Common sense is overrated
In his book “Everything is obvious: How common sense fails us”, Duncan J. Watts, former sociologist at Columbia University, dedicates over 300 pages to researching the truths and myths of the much touted “common sense”.
Watts explains that “common sense” is based on instinctive thinking, natural logic based on intuition and experience. This type of thinking tends to happen automatically, something which is useful for saving mental energy but which easily leads to mistakes on account of it not relying on details.
Watts argues that common sense is overrated and is often used as an excuse to justify mental laziness and as a way of expressing disdain towards critical thinking and a more scientific approach.
For Watts, learning to think consists in learning to question our own instincts about how things work, in testing our theories against observations and serious experiments. We should, as he says, “learn to rely less on our common sense, and more on what we can measure”.
Intuition leads us to error
As Fernando del Álamo explains in this article (in Spanish), there was an ongoing debate during the second World War as to the type of improvements that should be made in fighter aircraft. One option was to increase the functionality of the aircraft – such as, for example, by providing more efficient guns or thicker protection – at the expense of slightly reduced structural safety. Another option was to make changes which did not modify the structure, but this implied severe limitations in the scope of possible improvements.
Although better arming and protecting the aircraft could have avoided hundreds of downed aircraft, pilots would hear nothing of it, as they were completely averse to any changes in the structure of the planes for fear that they might break up mid flight. But the evidence indicated that such fears were totally without grounds: the number of planes lost in battle was around one for every 20 sorties, whereas the number of planes lost due to structural problems was insignificant, at less than one per one hundred thousand.
Despite the fact that pilot intuition advised against making the structure lighter, doing so would have allowed the introduction of other improvements which would very probably have considerably reduced the number of downed aircraft, without a significant increase in structural risk.
Effectiveness increases outside the comfort zone
Likewise during the second World War, Jewish mathematician Abraham Wald was asked to study the points of impact of enemy fire on the fuselage of the planes that made it back, in order to recommend what parts of the aircraft should be strengthened to improve their chances of survival. Surprisingly, Wald recommended strengthening the parts that showed no damage.
His reasoning was that the impacts showing on the planes that made it back meant that they were parts of the aircraft that could survive such impacts. He thus concluded that the missing planes had probably been hit at precisely the points where the aircraft that made it back had not.
Wald’s capacity to avoid automatic logic and “think outside the box”, his capacity to look at a problem from a different angle, allowed him to reach unexpected but fully logical conclusions. As Duncan J. Watts would say, “everything is obvious once you know the answer”.
Now that we know that common sense and intuition are basically strategies used by our brain to save energy, it is necessary that we realise how important it is to regularly and proactively go outside the comfort zone marked by our brain patterns.
Our daily routines, constant stress, unforeseen events, endless flows of information… everything seems to conspire to keep us functioning mechanically, hiding behind common sense and intuition, without questioning whether what we are doing is still the best option or whether there are more effective and efficient ways of achieving the same or better results.
Innovation is, above all, an attitude: being proactive, leaving mechanical thinking to one side and looking at reality from different perspectives. If we regularly question our beliefs, our minds will be open to new possibilities and we will be able to see, hear and feel things that before went unnoticed.
Thinking critically and relying on what we know – based on experimentation and facts – rather than on what we believe will make our perception of reality change significantly. And when perception changes, the information we receive also changes, and this in turn changes the decisions we take.
Different results are rarely a consequence of business as usual, in the same way as innovation and effectiveness are rarely a matter of chance. When innovation becomes a habit, the generation of new and better value-added and more effective solutions also becomes a habit. And that is how innovation serves to improve effectiveness.
2016 José Miguel Bolívar – Some rights reserved
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