Beware the Myth of Common Sense

September 19 2014
“Nothing is more fairly distributed than common sense: no one thinks he need more of it than he already has.”
Rene Descartes

“We should definitely do that, at the end of the day it’s just Common Sense……..” careful now, hold on a sec, on reflection has that conversation finished a little too quickly?

In all my years in management the term I have become most wary of is “common sense”. In fact I have banned it from meetings. Ok, I’m not that uptight, I do smile at people when I tell them they are not allowed to use it. But I do have a real concern, in our multi-channelled, highly personalised, all requirements met world with the concept of the commonality of sense.

But why Matt, what is your problem? After all Common Sense is a good thing isn’t it. It’s short hand for all things that are right, layman’s for consensus, it’s what we are all thinking. But is it?

To me the phrase seems to have been relegated to a punctuation mark used as ubiquitously as a comma or a full stop, but unfortunately one brimming with either a smug sense of self-importance or a misplaced sense of certainty.

So it is either used as a condescension; by the Alpha person in the room at a point very early on in a meeting when they have reached enough agreement in the group to serve their purpose just after they have described the outcome they wish to achieve and directly before the group thought they were going to volunteer their own view.

Or it is used out of complacency; to avoid having to take the extra time to think about other people’s perspectives.


And that is what we need more of, Perspective. I have over the years, in many and varied organisations, been involved in strategic drives to increase diversity and inclusion, the benefits of which have gained a great deal of currency in C-suites globally as business leaders strive to encourage collaboration & cohesion, and seek to craft creative working environments as a means of driving continued growth and success. I have on many occasions, been in rooms with a very diverse set of people, at the beginning of these initiatives and without exception one of the first conclusions that is drawn is “everyone should be treated the same” no matter what background, creed, colour, socio-economic status, age, gender, sexual orientation et cetera et cetera. It’s just common sense. And even though these people are pretty much without exception intelligent, caring, open minded and serious about the subject it can take agonisingly long before they start to realise that everyone might actually want to be treated differently, according to their needs. Just think about the difference in those problem statements – all the same, all different. Imagine the wasted effort expended by a Diversity and Inclusion Team failing to differentiate between those two objectives. Yet at some point on some level they both seem sensible.

“Some people see the glass half full, some people see the glass half empty. I see a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be”
George Carlin

Now I’m aware of the wisdom of crowds and I’m not saying that a bunch of people can’t come up with a sound conclusion very quickly but there are often times this can go horribly wrong (see rational bubbles) especially if the motivation is questionable or a shared bias is at play. If we are to construct the best solutions , generate disruptive and innovative results we need to test ourselves to be more open minded, get more input and never assume the obvious is true. People often say “it’s as plain as the nose on your face” well I don’t know about you but from where I’m standing the small part of my nose that I can see looks a bit blurry.

Be prepared to be wrong

So I know some decisions need to be made quickly and sometimes there is only enough space to fit a small executive team in a room to do the working out but always try to remember that just by walking through that threshold you didn’t suddenly get imbued with all the insight in the world and a mainline into everyone else’s id. If you don’t have enough room for everyone’s voice you should at least leave yourself room to fail….then try again adding what you’ve learnt. After all it’s just common sense.