My old Bookbuzz colleague Dirk de Corte recommended “The Ministry of Common Sense: How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses, and Corporate Bullshit”. I had looked at it before, and I had the impression it was a version of Humanocracy“. There are similar in some way, but this book takes a different angle. It is a great book. That is not surprising. Martin Lindstrom wrote 3 other crackers, namely “Brandwashed“, “Buyology” and “Small data“.
This book is about common sense, staff engagement and customer service. They go hand in hand. And common sense is lacking in a lot of places. A book about the use of language, too much compromise, watered downed concept, blindness, stupidity, lack of empathy and forgetting we are all humans. It reminds me of “The glass ceiling“. Automation and lack of common sense also go hand in hand. The reason for lousy morale, lower-than-average productivity, frustrated customers, and an ongoing lack of innovation (despite leaders telling me how eager they are to “harness” or “unleash” new ideas across their organisation, two words I’ve grown to hate) — is that companies have abandoned whatever common sense they once had in favour of systems and processes that a two-week-old golden retriever would find dumb.
109 billion in cost
Fifty per cent or so of all the people work for some type of organisation. One consultancy found that old regulations and procedures put into place years ago and not updated since now costing those same organisation $15 billion annually in development and compliance. That is on top of the $94 billion it takes for companies to administer the compliance of these same rules internally. In almost all the client organisations the author works for, he has begun to establish Ministries of Common Sense, devoted to overturning the frustrations, hurdles, and roadblocks within corporations that most leaders and managers don’t even know are there.
Common sense refers to the judgment and instinct that has been shaped and refined by experience, observation, intelligence, and intuition. Common sense is practical. It’s reasonable. It’s iterative. It’s dynamic. It’s obvious or, rather, it’s supposed to be obvious. It has evolved from centuries of human experience. Read “Antifragile“. That is why the universe invented evolution. It’s a gradual, ongoing education that starts when we’re young. Eat your vegetables. Don’t hit your sister. Wear socks. Change your underwear. Brush your teeth. Use an umbrella if it’s raining. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Or, in its more negative form, Do not treat others in ways you would not like to be treated yourself. Considering how much we’re exposed to common sense throughout our lives, why is it so scarce in most organisations?
In his experience, the lack of common sense in companies (and in life) has a clear, if indirect, connection to the increasing disappearance of empathy. Empathy is on the decline. With our phones creating a barrier between us and the world, we don’t notice things anymore. Our phones have become shields, lightsabers, transitional objects, and phantom limbs. They defend against our fear, anxiety, loneliness, self-consciousness, sadness, and insignificance. If we’re in a bar and our date hasn’t shown up yet, we pick up our phones and do something, anything, just so we don’t look as pathetic as we feel. Just the presence of a phone on a table, while two people had a ten-minute conversation, was shown to decrease empathy levels. Scan the headlines of websites and newspapers in almost any country, and you’ll read how polarised populations have become. Why now? We have less empathy — and zero sympathy — for people who disagree with us about politics, crime, race, abortion, or sexual preferences. Perfection, or the perception of perfection, destroys empathy. Still, no matter how old we are, the more we interact with other people, the more empathic we become. It is all about feelings.
It is the experience economy. Buying is not only a transaction. It is a feeling. Apply green scripts, mapping out what you want your clients to feel. The green script is a reference to the scripts Hitchcock used on what he wanted audiences to feel, on a minute-by-minute and even second-by-second basis. Apprehension. Anxiety. Fear. Shock. Relief.
Creating memorable experiences. Here is a question, describe your best, most memorable customer service experience. I bet you are hard pushed. I am pretty sure you can remember the bad ones. I had one with IKEA and very recently with Apple (3 Apple computers with problems, dreadful customer service). Try to ring a bank. Try to find an e-mail address of a customer service department. It baffles me. Particularly knowing the importance of customer satisfaction. Your business is the sum of the customer experiences.
One of the first steps in restoring common sense in any organisation is to train employees to see the world not from the inside out but from the outside in. Bringing employees together with customers in consumers’ homes. But sitting down to talk to the people who actually buy and use their products or services — to understand the world from their point of view? What would be the point of that? The answer, of course, is everything. A customer-centric business should be designed less around what a company wants than around what its customers want. By bringing together employees with consumers, a company’s muscle memory weakens — and resets toward a genuine customer-oriented mindset. The common-sense value of bringing company employees together with consumers doesn’t just come from the insights gleaned by management. It also sends a signal to everyone in the organisation that if senior management is willing to sit down with its customers, the company is serious about change. It’s the least you need to know when you embark on a corporate transformation project.
