Newsletter – Why Common Sense is no Common Practice

Why Common Sense is NOT Common Practice

If “knowing how” were enough we’d all be rich and thin. For example, everyone “knows” that it’s unhealthy to be overweight, and yet 64% of Americans are, and an amazing 30% are technically obese. (Ref: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/overwt.htm ) Ask any group of reasonably intelligent adults for advice on how to shave off a few pounds and they come up with some great dieting advice like “Eat less, exercise more.” It’s common sense, right? Common sense, but NOT common practice.

How in the world did “common sense” get that name in the first place when our behavior, mine included, demonstrates an incredible lack of it? I find this particularly puzzling in my business leadership consulting practice considering the high price tag of NOT following common sense in the corporate world. There is so much valuable wisdom about how to run a productive, profitable company, one that provides excellent products and services and delights clients. And yet so few organizations seem to actually implement and sustain best practices. I’ve been asking my executive colleagues to help me understand this strange phenomenon – “Why don’t we do what we know makes sense?” One theorized it was due to fear of rocking the boat and standing out (Yes, you certainly would call attention to yourself if you did something sensible in many corporate landscapes.), another chalked it up to the learned helplessness of employees tired of caring and getting nowhere for it. I personally entertained the possibility of alien influences, and then quickly discarded it.

When all else fails, I find a great book by the experts. (Why should I have to re-invent things all over again? I stand on the shoulders of giants!) I just started reading “The Knowing-Doing Gap”, by 2 Stanford profs, who lament that even their colleagues who become corporate leaders often fail to implement the very practices they teach. Incredible! Why can’t we cross the gulf of execution?

I am reminded of a conversation I had with one senior exec some time ago. We were discussing the motivations for companies who routinely work on almost twice as many projects as they have the resources to efficiently staff (which is most companies). Key projects are routinely understaffed, and many individuals multi-task among various projects, resulting in task-switching inefficiencies known to decrease productivity by as much as 60%. Lack of planning and lack of focus routinely lead to predictable delays in product launches as well as severe quality problems with those products that do manage to launch. Why wouldn’t business leaders just cut or put on hold the least important and least urgent projects, focusing on the critical few? Why would they persist in spreading precious resources ineffectively over too many projects, thus getting less done overall than if they focused their efforts?

He absolutely agreed that more would be accomplished if they would focus on fewer projects. They could reduce multi-tasking inefficiency, get those projects off the plate, and make room for the next projects. Revenues would be pulled in, and quality of products launched would increase. It was the right thing to do. It was common sense.

So, why wasn’t HE going to do it at HIS company? Because if he cancelled or put projects on hold he would have to reduce revenue projections due to those projects (the same revenue projects which, according to high tech marketing guru M. Hammer, are accurate only 1 time out of 600). Reducing revenue would cause the CFO to require him to reduce head count – to lay off the very people that were getting the work done. Thus he would have EVEN LESS people to do the remaining pile of projects on their plate. As a result they would then have to cut even MORE projects, and then MORE people . . . And so it goes . . . circular thinking. Surely there must be a better way!

This story is not unique. There are plenty of examples of circular thinking keeping us stuck and keeping us trapped into doing things that don’t make sense in our daily lives. Did you ever litter because you figured “Well, everyone else does, so it won’t hurt to throw this teensy bit of garbage out.”? Or there’s the case of one of my dear friends who, having failed to go to the dentist for nearly 8 years, avoided scheduling a much-needed dentist appointment because he was afraid the dentist would reprimand him for not having gone to the dentist in so long. How’s THAT for reason! And here’s one of my favorites: Almost 80% of people aren’t happy in their jobs, and yet when I ask them why they stay they reply “I have to stay at the job because I need to pay my mortgage.” So why do they need to live in a ¾ of a million dollar home in the San Francisco Bay Area? To be close to the work they dislike, of course! Duh – circular thinking strikes again. (BTW – How much does someone have to pay you to do a job you can’t stand? For me, it’s about $1M a month, and I give my three months notice on day 1!)

So, why ISN’T common sense common practice? Well, I have a couple of theories. Here’s my current favorite, in the form of a story. Suppose you have an electric stove at home and you are cooking a meal. You aren’t sure the burner is hot enough to start cooking, so you touch it. Instantly you feel pain and a blister forms on your finger tips. Aha! Learning has occurred! What fool would touch that stove again? You can be pretty sure that no one would be slapping their mitts onto that hot burner again in this lifetime! Boom! One experience. Learning occurs. Behavior changes. Common sense prevails henceforth.

Now consider a slightly different scenario. Suppose you are cooking a meal, and you do the same touch-the-hot-stove thing (it’s hot, for cripes sake – cook already) but you don’t get burned or blistered, your roommate does. Or suppose that you touch the stove and you get the burn and blisters a week later. You are puzzled. What caused that?! Learning doesn’t occur, and behavior doesn’t change. Common sense fails to become common practice.

There are two circumstances that make it difficult for human beings to learn from experience and change behavior as a result:

  1. The consequences accrue to someone other than themselves.
  2. The consequences occur so long after the behavior that we can’t connect the dots.

Are humans capable of learning when consequences of our behavior are either delayed in time or distant from us? Clearly, yes, otherwise we wouldn’t have social services agencies working to wipe out hunger, disease, torture and ignorance on this planet. What is it that makes it possible for someone to do what makes sense in the absence of immediate rewards, and to avoid doing what doesn’t make sense in the absence of immediate electroshock therapy to train them out of it?

Here are some thinking tools that can help you break out of situations where you are stuck doing something that makes no sense:

  1. What if I behaved this way all of the time? – It only takes an extra 200 calories a day, less than those in a regular soda, to put on 20 pounds a year.
  2. What if everyone behaved this way? – If I drive down the curb of the highway to scoot off of the exit ahead of the waiting traffic jam, that’s cool . . . unless everyone decides to do this, clogging yet another stretch of pavement. AND just hope no ambulances need to get by to rescue someone you love.
  3. Absolute commitment to a greater purpose aside from the immediate gratification of some temporary and fleeting personal desire. What are YOU committed to?

Vision with action is only a hallucination. I personally am not interested in theoretical discussions of what COULD get results. I am committed to ACHIEVING results. Be clear about your values, know your goals, and commit to achieving them. Then do what you K NOW makes sense! Hang on for 5 minutes longer than you can stand it. That’s when breakthroughs occur. You will find yourself far more effective than you ever dreamed possible.

Oh, a word of warning. It takes discipline, rigorous commitment to action, AND a backbone! Common sense is not for the faint of heart. Not everyone is going to like it when you start practicing common sense. Brace yourself. Consider the resistance you encounter a sign that you are making progress!

(Please disregard this advice if you work in a highly bureaucratic organization whose only purpose is self-perpetuation. In this case, just ride the gravy train. It’s not my thing, but there’s no accounting for taste.)

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