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Common Sense - in Business & Life

Hans M. Hirschi


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Reproduction ban. This work is protected by copyright law. Reproduction is prohibited other than as specified in the copy agreements. Anyone who violates copyright law can be prosecuted by public prosecutors and be sentenced to fines or imprisonment for up to two years and be liable to pay compensation to the creator / rights holders. Author Hans M. Hirschi 2010 TUK Förlag AB Östra Kanalgatan 10 652 20 KARLSTAD Sweden www.tuk.se Printed by Lightning Source UK Ltd. Layout Advant Produktion AB

ISBN 978-91-86419-08-0

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Foreword It took me a long time to write this book. I started parts of it back in two thousand four and due to work engagements; it was stuck in the bowels of several computers for several years. In the end, I was able to finish it within three months. My life has changed since I first started to write. With those changes, my outlook on life has been altered significantly. These new perspectives have been woven into the fabric of the pages you are about to read. As you will see in the final chapter, many people have influenced who I am today. Many are not named. Here I want to acknowledge one person in particular who has been my constant support for better or worse, my husband. Alex has been supportive in all my endeavors. He took care of the home front while I was travelling the globe. He provided stability and a sounding board whenever I needed it. He is the shoulder I can lean on and cry. He shares my successes and my failures. He is my companion on this long journey we call life, and I am very much in debt to him. The image on the cover depicts a cogwheel. In the first chapter, I will tell you the story of the brick-maker in Tozeur. This man, his brother, and the story of their life have forever changed the way I look at our existence. The evening after our visit at the factory, I felt very empty. I realized that I had absolutely no idea how my work contributed to the betterment of society. Š TUK FÜrlag AB 2010 www.tuk.se

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Finally, I need to add a note concerning the usage of pronouns. I feel very strongly about the equality of the sexes and I try to do so even in writing. Instead of saying “he or she” I will be using the term s/he throughout this book. Instead of “him or her”, I have used hir. I wish I could take credit for this brilliant idea, but I cannot. Instead, it is something I once picked up in a Star Trek novel. I am not sure if that author was the first to use that. I did note though that my word processor was gracious enough to let it slip. As for quoting people, I have done so to the best of my ability. I have not included a list of books from which I have quoted, because that would have been a tremendous undertaking of little value to the nature of this book.With today’s library systems and the usage of the Internet at your fingertips, I am sure you will manage to dig deeper in the areas of interest. Should you not be able to find something, please feel most welcome to contact me. I shall endeavor to do my best to help you find what you are looking for. I am a very open and candid person. Sometimes my language is very direct and some of my examples are not necessarily, what you might call politically correct. Please give me the benefit of the doubt and trust my assurance that it is not my intention to neither hurt, to upset anybody, or to cause offense. Finally, I do welcome your thoughts, comments, and your feedback. It is how we grow. Live long and prosper! Hans M. Hirschi

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Chapter 3. Back to basics In this chapter, I will attempt to lay out my philosophy on working life. How I view our contribution and what (and how) we can do to improve our quality of life and our working environment. I shall endeavor to do so using my skills as a teacher, by looking at life from a learning perspective. I was concerned with the pace of life in the previous chapter and I am so because I am not certain that the evolutional and genetic changes we undergo as a species has an even remote chance to keep up with the technological advances we make. Personally I feel that is a problem, and as I mentioned before, I am convinced that the number of casualties are too high a price to pay. Please bear with me. I do not advocate an abrupt return to nature, nor do I claim that we abandon the technological advances we have made. There are too many improvements to consider. However, I would like to make an argument for a world that slows down a bit to contemplate what it is doing and consider the consequences of its actions.

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There is no right or wrong in life This heading may appear to be in stark contrast to what I have just said, but actually, it is not. As a species – in fact, we share that trait with all life on the planet – we learn and evolve from our mistakes and successes. Therefore, even a wrong may turn out to be right in the long term. Working in adult education for as long as I have, I strongly embrace the concept of ‘trial by error’. As humans, we can only grow if we fail, because inherently, we take success for granted and seldom secondguess its causes. Failure usually leads people to give at least some thought to why things have gone wrong. Naturally, this all requires large degree of honesty and sincerity. Blaming the loss in an election on the electorate hardly is a serious attempt at self-ransacking… There are many different ways to learn and I have instructed hundreds of teachers and professionals about learning styles. I taught how different people use different strategies to learn new things in life. Since I do so as a pedagogue, I am not primarily concerned with genetic learning, although that particular field of science has made some amazing progress in recent years. I am also not a biologist, concerned with natural selection of a species as a whole. I am concerned with ‘you’ as an individual and I have always seen it as my task to change the world, one person, classroom, or audience at a time. That is an important paradigm. Thus, it is my proposition, that there is no right or wrong in life. It is primarily aimed at you as an individual, and solely when it comes to your individual learning and development process. Of course, harming another human being is wrong and different societies have added a variety of things to their legal codices to define right of wrong from a moral and community point of view.

