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The thing about common sense is it’s not so common
Mark Pratt
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At Project Partners, we often say “The thing about common sense is it’s not that common.” François-Marie Arouet, better known by his nom de plume “Voltaire,” was an 18th-century French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher, famous for his wit and his advocacy of freedom of speech. One of his most popular quotes was beautifully simple: 

“Common sense is not so common.” 

Although the meaning seems obvious, what we call “common sense” seems to be rare these days. But it was as true for Voltaire in the mid 1700’s, over 250 years ago, as it is today… and it is still a problem! 

What has this got to do with delivering projects? 

What we call “common sense” is a core of knowledge and wisdom that we have and think others should have as well

Throughout a project (in fact, in any walk of life), different groups of people have different specialisms. For an information security professional, it might be common sense not to write down your passwords – but how are the rest of us supposed to remember them all? It might be common sense for a software tester to see what happens when you close the browser halfway through a mortgage application – for the software developer, that might seem inconceivable.  

One of the problems with common sense is the lack of commonality of experience and viewpoint. 

Despite these differences, common sense exists as a label of what a particular group of people value as a fundamental set of facts and experiences. Together, these form a sort of social contract whereby everyone has a similar idea about what should and should not be done, helping to bind them together. 

How can I apply this to my projects?

Good common sense is the foundation of all successful projects, and while it may seem like a slightly condescending and obvious point to make, I am surprised how often it is overlooked. 

One of the foundational pieces of common-sense project management is to be the voice of realism. If, for example, timescales or budget are not realistic, call it out! No one will be impressed by the project manager who agrees to a delivery timescale or budget that will be missed or exceeded (despite any early pressure they may be put under). 

The best way to do this is to detach and be objective.  

Your responsibility as project manager is to make sure that you hold a mirror up when deciding or putting together a project plan: 

  • How will this pan out?  
  • What can scupper your plans?  
  • How can we mitigate risks before they become issues?  

It is better to have a tough conversation upfront and set everyone’s expectations as opposed to when you are amid delivery. We have all been there! 

Top tip – make sure your Nan can understand it 

As the saying goes, “Knowledge is power” – unless, as I have found, it is not.  

One of the most controversial viewpoints I hold which I find myself in disagreement with others is that for me, project managers should have little, or no knowledge of the expert subject matter they are delivering. (They should, however, have as much broad experience in the field as possible, and have subject matter expertise within their team). 

“Madness!” I hear you cry. 

Well, allow me to challenge that view for a moment. My hypothesis is that too much expert knowledge is a hindrance to effective communication with your stakeholders. It is human nature to make assumptions – overtly or covertly – and when you know too much, it can be a blocker to getting to the root of the issue. 

Conclusion

It is better to be in the position to question and re-question everything that does not make basic common sense. This very principle has been one of the cornerstones of my own experience. 

If something does not make sense, ask. Then ask again. Then ask some more.  

There are only ever two possibilities – either the person providing the answer has not explained themselves clearly enough OR something is amiss. (The 3rd explanation is that you are not very clever, but as you are reading this article, I’ll assume that is not the case) 

If an expert is unable to explain themselves in a simple, straightforward manner, I would contest that they do not understand it enough themselves and that something is not right. Dig, ferret away, get that clear explanation. 

Imagine going to visit your Nan (or any elderly relative with absolutely no knowledge of what you do at work). Could you tell them what you do in simple terms? Could you explain the problem you have been wrestling with all week so that she “gets it”? 

Would your Nan think what you are doing is “common sense”? 

If the answer is “no,” then ask more questions

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