A political company is one where management and employees are so preoccupied with their own divisions, hierarchies, and metrics that they lose sight of anything outside themselves — including their customers. Knowing all this, Lindstrom typically interviews a representative sample of everyone in the organisation — top management, middle management, junior employees, interns, receptionists, and sometimes even cleaning crew members. He maps out email and phone flows. With employees’ consent, he even studies the message chains on WhatsApp, the private voice-messaging platform. Asking questions:
- If you have a problem, who in the company would you go to?
- Where do ideas in this company get killed?
- Who are the five people here who really make your life difficult?
- Who are the sneakiest political players in organisations?
- Where is the coalition of the willing?
Creating the informal (and much more real) organisation chart.
In companies with up to a dozen reporting levels (one company that has eighteen!), politics increases accordingly and, inevitably, so does the workload. For every reporting layer, you can add another 10 per cent to that workload. In some companies, roughly 60 per cent of employees’ time is squandered on reporting levels, quashing if not eradicating real employee productivity.
Imagine that your company has offices in New York, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, London, Singapore, Mumbai, and the lost continent of Atlantis. Of all these, language is probably the most important and divisive. A company’s workforce is a tribe fluent in its own language and vocabulary, made up of shorthand words and acronyms that puzzle and exclude most outsiders. A shared language is a genuine point of differentiation for a company — and it’s where many of them fall short.
Employees will swear that their bosses are all over the place. Typically, bosses often give employees the latitude to make their own decisions, and employees will end up doing something that their bosses wanted to hear.
A homogenous employee base
But I can almost guarantee you that a company with a homogenous employee base has minimal politics nine times out of ten. Everyone gets along pretty well, even if common sense and empathy barely exist. But if any disruption happens, the company’s internal resistance — what I like to call its immune system — erupts, rejecting the alien intruder, and politics settles over the organisation like fine ash.
Silos and KPIs
The average company has between 50 and 150 KPIs. KPIs today are symbolic of a rush and drive for “clarity” and “accountability” across organisations. Creating narrow-minded paralysis, which in turn prompts the need for even more metrics, summaries, proxies, reports, and presentations.
Get a campfire going
Most of us probably remember sitting around a campfire when we were kids. During workshops, Lindstrom creates his own version of one. In countless darkened rooms, where no one can see anyone else’s eyes and titles, positions, and salaries are irrelevant, employees become . . . honest. A study done by anthropologists at the University of Alabama found that sitting beside a campfire lowers blood pressure and reduces other stress indicators. Basically, the longer we sit beside a fire, the more relaxed we become. According to one source, campfires produce “what researchers call a ‘soft fascination,’ modestly grabbing our attention while allowing the analytical parts of our brain to rest. One of his clients has now implemented the campfire idea in every single store. Every Friday afternoon, two dozen or so employees gather to discuss problems, complaints, and issues raised that week by consumers.
Technology is bigger than any one person, and nothing you can say will change anything. The answer is that the same digital innovations and accelerations that were designed to improve and streamline our lives have ended up in many cases complicating them. But the attempts on the part of some businesses to speed up and infuse technology into their procedures just for the sake of using technology defies common sense a lot of the time. The truth is, sometimes tech can ultimately turn what should be a straightforward, frictionless experience into a sustained roar of helplessness and fury from customers, which is only increased when they are forced to simply accept this as the way things are and will continue to be. The amount of time companies waste on the very thing that’s designed to improve cost efficiency — and which ends up killing around 10 per cent of all productivity in organisations — is staggering. The biggest issue with tech is that it erases our common sense by detaching us from our own empathy.
Machines are taking over
Think about it. Along with common sense, our intuition has evolved over centuries and is an integral part of human DNA. But gradually, and with almost no resistance, we’ve permitted technology and data to overwrite centuries of accumulated human intuition. Day by day, our brains adapt to shortcuts, easy, half-baked solutions, and others doing the deciding for us. What does it mean to have an instinct, a vibe, or a gut feeling about something or someone? Is data really superior to our emotions, instincts, and intuition? No, but we sure act like it is. If data conflicts with our gut or if an answer can only be found online, we eventually lose faith in our own instincts, intuition, and sensitivity to know certain things without knowing why we know them. We begin looking at the world through processes or systems or both. We are losing our humanity.