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I quit! A long time ago, I was director of training and development for an industrial company. My responsibilities included staff training, technical training of employees and our channel in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, usually referred to as EMEA. The company had recently merged and my background was with one of the acquired companies. The challenge was immense. We were asked to overcome differences between three corporate cultures, and to integrate three different industry focuses, and geographies. Naturally, I loved the challenge of making a difference to the success of the company and doing my bid to see a successful merger. The first year after the merger was hectic. We worked a lot, our trainers flew around the world, leaving several of them sick for weeks at a time and wrecking two marriages in the process. Overall, we had a lot of fun, we co-operated well across all three former companies, and there was a lot of energy and willingness to contribute. Little did we know that the board and parts of the executive management had an agenda of their own? The late nineteen nineties saw the emergence of many new companies on the stock exchanges and stock splits were taking place on a regular basis, and people assumed that two split stocks would automatically be worth more than the one stock before the split.

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My company was part of such a conglomerate and had already been split once. A second split was taking shape and the board and the CEO were ‘trimming’ the books to make sure that quarter-on-quarter profits looked palatable to potential buyers. Going into 1999, my training budget did not stay intact. In fact, it was slashed to zero! Obviously, that made for great profit margins in the next few quarters, but in the long term would spell disaster… I have always been driven by certain ethical standards and I simply could not face my customers and the channel with the message: no more training. I spent the night after my VP announced the decision lying awake and resigned the next morning, never looking back.

“Hindsight is the wiser”, they say… They are right! Today, I look back on that decision, how it affected my career. Director at the age of thirty with a bright future ahead, I pulled the rug out from right underneath myself. My career was in shambles. I paid a very high price for a decision that I felt was right then and that I still feel is right. I just would do things differently today. I would look for a new job while I still had one, rather than facing the world as unemployed… That was obviously a long time ago and I do not look back with bitterness or regret. The company did eventually find its way and soul and I would certainly not be where I am today had it not been for that decision back then. I have had a couple of opportunities to make the same mistake again in the past five years, but have not.

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For that, I am grateful, as well as for the valuable lessons learned and experiences made in the years that followed that fateful day in 1998.

From Ignorant to Competent Learning is man’s natural state. We cannot really help it. We learn from before we are born until the instant we die. In class I sometimes challenge people’s perceptions by claiming that the last thing we learn is whether there is light at the end of the tunnel or not. More importantly though is what we learn. I always tell my students to watch out for learners and their very limited attention span. Our human brain is limited to a very small number of operations that we can process consciously. The vast majority (almost 100%) of all information that reaches the brain through our senses is dealt with automatically or unconsciously. Therefore, what we learn is more down to what we expect to learn or what we want to learn. In order to learn something specific we must open our minds. We must first learn about all the things we do not know so to speak. On the other hand, as we sometimes say, “we do not know what we do not know.” Our natural state is therefore to be ignorant (in the sense of ‘not knowing’, not ‘stupid’) and it is only when we find out that we have a deficiency in our knowledge that we are capable of learning something new. This is where humankind’s curiosity kicks in. As soon as we find out that we miss something we need, we will want to remedy that and we become curious. Our curiosity is the strongest motivator there is and it saddens me to see how our schooling system is bent on breaking children’s curiosity rather than to use it as a tool to help them grow. But then again, school is not primarily about learning but about storage and secondly about socializing. All educators know that, yet

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no politicians would acknowledge that, in fear of losing elections. Nine years is a lot of time and research has shown that we are capable of learning the content of those nine years in a fraction of that time. Imagine what our kids could accomplish if we truly motivated them to learn at an age where their brains practically function like sponges, sucking up knowledge more easily and readily than at any other time in their lives… Yet we learn all through life and what we have left of our curiosity helps us along. Once we have identified those gaps we move on and painstakingly take those first steps to acquire new knowledge and/or skills. As you may remember from those first rounds on that first bike or your first time ever behind a steering wheel, there are times when we feel that we will never learn to master certain skills. Driving a car at the beginning of driver’s education is what we call consciously knowing. We are fully aware of the skills needed to perform a task and – because it requires our full attention – takes time. Every step has to be contemplated and performed. It is only after a while, when we have repeated things often enough to internalize movements and thought processes that we become unconsciously competent and we literally forget that we master something. Just think of all the days of driving to work without remembering exactly how you got there in the first place. We become so good at certain things that our brain executes them independently, without our conscious involvement. While that may be a frightening thought to some of you, it really is not. Just try to remember all the muscle movements involved in shifting from first to second gear and then execute on that and you will realize that it takes you longer to do that (if at all possible) than for your car to reach the bumper of the car ahead of you or a tree or a wall to hit. Instead, we should be grateful for all the tasks our brain

