Anyone could have done that...!

human factors safety Dec 22, 2015

But if they could, why didn't they?

Whilst reading the latest edition of 'The Ergonomist' I came across an article describing the problem that Columbus faced when he was trying to explain a concept of 'uncommon sense' to the courtiers of the time. The story goes along the lines that he was challenged that anyone could have sailed West and found the New World. His reply was that "finding the New World was as simple as standing an egg on its point" and challenged the courtiers to demonstrate this. Of course, none of them could despite much trying. Columbus then stood up, grabbed an egg, hit the pointed end of the floor to make an indentation and then stood the egg on its end! The courtiers immediately shouted "anyone could have done that!", which Columbus replied with "Yes, but I had to show you how it could could be done".

"Common sense" is only common to those who have been exposed to the idea or activity at hand, and even when ideas which we would consider sensible, they are still not common sense within communities which we would have thought should have done. Consider that 33% of students in their first year of college in the US who were part of a specific study believed that vision worked by sending out 'beams of light from their eyes (à la Superman) and seeing what was there'... (You Are Not So Smart - Common Sense 9:30) This is despite them going through normal primary and secondary education which would have involved the description of how the eyes worked! This is well known subject - extramission theory

Now consider the situation where it is obvious to you what needs to be done, or should have been done. Had you been exposed to similar situations before and learned something new? That makes up your new 'common sense' and you can see why something is so.

What about the difficulty in trying to explain to a potential client why your idea of training or coaching is needed in their situation given the evidence you have seen. A normal response might be "that's obvious / common sense, why would I need to bring you in to tell me what I already know and solve it for me?" A less than polite response might be, if it is that obvious, why isn't anyone doing it? Or why are they still doing the 'wrong' thing and not being effective or safe?

When solving problems for other people, we need to be cognisant of their viewpoint and their knowledge, otherwise we may fall into the same "its common sense" trap.