"Eppur Si Muove" or the Perils of Common Sense...

May 18, 2017 10:09:58 AM | By Ray Delany

I once read a story by the great science fiction writer John Wyndham, in which an experienced police officer is trying to deal with a situation which is not at all what he thinks it is. 

The following text from that book has stuck in my mind for decades, "While common sense can be a healthy and vigorous plant in some soils, it can turn into a kind of pestiferous bindweed in others"

The definition of common sense is not what I thought it was, which is, er actually I'm not sure exactly. But I learned something new by looking it up. 

It made me think of a recent client discussion where I was struggling to get a key point across. From my perspective, l was concerned about what I believed to be some serious risks to the client's business as a result of continuing to rely on an increasingly risky strategy to support major operational systems. 

Apart from my natural desire to not see my client badly impacted by a technology failure, I was also concerned about discharging my professional duty to ensure the client was well advised without usurping their right to make their own decisions, and I certainly did not want to face a "why didn't you warn us" conversation further down the track. The client's perspective was the natural disinclination to be railroaded into a decision that they didn't see as urgent, and with a slight whiff of "you're just trying to sell us something we don't need".

In these situations common sense can be a barrier, mostly because the sense isn't common at all. What happens in these situations - all too common in my experience - is that the two parties are not actually perceiving the same things. The reason why this happens is often due to a lack of key knowledge on one or both sides.

Until a few hundred years ago, scientists believed that the Earth was the centre of the Universe and that the Sun, Moon, stars and planets all revolved around it. Common sense made this obvious. The Earth is standing still from our perspective and the Sun and everything else is always moving, albeit slowly - it's obvious, you just need to look and see for yourself!


It took scientists literally thousands of years to shift this view, and what usually happened along the way to the brilliant minds like Copernicus, Galileo and Newton that slowly started to unravel the truth was that they were heavily criticised or even persecuted by those holding the establishment position.

So it can be with decisions relating to new technology. Many business leaders have very fixed ideas about certain methods and models because they are within their experience and range of knowledge and therefore makes sense to them. If they haven't been properly briefed on the fundamentals of how things are changing they will not be able to have a common sense conversation with their technical experts.

In the worst cases the expert may be pressured against their better judgement to retract their opinions. Galileo was forced by the Inquisition to recant his views and spent the remainder of his life under house arrest. Legend has it that after being coerced into stating that the Earth stands still - which he knew to be untrue - he murmured under his breath in his native Italian eppur si muove - and yet it moves.

Fortunately we live in more enlightened times, but speaking truth to power is still one of the most difficult tasks of the professional consultant.

In my client scenario described above, it turned out that a simple exposition of a few key facts were all it took to shift the conversation. I had assumed a level of common ground that turned out to be incorrect. Once we'd identified the problem the logjam was released and progress was rapidly made.

Professional advice is always perceived as being high cost, and it usually is in direct terms. It should also be seen as having commensurate value. 

As Red Adair once put it, If you think it's expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur."

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Ray Delany


Ray Delany

Ray has more than 30 years’ experience in the use of information technology in business. As a consultant, Ray has advised many organisations on ICT and digital strategy and has a reputation for helping clients achieve significant improvements in organisational performance.


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