Book Review: Richard Sennett’s “The Craftsman”

I should start with a warning. This is only partly – although it’s a substantial part – a book about workplaces, organisations and the working experience. Like many books written by fearsomely knowledgeable, wise and insightful people, it will also probably be read least by the people who might gain the most from doing so: let’s just say that if you like a firm conclusion to your non-fiction, and usually start a book by flicking to the (numbered) list of recommended actions at the back, this will be a challenging and demanding read.

But then, to be fair, this is challenging read for just about anyone. Even a simple question like ‘what’s it basically about?’ is fiendishly difficult to answer. The shortest answer I can come up with is that it’s about the desire to work – do a job or perform a task or a role – well, and to enjoy the quality of your labour. But as you can see, that definition begs as many qualifiers as the book raises both questions and answers. That’s not to say this is a book that lacks conclusions: there are plenty to be drawn, but the author has mostly left them semi-concealed between his own lines for us to discover as we turn over our own thoughts.

For those not already scared off, it may be reassuring – or informative – to appreciate that ‘craftsmanship’ here does not mean glassblowing, brick making, or goldsmithing, although all these activities and the practices (and the processes, both physical and – as importantly – mental) of their participants come under Sennett’s impressively widely informed and inquisitive scrutiny. Craftsmanship can also embrace computer programming, architecture, parenting and shaping the structure of organisations. Another straining nutshell description might be to say that this is a book that looks at how we work, the skills we use, the pattern of our working lives and the interactions with others – both as colleagues and as employers and customers – that provide the social pattern of those lives. Sennett is interesting not just in human labour, but in what our labours do to us as individuals and as societies.

In this aspect, there is a possible criticism of Sennett’s approach: a nostalgia for elements of social order and working practices from earlier – often much earlier times. Early in the book, we explore the world of medieval guilds, and are invited to compare this model – where the master was legally responsible for the welfare and development of the apprentices, including the on-going development of their working abilities – with a modern age in which we are expected to reskill repeatedly and rapidly, where skills are viewed mechanistically and our knee-jerk associations of ‘craft’ are of something either twee and nostalgic, or something of little value (especially commercially).

Sennett, by contrast, links the development of skills – via the 10,000 hours of practice model so widely commented by recent authors and writers (Malcolm Gladwell among them) – with the method of practice and the engagement of the practitioner with the practice.  As Sennett would argue, it is not practice in itself that makes perfect, but the application of – and he makes a point of disagreeing with Adam Smith about it – wits that are anything but dulled. It is mindful practice – the immersed observation of the participant, reviewing their processes and methods as they practice – that drives both mastery and (albeit incremental) innovation.

Other sections of the book stress the importance of sociability and human interaction that cannot be readily captured in process diagrams and flowcharts – not just to knowledge transfer but to the quality of performance. To quote one brief section:

Too many modern experts imagine themselves in the Stradivari trap – indeed, we could call Stradivari Syndrome the conviction that one’s expertise is ineffable. This syndrome appears among British doctors who have failed to discuss treatment options, to expose themselves to criticism, to unpack their tacit understandings with colleagues. As a result, skills degrade over time in comparison with doctors who turn outward professionally.”

(Sennett’s repeated use of aspects of the NHS as supporting material in the book caught the attention of other reviewers too: Pat Kane’s highly personalised review, and particularly the section of ‘what makes good nursing’ is worth reading.)

As Kane also points out, one of the important themes of this book is also the dignity of labour – another aspect of our working life where Sennett’s qualms about the social and psychological impact of modern working life are clearly visible. At the start of a section of the book that explores the story of brick making from the ancient Greeks to the architectural merits of a MIT student residence built in 1949, Sennett makes a point about ‘presence’ – although were this to be a mainstream management book, he would perhaps have used a different word: engagement.

The maker leaves a personal mark on his or her presence on the object. In the history of craftsmanship, these maker’s marks usually have carried no political message, as a graffito scrawled on a wall can, merely the statement anonymous laborers have imposed on inert materials: fecit: “I made this”, “I am here, in this work,” which is to say, “I exist.”

We still hear quiet cries of something very much like ‘fecit’ in the modern workplace, of course, but the meaning has changed. Something more than social graces – either toward or from the utterer – has been lost in the marches of time: in terms of individual dignity, the narrative has not been a positive one.

Nor is this the only connection between dignity and narrative for Sennett. If the working world cannot be depended upon to provide a positive motivation to produce your best work, their must be something else to sustain us and our hunger and desire to produce. Sennett starts his exploration by looking at the work of Max Weber, who explored the difficulties of human perfectionism, and its denial of satisfaction:

[Weber] called the sustaining narrative a “vocation”. Weber’s German word for a vocation, Beruf, contains two resonances: the gradual accumulation of knowledge and skills and the ever-stronger conviction that one was meant to do this one particular thing in one’s life.”

Though it is not ultimately Sennett’s conclusion (which follows some thirty pages later), a longer quote may serve to tempt those who might otherwise be reluctant to read The Craftsman to see that it can indeed bring fresh thinking to bear:

Schools and state institutions, even profit-seeking business, can take one concrete step to support vocations. This is to build up skills in sequence, especially through job retraining. Artisanal craftsman have proved particularly promising subjects for such efforts. The discipline required for good manual labor serves them, as does their focus on concrete problems rather than on the flux of process-based, human relations work. For this very reason it has proved easier to train a plumber to become a computer programmer than to train a salesperson: the plumber has craft habit and material focus, which serve retraining. Employers often don’t see this opportunity because they equate manual routine with mindless labor […]. But we’ve seen throughout this book that just the opposite is the case. For good craftsman, routines are not static; they evolve, the craftsmen improve.”

There is, of course, a larger challenge. For well made institutions (and Sennett sees the ‘crafting’ of institutions as ‘craftwork’ in just the same way, ie a skill learned by mindful practice), the challenge is to ensure that their employees’ lives ‘add up’ (ie they are more than ‘a random series of disconnected events’) and provide the sense of vocation that underpins the desire to do good work.

Although this book will have been written largely before the recent economic upheavals, Sennett also argues that this approach will serve institutions well even in difficult times. Retained, retrained workers are more bonded than the recently recruited (and therefore recently discarded elsewhere), and their loyalty will pay dividends when workers are called upon to work longer hours or take pay cuts. This may not be a book of the craft of leadership, management or organisational development, but it still contains important lessons.

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Comments (2)
  • Luigi Fulk

    January 14, 2010

    Thanks for the nice post. I always try to bookmark construction or concrete related posts like this one.

  • Anya Moorer

    February 2, 2010

    Howdy that’s a very fascinating view, It does give one food for thought, I am genuinely delighted I stumbled on your blog, i was using Stumbleupon at the time, in any case i don’t want to drift on too much, but i would like to mention that I will be back when I have a little time to read your blog more thoroughly, Once again thank you for the blog post and please do keep up the good work,

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