The end of absence. We feel compelled to squeeze every free moment we have into something productive, squashing any space or time for reflection. Technology enhances the perception that we’re in a race against a ticking clock and that if, for some reason, we can’t outpace the present moment, we’re likely to fall behind permanently and probably fatally. If we never power them down, our devices get slower and slower —, and our brains are no different. Tech feeds time amphetamines. Every minute we have needs to be optimised — spent learning, scanning, keeping tabs on our upcoming tasks, staying vigilant about the worst things that can happen. Today we speak using shorter sentences. We walk faster than we did ten years ago. Under technology, the human brain reminds me of nothing so much as one of those illuminated overhead screens in airports and train stations, where times, destinations, and gate numbers are in a constant state of flicking and churning, vanishing suddenly, popping up over there, reappearing on the top row, dropping to the second or third row, flicking and churning again, and finally, like a love interest who meets your glance in a significant way, the screen tells you your flight is boarding at Gate 37.
Technology kills common sense
Is it any wonder that common sense is so lacking in companies? Common sense requires a sense of real pause. And real perspective. Technology has come up with a bunch of new signals that attest to our industry: the number of emails in our inbox, the number of appointments in our online calendars, how often we’re cc’d on other people’s correspondence. One of the many problems with busyness is that cluttering our brains actually makes us less productive.
So what would happen if we didn’t have technology?
On June 27, without warning, every one of Maersk’s computer screens worldwide went black. The hierarchy was momentarily suspended, and the organisation immediately increased engagement and moved faster, with a feeling of freedom, where employees felt trusted to do what they believed was right.” Why? Because the only option left for Maersk employees was to visit their clients. In-person. Door-to-door. Face-to-face. At first, clients were confused. Sorry, but who are these people who say they work for Maersk? Maersk employees were just as unused to dealing face-to-face with their clients. For both, the experience was transformative. The truth is, this isn’t an issue that technology can address. Tech can create stunningly comprehensive lists on a screen. It can reveal names, dates, facts, figures, estimates, and projections. The right algorithms can be spectacular in their ability to free-associate, to predict how past habits create future behaviours. Then tech hits a wall. Lacking creativity and imagination, it can’t go any deeper than that. Here is where human beings need to step in. Our collective love affair with technology should be seen strictly as developmental and thus incomplete. This same common sense will, I hope, someday free us from our servitude and help us recognise that in the end, we — and not tech — are still the ones in charge.
Meetings — and PowerPoint presentations — can eat up close to 50 per cent of our time when we work in a company. The average company has meetings that centre around plans, future plans, lack of plans, meetings that analyse where previous plans went wrong and how to make future plans work better. Read “Working backwards“. There are other ways. Starting with dishing PowerPoint.
Inside and outside companies, rules, regulations, and policies show up in a nearly infinite number of forms and disguises. company rules, regulations, and procedures can be classified as “official” or “unofficial.” It’s a fairly safe bet that the longer and more complex someone’s job title is, the more bureaucratic and less commonsensical the organisation probably is. All across the world, “compliance” has become an excuse to protect the status quo and ensure organisations remain in place. Compliance generates fear — and knocks out common sense. It’s often harder to eliminate a nonsensical policy than it is to implement one. And why is this? Because everyone in the company is terrified that if a policy disappears and something goes wrong, then they will shoulder the blame.
If Maersk was Uber
For example, what would Kellogg’s look like if it were bought by Apple? What would Campbell’s Soup look like if it were acquired by Facebook? What would happen if Uber acquired Maersk, or if Maersk acquired Uber? Can common sense truly be applied in major industries? If Maersk bought Uber just two years ago, I’ll tell you exactly what would happen — and the same is true for any global shipping company. You would press an app on your phone to order a car to take you to the airport to catch a flight. But before the car arrived, you would have to accept and sign one hundred pages of travel waivers. An hour would go by. Next, you would have to agree to the company’s terms and conditions and fill out a seventy-six-page security clearance form. You would then be asked to complete a customer satisfaction survey. By this point, you would have missed your flight, as well as the one after it, with your car still nowhere in sight. Finally, the car pulls up, but the price you were quoted on the app has increased by twenty dollars. (The cost of gasoline went up an hour earlier, and there’s nothing anyone can do.) When you’re halfway to the airport, the driver orders you out of the car since he has to make room for another passenger who has more luggage and is willing to pay more than you are. If you’re lucky, another car might pick you up, but with no guarantee, the driver will take you to the airport — you could get dropped off at the zoo or next to a lake.