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is executing on our behalf, allowing us to focus our minds on more important things at hand, such as preparing mentally for that first call in the morning or the recipe for tonight’s dinner… That learning process is extremely important for us, as it is what we are as a race. We learn and I fundamentally believe that our purpose on this planet is to better ourselves and we are indeed privileged as a species (compared to other animals) to be able to focus on that. Saying so I also acknowledge that we are not doing a very good job at that, and that there are still many challenges out there that we have not yet met, be it hunger, poverty, war etc., not to mention the challenges to the planet itself in terms of climate change and other environmental issues. We are making progress, but maybe not quickly enough.

A god named HERMES How exactly do we learn? Well, for the purpose of this book, I am not going to go into too many details. There is really no need to bore you with that. Suffice to say there are plenty of books out there with the answers to that question. It is my experience and scientific research proves that we learn best from problems. As I have pointed out in the previous pages, we cannot help but to learn. It is what we learn that is debatable. But as I demonstrated, once we realize that we miss certain knowledge or skills, often enough that is all it takes to motivate us to seek out that knowledge, to acquire those skills. Curiosity is a strong learning driver. So are problems. If you have to solve a problem to achieve certain results, will you not be motivated to find a way?

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I have always felt that the way one solves a problem is secondary, much to the chagrin of many teachers, who punish students for ‘copying’ from earlier tests or essays, claiming to do so in the name of learning. Instead, all they do is cover up the fact that they are too lazy to write new test or essay questions. If you do not want people to copy, stop asking the same question twice! An engineer would be ill advised not to consider previous accomplishments (copying) when tackling a new project. However, what is common sense (and we will talk a lot more about common sense in this book) in business life, is often a taboo in school. But then again, we have already established that school is not primarily about learning and preparing for life, but storage. Therefore, it is okay to embark on Sisyphean journeys because that is certainly going to keep kids busy for a long time! Well I think that is nonsense and a waste of people’s time and energy. It just makes no sense. Sense is critical in learning! A few years ago, I wrote a book about learning using the Internet. In order to help people remember the methodology I proposed more easily, I came up with a mnemonic aid, based on the antique Greek god Hermes, who – besides being the divine messenger – also played a role as the god of learning. Thus to help people remember the basic ingredients for successful learning, Hermes stands for:

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H

Holistic approach to learning. We learn more easily if we understand how things are connected.

E

Experience. Whatever we learn has to emerge from things we know. That is a biological necessity.

R

Relevant. If what we learn is not relevant to us, there really is no reason to remember it, is there? Therefore, teachers have a great responsibility to make sure that examples are based in their students’ reality.

M

Meaning. On a philosophical level, what we learn has to give us meaning. It has to enrich us and make us better as humans. In addition, nonsense does not necessarily entice us to learn either, does it?

E

Easy. Albert Einstein is quoted to have said, “You have to make things as easy as possible, but do not oversimplify”. A truly wise man, I only wish more would listen to him.

S

Sense. It something does not make sense, why bother. So let me ask you the same question as I have asked in my book and since hundreds of trainers around the world: does Hermes make sense to you?

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Sense, as in common sense, is the theme of this book. I sometimes wonder if we, humankind, have forgotten (unlearned?) our inherited ability to recognize common sense, to understand it without knowing it. Looking around myself I certainly wonder, given all the crazy decisions being made (or not) around the world. For the past ten plus years, HERMES has been a faithful and constant companion in my professional life and I have had use for him many times. Problem based learning requires a holistic approach, because if you try to solve a problem in isolation, you may find yourself with other problems instead (what about Australian ingenuity in pest resolution in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, solutions that ended up driving out the devil with Beelzebub!). Without a holistic view, you simply cannot oversee the consequences. As for relevance, I believe that one almost speaks for itself… If you do not see the relevance of something, how much attention will you devote to it? On the other hand, vice versa, if something is extremely important to you, will you not invest your full attention to learn as much as you can? Meaning is probably the most difficult one to explain, probably because it is closely related to ‘sense’. Yet what I see here is slightly different in connotation, yet not less relevant. I am by no means a religious person, yet I believe myself to be very spiritual. I want my life to have meaning, I want to make a difference and ideally leave this world behind a better place. That might be impertinent a sentiment, but that is the goal I have in life. Will I know if I have achieved that? Probably not, but neither do religious people ‘know’ if there is an afterlife or re-incarnation. They have faith, so do I. Therefore, from an esoteric point of view I believe that it is important for our learning success that the problems

