I’ve been a fan of craftsmanship for over a decade now. I guess it all started as an admiration of Swiss mechanical watches - how the machinery of a watch was handcrafted, how the movement itself kept the watch going and how these patents date back over 250 years, unchanged. And they still work brilliantly. Once you get deeply inspired by something like that—you start to see similar mastery in many other products and services, brands, ideas, people, and behavior. I became obsessed with craftsmanship. It felt so personal that I couldn’t find a comprehensive enough definition that would perfectly explain what it meant to me.
Richard Sennet wrote a book about Craftsmen - among other things the book gave a great historical view on Craftsmen and occupations that industrialization made obsolete, yet still some professions survived and they still flourish. The most useful parts of the book touched the key characteristics of craftsmanship:
- The desire to do a job well for its own sake
- A foundation of skill developed to a high degree
- The special human condition of being engaged
- That all craftsmanship is quality-driven work
These were exactly the characteristics that I thought powered the best teams and companies in the handcraft of our digital age. Yet nobody used the word craftsmanship to describe it.
It’s easy to name some extreme masterpieces that are perfect examples of true craftsmanship—products and designs that just don’t die. People behind these masterpieces were originals, unexceptional visionaries that dedicated their lives in changing the world from their perspective, through their craft: artists, architects, carpenters, engineers, and innovators. They were obsessed with their vision and maybe more than anything else they were honest with themselves. They had the courage to trust their gut feelings and to pursue their dream regardless of how insane people thought they were, how many obstacles and adversities they would face, or how many opportunities had to be ignored to stay the course. But more often than not even in these extreme cases the key to greatness was repetition. It was not ingenuity as much as sheer volume, trial and error, and finally, luck. This goes for names like Picasso, Einstein, Beethoven, and countless others.
These are outliers, but they are inspirational. They are concrete examples of how the invisible becomes visible—how dreams become reality. Is there anything we can learn from these inspirational examples? Can some of their mastery be cultivated in our work environment and culture?
After years of pondering these questions and witnessing everyday examples of craftsmanship in a digital service domain and a professional service business we want to share some of the findings we think are crucial for creating a work environment and culture where people are obsessed with delivering quality, to put their heart and soul into products that end users love to use and that impress and inspire customers.
That it takes talented and skillful people is self-evident, but more than that it takes an environment where people voluntarily want to exceed the set expectations and they want to do it as a group. In our vocabulary this environment is craftsmanship culture: a set of values, behaviors, habits and attitude that produce magic.
Building Blocks of Craftsmanship Culture
Trust and Psychological Safety
It all starts from trust. It is the foundation of all cooperation, of any purposeful human interaction. A culture of trust enables psychological safety within a team and a company: a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. It is in a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect that people are comfortable being themselves. According to our experience, as well as research made by companies like Google, psychological safety is the single most important factor for a team to become highly productive and successful, bringing better results and reporting higher job satisfaction. We encourage and guide our team leaders and employees to foster behavior that supports psychological safety. This builds the foundation for trial and error, risk-taking, open feedback, debate—an environment where new ideas can challenge your thoughts constructively and keep you on a growth path.
Empowerment, Ownership, and Responsibility
Empowering people, giving them the authority to take action, a mandate to solve problems are important pre-conditions in creating the sense of responsibility and ownership, to get people engaged. The craftsmanship culture, as we see it, is based on people being fully in charge on their tasks. They need to own the customer challenge or problem. And they need to feel pride in the deliverables and in the effort we put into a customer assignment—to the point that each person is willing to put their signature on the outcome indicating an unflinching commitment to the product or service we are delivering.
What my colleagues and I have understood is that every person at DK&A needs to feel the importance of their actions to the destiny of the company. And for that matter, CEOs and Leadership teams at any company in whatever industry should get this crystal clear: the faith of your company is literally in the hands of your employees. Understanding this makes it much easier to set your priorities accordingly. The most important task for the leadership is to serve the employees, the people.
Motivation and Drive
According to neurological research a prerequisite to motivation is believing we have authority over our actions and surroundings. Internal locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of events in their lives, as opposed to external forces beyond their control. Taking responsibility and ownership are closely linked to internal locus of control—they go hand in hand. Those are the key ingredients to a motivated and committed workforce and a baseline for successful customer deployments and craftsmanship culture.
Bigger Picture and Why
Once motivation is achieved it is important to understand how to sustain motivation. The choices that are most powerful in generating motivation, are decisions that do two things: they convince us we’re in control and they endow our actions with larger meaning. Asking “why” gives reason and purpose for finding the deeper meaning of pushing ourselves. One of the most important tasks for management, leaders, and people guiding others is the ability to explain why to others: capacity to internalize, visualize, and build an authentic story around the “why” is a must for an inspiring leader. Finding purpose and deeper meaning helps sustain motivation. It explains a choice as part of something bigger and more emotionally rewarding than the immediate task that needs doing.
Clarity and Clear Goals
Most common reasons for employee dissatisfaction are an unclear role, unclear expectations, or unclear targets. People simply don’t know what is expected from them or what they should be aiming for. Structure and clarity are vital to align individual actions with a common company goal, and also for individual employees to focus their actions and energy on the right things, and to be able to optimize their performance.
Clarity is self-knowledge—a vision of yourself. Progress in life requires clarity, a capability to structure chaos into an understandable set of problems and simple solutions. Clarity on who I am, what I want to achieve in life, what my natural strengths are, what’s blocking my progress, what resources I have, how much I’m willing to sacrifice. Clarity is the moment when you begin to see important matters in a structured and prioritized order. You begin to see the future where you want to be.
Feedback and Communication
A culture of trust and psychological safety builds an environment where open feedback (loop), dissenting opinion and debate are present. This happens in a positive growth spirit to enrich thinking and problem solving—strongly influencing our performance and learning, as well as our willingness to give back and share. Without trust and safety, feedback becomes a more rarely used tool and becomes interpreted as insult.
As an important side benefit open feedback seems to encourage the overall communication within a company as well as growing the pool of shared meanings between people—yet another crucial component of a strong company culture.
Optimal Performance and Flow
It is not a coincidence that the key building blocks of craftsmanship culture are almost identical to the core components of “flow.” Reaching peak performance happens in flow state. Many research groups in universities, companies, and even in the US Army, have tried to decode the secret recipe of flow state due to its enormous impact on people’s productivity. McKinsey’s 10 year global study of top executives revealed as high as 500% productivity increases for people experiencing flow state.
Skipping the neurological part of the research, it is evident that without clear goals, immediate feedback, optimal balance between skills and challenge, personal control and strong intrinsic motivation, reaching flow is impossible. We think that craftsmanship culture should embed these core flow components as an organic part of company DNA.
We can’t force employees to feel safe, to take ownership, to be motivated, and to be performance driven. We need to provide the work environment and enablers that will lead to our desired result, i.e. habits and behaviors that are consciously encouraged, supported, and guided, which over time become automatic. This all takes time to build and ultimately every employee must participate in judging what is bringing us closer to our goal.
The Godfather of flow literature and research Mihail Csikszentmihalyi has summarized: "The happiest people spend much time in a state of flow, the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it. Contrary to what we usually believe the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile."
This is what craftsmanship culture means to us.