The Curse of Common Sense

Common sense is a real curse when it comes to solving problems.

The Oxford Dictionary defines common sense as: "Sense and sound judgement in practical matters."

Here's my revised definition, based on my work with decision makers: "A united sense of intuition; shared assumptions that resist interrogation."

A few weeks ago, I talked about "nodding heads syndrome" - a terrible condition affecting rooms full of similar people with similar ideas, resulting in sub-par decision quality. Common sense is similar, but more dangerous, because it's insidious. It relies on shared assumptions that are hard to spot. When decision makers operate on assumptions instead of facts, we get bad policy choices.


Last week I shared the Three Lenses of Strategic Focus - a model for approaching decisions strategically.

Achieving decision focus works just like a camera - we need to zoom in and out to sharpen our attention and illuminate our perception. The first of our three lenses - awareness - is a powerful driver of good decision-making because it does just this. A deep awareness of our internal and external context means we can spot and shatter commonly held assumptions.

Acknowledging shared assumptions sets the scene for better choices.

Daniel Goleman, who authored Emotional Intelligence, talks about three types of organisational focus: Inner, Outer and Other. Inner focus is all about self-awareness, outer focus is about external/contextual awareness and 'other' focus is about organisational and relationship awareness.

“A leader tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless; one blind to the world of others will be clueless; those indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided.” ~Daniel Goleman

Shared assumptions can pop up in our inner, outer and other awareness zones - common sense doesn't discriminate. Unacknowledged, they have the power to seriously undermine the value we can achieve from our decisions, underpinning:

  • Misdirected investment

  • Ineffective policy interventions

  • Needless or inefficient systems and processes.

This recent Fortune article provide a good overview of assumption-fuelled failures in US coporrate and policy decision making. Busted assumptions include

  • Central banks have the power to ward off financial bubbles

  • Technology will lead to widely shared prosperity growth

  • Unfettered international trade has no impact on local employment.

The last few years of international politics - Brexit, Trump -  provide a veritable buffet of examples of happens when powerful shared assumptions are no longer relevant.

So, what to do?


Spotting shared assumptions doesn't need to be difficult - just deliberate. Make assumption-busting a defined part of your decision process by carefully examining the foundation of your ideas.

The Opinion Quadrant is a quick and easy way to remember all of the factors that influence our personal opinions. Assumptions rest in Quadrant A (Autopilot) which means that we won't notice them unless we engage the analytical side of our brain and make it see more clearly.

Asking deliberate questions and looking for gaps, assumptions and bias is the trick - building this habit and capability across your team and organisation.



  • Ask tricky questions about basic things ('how do we know that?' 'might this have changed?')

  • Include a 'gaps and assumptions' section in your reports and business cases


  • Use the Opinion Quadrant to spark discussions in workshops and decision meetings

  • Carry out "pre-mortem" exercises and workshops to scenario plan for wild card events

  • Look at case studies where organisations have made brave or innovative choices about a similar issue - what do they know that we've missed?


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