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we tackle are meaningful. Allow me to illustrate; I recently saw a video presentation on TED1 about a school in India that really tackles meaning, where children get actively involved in the transformation of their communities, not only for their own sake, but also for all kids and generations to come. For me, that is a great example of how meaning is woven into the fabric of learning, enhancing the outcome! Easy is easy, although you would be surprised to learn just how many professionals who pride themselves in presenting and/or teaching complex things as complicated as possible to show the world just how intelligent they are. I pity the poor souls! “Keep it simple, stupid (but do not oversimplify)”, there really is nothing else to add! Last not least, sense. If something makes sense, it does. There really is not much to add, now is there. It worries me much more that there are innumerable things we do that make absolutely no sense, to us or to anybody else. What drives us to such insanity? So why do I tell you about learning and Hermes? In addition, how does that help you in business or in your daily life? As I said before, learning is our natural state as humans. It is what we do best, despite school’s best efforts! We are inherently curious and want to attain a higher level of understanding. Therefore, understanding what makes us tick should help you understand how to be a better businessperson and generally a better person. However, we will get back to learning and other phenomena associated with human behavior later on. This chapter is labeled back-to-basics and I think it is necessary to spend a few minutes discussing what I mean. One of the axioms of my life has already been expressed by a quote from Albert Einstein earlier in this chapter on page 35: Keep things simple, but do not oversimplify. I have seen examples where 1

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Journey to Abilene The last company I worked for had a great mandatory program for indoctrination, called “Employee Leadership Program”. It had been in effect for fifteen years when I joined and only kind of “self-died” during the financial crises in two thousand eight. One of the lessons employees were taught was to speak up if something did not make sense or was crazy. To illustrate the point we were shown a short film of a family in Texas, who take a Sunday trip to Abilene. Upon return, they all whine and complain about the heat, the long drive and alternatives missed. Turns out no one wanted to go in the first place, and the person who suggested the trip only did so because he assumed the others would want to go. In the ensuing discussions about the film, we were told that it would be good corporate citizenship and corporate culture to speak up and ensure that the company would not end up making trips to Abilene, meaning making the wrong decisions without people voicing dissenting opinion. That made a lot of sense to all of us. However, upon returning to our desks and day jobs we quickly realized that our corporate culture did NOT encourage such behavior and we adapted accordingly. That made much more sense from the point of keeping your job, although it made little sense from a corporate point of view. However, companies are blind and do not see and the people who could have seen chose to look away for whatever reason that made sense to them…

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consultants come up with the wildest and most complicated solutions, not because the situation warranted it, but because they could sell more. Sure, from a short-term perspective I am sure that is a wise choice to make, since it increases your revenue, but looking at it from the customer’s perspective, complexity only complicates and makes their lives more difficult, thus decreasing the likelihood of success, satisfaction and return business. My approach is different, but not rocket science, quite the opposite: keeping it simple. I look at the problem, analyze it, and come up with a solution that is as simple as possible. Because not only does that minimize the amount of time I have to spend on it (allowing me to do other things) but also – more importantly – it allows my customer to implement the solution with as little effort as needed. Trust me, project implementations, particularly when it concerns things like software, are complicated things and in four out of five cases, they fail! Therefore, keeping it simple increases the likelihood of success. By itself, it is only the first step. Software implementations in particular have also taught us the importance of proper communication and change management, topics we are also going to address together in later chapters. Therefore, back to basics! Remove unnecessary bells and whistles and focus on what is needed. I hope that also gives you back a little bit of that precious commodity called time, and that is common sense!

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Hans M. Hirschi is one of the founders and President of Yāree AB (www.yaree.co.uk). Yāree empowers people and organizations to reach their full potential, today & tomorrow, working with human capital, social responsibility, employer branding & training.

Common sense is like great music, mesmerizing art or funny jokes; difficult to pinpoint but we all recognize it when we see it. In this book, Hans M. Hirschi explores the concept of common sense, through philosophy, reflection and practice. Using his thorough experience from business and management from all corners of the world, Hans demonstrates that ”common sense” is not as common as you might think. What is regarded as common sense in Sweden isn’t necessarily true in China, Tunisia or Brazil. He uses clear examples to provide insight into cultural differences that affect the world of business as well as everyday life. This book will help you use your common sense all over the world – in Business and in Life.

© TUK Förlag AB 2010 www.tuk.se

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- in Business & Life Hans M. Hirschi