The Myth of Common Sense

The myth of common senseLast year I advised a restaurant owner on customer experience strategy for his restaurant. He had previously done benchmarking against other restaurants, but felt and knew he was missing something more deeper, something that would stick with people. Being a giver by nature, he wanted that same attitude to be part of the day to day operation; he felt that was missing.

He was right. So, to get him thinking differently and expanding his perspective, I helped him benchmark against non-restaurants that delivered a unique and personal service to their customers; one of them was Starbucks.

Another source of inspiration was Japan’s culture of hospitality, called Omotenashi:

Omotenashi, loosely defined as the art of selfless hospitality, is a cornerstone of Japanese culture. To welcome someone into your home or establishment and be able to anticipate their every need is seen as a privilege for the host, and working in a service industry is regarded with the utmost seriousness and respect.

This isn’t the first time someone has been inspired by Japan’s culture of hospitality; still it’s uncommon to see it practiced to its fullest. In Japan, hospitality is a core value and anyone who doesn’t “act” like it is deemed weird. So, it’s common sense to expect Japanese people to be extra kind and attentive in the their home country because that’s just the way it is. That’s not the case everywhere else, as Japanese culture of hospitality is perceived as too extreme and costly to implement. It would be common sense if Omotenashi were common across the world; it isn’t.

Remember, radical is a matter of perspective.

In Tijuana, where I live, I’m an anomaly. Why? Because my mindset doesn’t fit the day to day common sense people use to approach challenges. Let me give you an example: advertising. People think of business growth problems as an advertising problem. Advertise more, and you’ll grow more. Sounds smart, it isn’t because it assumes many things.

So, why am I telling you about this?

Common sense is a myth

What’s common sense to you might not be to me and others. We expect people to use common sense, and most of the time they do in every day situations; but beyond that common sense is anything but common. The principle of Omotenashi seems radical in places where a deep level of personal attention is not expected, but for Japanese people it’s part of who they are.

Duncan Watts, a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Labs, and the author of Everything is Obvious: Once You Know The Answer, talks about common sense

Watt’s says Common sense is the kind of intelligence we rely on to navigate concrete, everyday situations.

For example, how to dress appropriately to the situation, like beachwear for the beach, suit for work. We don’t think about these rules every morning, because it’s just common sense; we don’t have to think about them.

The problem is when we try to use common sense — otherwise useful to deal with all kinds of life situations — to reason about situations that are not concrete, everyday situations.

From Freakonomics on common sense:

The problem with common sense is not that it isn’t sensible, but that what is sensible turns out to depend on lots of other features of the situation. And in general, it’s impossible to know which of these many potential features are relevant until after the fact (a fundamental problem that philosophers and cognitive scientists call the “frame problem”).

To innovate, make the common uncommon

Taking it a step further to the world of business, many growth challenges stem from beliefs that only work in a very specific context; not in every context. For example, a former client of mine that has its HQ in Monterrey asked to me help them expand in Baja. They operate a premium business model, so their assumption was that the transition would be a smooth one since Tijuana is a border town; next door to San Diego. That assumption proved to be wrong, as most of what works in MTY doesn’t work in Tijuana; beginnig with the costs of doing business and the type of customer experience people expect and are willing to pay for.

The point is my ex-client’s common sense says that people in a border town adopt premium products and services; they don’t.

Here’s another example. There are many platitudes in business that are taken as common sense, for example: the customer is always right.

This is true on a day to day basis when a business is well established. But when it comes to innovation, the customer might be right as to what’s going to work today; but not tomorrow. The problem is if you always do what the customer says, you’ll stay right where you are because you’re dependent on their ideas and perspective.

Assumptions about what’s common sense are made everyday. An astute entrepreneur and strategist understands that in every assumption there is an opportunity for innovation; this means innovators have an extensive opportunity to redefine expectations for customers by making the common uncommon.

Bottom line: Perception separates the innovator from the imitator. Common sense is only as common as the group of people who think and act like you.

Next Article

Disruption Never Comes From Within