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Coming to your (business) senses


Work in Progress

James Adonis is one of Australia's best-known people-management thinkers

View more entries from Work in Progress

There isn't enough focus on silence and reflections within business circles.

There isn't enough focus on silence and reflections within business circles.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed there were some experiences that couldn’t be explained by the senses of hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste. There was something else, he believed - something internal that united these five senses. That something special was common sense. Thousands of years later, it’s still regarded as an essential quality, even in business.

But maybe it’s overrated. That’s the view contained in Uncommon Sense, Common Nonsense, by Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles. Released earlier this year, the authors believe success in business is determined not by common sense, but by counterintuitive thinking. They call it uncommon sense. Out of the dozens of examples they provide, five are particularly good.

Paranoia is the dominant mood of management. 

1. Paranoia is the dominant mood of management

Managers face so much pressure to comply, compete, collaborate, innovate and so much more … and this tension creates paranoia that makes managers say all the right things but follow through with banal policies. They endlessly worry about the impact on their career if they were to make just one mistake. So, they dread more than they dream. The solution, according to Goddard and Eccles, is to make it safe and rewarding for critical thinking to occur at work.

2. Statements of corporate values trivialise ethics and demean employees

The concepts of values and ethics have been prominent within business for two decades but, as the authors argue, business isn’t any more moral today than what it used to be. So what’s more important than values? The answer is virtue. Values are like an assortment of chocolates from which people can pick and choose. Virtue, on the other hand, is a “hard-won habit” acquired over a long period of time. The fact that virtue is so rare is what makes it so praiseworthy. 

3. Conversations, rather than meetings, are the units of organisational effectiveness

Business has a tendency to turn every conversation into a meeting with agendas, projects, goals, key performance indicators, initiatives, and sponsors. Yet conversations are more important. Goddard and Eccles refer to relaxed 'conversations without destinations', because these are the types of conversations that get employees to arrive at interesting and creative places. But these are effective only when people are open to each others’ feelings, hopes, and thoughts.

4. Business is increasingly equated with being busy

Managers are obsessed with change and productivity and urgency and speed. There are always new demands, new initiatives, new goals, and new challenges. We fill any spare time with appointments and emails while never letting our BlackBerry or iPhone escape from our addicted fingers. What there isn’t enough of within organisations is silence and reflection. “The truth is that most companies would perform better with less organisation,” write the authors.

5. Firms underestimate the collective wisdom of their employees

There is a bias within workplaces, a bias that favours expertise, “or at least perceived expertise,” state Goddard and Eccles. This preference for expertise means the opinions of employees are ignored even though the answers to many crises can be found not via a consultancy firm but straight from the crowd. But the crowd (the authors’ euphemism for a bunch of team members) must be diverse, unstructured, and fearless. Even leaderless, they say.

Uncommon Sense, Common Nonsense contains many other examples, too. “Markets are self-structured to produce few winners and a long tail of losers” is a chapter about the wealth that's created (and enjoyed) by only a small number of companies. And “most discoveries in business are the result of accident rather than design” looks at the need to break away from the traditional confines of a corporate environment in order to truly innovate.

It’s all quite refreshing. But that’s what happens when you see common sense as common nonsense.

Do you think there's a lot of nonsense in the business world? If so, like what?

twitter Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis

3 comments so far

  • The problem is, too much of this stuff is now written by bankers, as if banking was the only industry in the world.

    Date and time
    August 24, 2012, 5:00PM
    • The most important thing in any business meeting without doubt are accurate minutes, which are filed diligently after every meeting and on a common server so that all involved in any given project can access them at any time. This simple method taken from time immemorial is the most valuable (and simple) way to remove the wiggle room that some people live their entire careers in to the long term detriment of the company.

      Date and time
      August 24, 2012, 7:07PM
      • Good point. I've known some whose mantra is, "deny everything". Minutes that were readily available to everybody concerned would help to wipe this out.

        Date and time
        August 25, 2012, 8:32AM

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