Common Sense is a Humbug

I don’t profess to be smarter than the average person but there are times when conventional wisdom or utterances of, that’s just common sense strike me as, well, dumb.  It was interesting to read Duncan Watt’s Everything is Obvious … Once You Know the Answer and get some insights on decision making and judgment based on research.  The book has received reviews in a variety of places (Wall Street Journal , New York Times, Andrew Gelman, and lots of others) and I won’t try to duplicate them.  In fact, I’m not sure I feel like I understand enough about sociology and statistical research to say I agree with Watts’ premise or not.

The book was valuable for me because it made me mindful of how I make decisions.  I’d mentioned Watts before because he had essentially debunked the six degrees of separation idea.  This book is useful because Watts takes you through research that he, his colleagues at Yahoo!, and others have done about how we make decisions and, when we rely on common sense to do so, how we may be invoking a faulty system to support our choices.

Watts invokes a variety of well-known theories relating to business management and personnel management (the halo effect, for example, and a critical view of long-term strategic planning and scenario planning) and discusses their strengths and failures.  In many cases, he shows how the use of familiar processes and tools lead us to the decisions we want to make, rather than the decisions and directions we should be making.

That was probably the most important element for me.  This is not a definitive book.  Watts is very clear about the research, whether his or others, that has been done that is not final.  If surveys or activities indicate a direction, that’s what he says.  In that way, this book is far more scientific than business – you do not get the sense that Watts is trying to persuade you merely by stating his position and fleshing it out with anecdotes.  I came away from the book with a healthily, skeptical viewpoint of some of the questions he posed.

I personally struggle with believing what I’m told if there isn’t data.  I immediately am suspect about the results from focus groups (how are they selected, how representative are they, what biases do they reflect), of representative stories, of scenario planning activities.  Building off exemplars makes me uncomfortable unless I understand why it’s considered outstanding, or best practice, or best of breed.  These terms are often bandied about but the selection criteria may be very narrow and may only indicate that the activity or resource is the best from a small pool of choices.

I find that the legal profession, and those organizations that support it, often operate in a decision-making environment based on anecdotes and precedents.  These sources of support don’t always align with available data and metrics, and that conflict can make planning and decision-making difficult.  This is particularly true when the data flies in the face of what people think they know, or what they think should be true.

Everything is Obvious is a great reminder that decision makers, myself included, need to question the conventional wisdom and anecdotal support when faced with making choices.  This is especially true when we’re the ones providing the support – have we got the right data, have we talked to the right people.  Watts’ research and pointers to the researchers of others has made me more curious about the sorts of questions I should be asking of myself and others.