Legal statutes and compliance laws are so ingrained in our society and have so shunted our thinking and our behaviour that we don’t even recognise them anymore. Worse, this do-whatever-they-say mindset has been handed down to the next generation, who, in turn, will hand it down to the following one, thereby polluting the entire business ecosystem. Look, it’s as simple as this: If something doesn’t make sense, or goes against your own intuition, say something.
- Banished are terms such as “B2B” or “B2C,” replaced by “H2H.” H2H stands for “human to human”.
- Emphasises cost savings. That’s why the top priority should be to reinstall common sense by saving money.
- Use small, tangible, immediately “winnable” steps. If a proposed change is too big, bold, or ambitious, the fear of the unknown is too great, and most companies (e.g., their employees) will be resistant to and reject it.
- Equip employees with instant cameras and ask them to take a photograph of anything they see or experience in the company that shows a lack of common sense.
- Ask staffers to vote for the most ridiculous or poorly thought-out policies or procedures in the workplace.
- Pick a word that described your company. What is the one word that sums up the company’s mission and clearly defines what its purpose is? For Volvo, it’s “safety.” For Google, it’s “search.” For Disney, it’s “magic.” With the Dorchester Collection, the word was “iconic.” With Maersk, it was “one-touch,” a reference to the company’s revolutionary new method of engaging with customers. Come up with a word — and claim it.
- Begin instituting a series of small changes that yield immediate positive results. Simply go ahead and do it.
- Focus on small, easy wins, or “proof points” — company-wide common-sense issues that can be resolved quickly, the results of which immediately make life easier and better for everybody.
- Go slowly. Creating short, meaningful initiatives to generate and maintain momentum while eliminating second-guessing (and politics) from the process.
- Make change needs to be visible, celebrate your wins.
- Communicate solutions to everyone in the company. Tell the story. Focus on the emotions. No one makes a decision using their rational brains. By contrast, well-told stories are emotional. Metaphors have a singular ability to make everyone in an organisation feel as though they are all part of the same mission. No one ever questions a metaphor. In the end, they learn to tell engaging stories that hit the nail on the head about common sense, stories with which everyone in the company can empathise. Not sympathise, empathise.
- Appoint common-sense change agents — and set them free across the organisation.
- Establishing an actual Ministry of Common. Create a “governing body” to systematically vacuum up the lack of common sense in your company and replace it with simple, intuitive solutions that eliminate confusion and impracticality from the lives of both employees and customers. Sense ensures that the daily, common-sense solutions that a company has already committed to creating aren’t made out of duct tape, frayed string, and bent safety pins — that real change will last without compromising the business or its employees going forward.
- Write down a list of ten to twelve guidelines to serve as the foundational principles of the Ministry.
- Appointing a Minister of Common Sense also sends an unmistakable signal that a company values its employees and takes common sense seriously enough to be on the lookout, full-time, for its absence and for when it needs to be applied.
- Don’t hire a world-class IT team if you’re setting up a Ministry website. Instead, consider installing a mailbox in a high-traffic location — outside your office, in the cafeteria, or by the coffee machine.
- For a Ministry to succeed, you need to make it official. The Minister of Common Sense should be a full-time, salaried job, carried out and embraced with upper management’s approval.
- Who should run the Ministry? The ideal candidate is passionate and energetic, with good social skills and a thorough knowledge of your industry.
- Once you’ve secured buy-in for setting up a cross-functional Ministry, don’t announce it on the first day. Work underground until you’ve established a few success stories.
Common sense creates hope. Once the culture has been elevated with hope, and oxygen, making its way through and helping employees see the world from other angles outside their own (thereby reinfusing empathy), it’s time to take the ultimate step and focus on the people paying their salaries: the customers. What’s the connection with customers? If you work in a customer-facing position, it’s important to connect whatever problem you are trying to fix with your clients — and how a proposed change will affect them.