Increase your Common Sense Capability
Most of us have heard the story of the frog who, placed in a pot of cold water which is heated slowly to the boiling point, boils to death because he never realizes it’s time to jump the pot. Used to teach the dangers of ignoring subtle changes, it’s also a good story about discernment and lack of common sense. Many managers find themselves in boiling water because they don’t have the common sense to take action when needed.
Common sense is not as easy as it sounds. Today’s complex business environments have created a paradox: Legalities and logistics require a consistent and disciplined approach to management, but the constantly changing landscape require leaders at all levels to apply business acumen and sound judgment to new situations as they arise. I hear frustrated managers saying, “Tell me the rules and I’ll stick to them”, and equally frustrated leaders saying, “These are the guidelines – use your discernment to apply them well.”
Common sense is solid analysis bounded by business smarts and a concern for people. We pay too little attention to cultivating it in business, and expect that leaders will “pick it up” along the way. Here are some ideas for building your organization’s “common sense” capability:
Common sense comes from life experiences – often tough ones. Hire people with unusual life experiences, and those who aren’t afraid to admit they have had tough experiences. Use good questioning in interviews to discover how people make sense of new situations and unsolvable problems. Show pride in people who can cope with personal adversity.
Keep business acumen high by continuously educating people about products and services. Put trade magazines in the lunchroom. Get leaders out of the office and into the field, at trade shows, at industry events, on sales calls – anywhere they can learn the subtleties of your customers and your business.
Have senior and seasoned leaders explain the thinking behind the decisions they make. Their decision-making process is often a mystery to the organization. Yet, this is a great opportunity to teach others. These experienced leaders model how to reach a sound business decision by verbalizing their thought process. Explain what options were considered and why the final decision made sense for the business.
Encourage rash leaders to “wait it out”. When situations are tense and complicated, it sometimes helps to wait and watch. Your organization’s culture may be rewarding leaders who exhibit an action-orientation. This often pressures everyone to move before the best direction is clear. Use storytelling to talk about times when waiting until just the right moment to move worked in your favour.
Set directional boundaries. Don’t assume that the goals are interpreted the same way by everyone. It’s not enough, for example, to say, “We expect you to provide great customer service”. Describe the relationship you want to create with your customers. Is the goal to educate them, or to make their lives easier? The philosophy and thinking behind the strategy will help everyone to make decisions that make sense.
Rely on a mix of scientific and intuitive indicators. Most common sense decisions are a result of good diagnosis. Create the tools that help leaders figure out risks and impacts of various decisions. In the end, they may need to trust their own intuition. Experiment with risk-taking based on gut instinct. Most experienced leaders have learned to trust their gut because a boss gave them the OK to take such a risk.