peters put it, focusing on the things we do distinctively.

But say you are doing that. You have achieved a certain level of success. You are really great what you do, but you know, in business, that being static gets you no where. How do you scale up?

You can charge more. You can take on higher profile projects. This is what many artists, designers, writers and musicians do. But since even the mightiest among us has just 168 hours in a week, you cannot, ultimately, work more than a certain number of hours.

So another option is to do what Rembrandt and several other real master craftsmen did: that is, train a workshop of other talented people to do the same thing you do as a way of extending your brand.

It’s not a perfect solution. The most talented of these apprentices will certainly move on in due course, and there is always the question of transparency. A painter outsourcing his painting is different than a painter outsourcing paint and paper procurement, billing, marketing, etc. Likewise, a management consultant is often selling his or her own problem solving skills. A writer is selling her ability to get and tell the story. Some of this simply can’t be delegated without diluting the brand’s identity.

But if you build the right team, you can really crank, and I think this is mostly a question of figuring out as precisely as possible what you are selling to your clients. For a painter, sometimes it may be the idea behind the painting, not its entire execution. For a consultant, perhaps the broad thinking, with others hashing out the details.

How could you be a master craftsman in your line of work?

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