Uncommon Sense

“It don’t make no sense that common sense don’t make no sense no more.”   John Prine, one of my favourite song-writers used this as a line in one of his songs.  It’s a classic for Prine.

I love Prine’s work.  Why?  Because, especially as I get older,  at least part of me becomes more an more like his characters.  I look back nostalgically at a past where things were simpler,  more understandable.  I think to some extent, most of us do.

That idea of a time when things made “common sense” is one those archetypal memories.  You find it throughout history – a yearning for that simpler time.

So it has a seductive appeal.

So why isn’t it more prevalent?  Why isn’t common sense more …. well, common? 

You have to know what I mean.  All of us use the phrase at one time or another – usually to describe the behaviour of someone — or more often — something else.   Because in many cases, the people who don’t have it — or don’t get it are part of large organizations.  Big companies.  Big beauracracies.  Big government – especially big government.   These are the usual suspects, the groups that prove that common sense isn’t – if you know what I mean.

And it frustrates us.   It frustrates me, anyway.  Even though I know it’s not true.

Little known fact – I’m also a song writer.  It was once part of my livelihood.  I actually have a gold record hanging on my wall.  But that was, like my longing for common sense, a time long ago.  Now music  is more  of  a hobby.

But I did write a song that responded to John Prine’s melancholy appeal to the days of yesteryear.   My song started like this:

“Things ain’t like they used to be, in fact they never were…”

And it’s true.  There was no halcyon days when common sense reigned supreme.  It’s a fiction.  Think about it.  When was this golden time.   Let’s go back.   Was it the 1980’s – the disco era?  I’m not even going there.  Sorry.

Was it the 1960’s?  Peace, love and all that?  Well, no.  The 60’s were chaotic.  Nothing made sense.  Trust me.  I was there.

Was it the 50’s?  I don’t think so.  You might believe it — if all you knew about the 50’s was from “Leave it to Beaver”.   The 50’s was a tremendously uptight time, with McCarthism, ideas that you could win a nuclear war and a type of civil repression that Martin Luther King would fight against a decade later.   I could go back.  Hitler.  The Depression.  World War I and on and on.

There was no great time when common sense made sense.   The world has always been chaotic and often troubling.

So why the appeal of “common sense”.  Why do we yearn nostalgically for it?  Well for one reason, it does take us back to a time when we were more certain.   For many of us, that represents a time in our youth.

“Common sense” is just all the predjudices that you accumulate by the age of 18.”  Albert Einstein said that.

Yet, if you have children who are around the age of 18 — or even if you are just honest about how “right” you were at that age, you have to be a little aghast.   If you have an 18 year old you’ll shake your head at how “black and white” the world seems to them.

Now that’s okay — if you are 18.  You have an excuse.  You don’t have the benefit of experience to teach you that things are not always as simple as they seem.  As a part time university prof, I spend a fair bit of time trying to convey this to my students.  Things are not always simple — or black and white.

Some of them get it.  Some don’t.

Even with the benefit of years of experience some don’t get it.   They somehow go through life and never appreciate the real complexities.   It’s as if some people reaching my age have 30 years of experience and others have 1 year of experience repeated 30 times.

Again – what is the harm?  Well, if it makes you nostalgic, there’s probably not much harm.   I no longer believe that the solution to global military conflict is to simply “give peace a chance” — but I do appreciate the sincerity of those views and I respect them to this day.   But I realize that thigs are more complex than that.    But even if you don’t get it.  Even if you sit at the dinner table and rant about how things used to be — if your delusions are your own, there’s probably not that much harm.

Where the harm comes is if you have those views and you are in a position to influence an organization, a company or god forbid — a country.  That’s where the harm comes in.

I could bring up a ton of examples of why common sense just doesn’t work in complex situations.  But I saw a great example this week on the TED talks.

I’ve kept a link to the video here.  You can watch it for yourself.   For those who want the bluffer’s guide, the presenter beautifully shows how our common sense approach to motivation flies in the face of scientific evidence.  He shows, quite conclusively, that when creative approaches to a solution or task are required, external rewards or bonuses are not effective motivation.  In fact, he presents pretty clear evidence that this type of reward system actually decreases effectiveness.

The science is not new.  The experiments that Dan Pink refers to in the video date back to 1945 and as he rightly points out, form the basis of most modern behavioural theory.   Most but not all.  Why hasn’t it made it’s way into management science and compensation theory?  Can in be that those who are engaged in compensation are untrained?  Could it be that they have not studied behavioural science?  It’s possible but not likely.  Are they recommending the right solutions but being ignored?  Possibly.

For whatever reason, flying in the face of good science we continue to see the one trick pony of compensation being used where it is proven to be least effective — with creative jobs and knowledge workers.  Want performance?  Offer a bonus.  The fact that the science doesn’t support this?  Nonsense!   Common sense will tell you…

And off we go.  Back to a world, as Peter Senge once described it, where a group of people with IQs over 130 go into a room and make decisions that you would expect with an IQ of 80.  Even confronted with the facts, people will go back to what they term common sense, which is, as Einstein so aptly described, merely their own prejudices and sometimes their own agenda.   Denial, as my friend John Thorp says, “is not a river in Egypt”  – it’s a fact of modern corporate life.

That’s why we still claim that salaries and bonuses are so important in attracting and motivating senior employees and knowledge workers.  After all, that’s common sense, isn’t it?  Unfortunately, it may make good sense but it doesn’t make good science.

We aren’t going to change the game using “common sense” – however seductive that idea is.  “Common science” might do the trick.  We’d be better off paying more attention to that – even when it tells us things that we don’t want to hear.

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Filed under Change, Commentary, Organization

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