“The Ministry of Common Sense” – An Interview with Martin Lindstrom
Martin Lindstrom is one of the world’s leading brand building experts – advising Fortune 100 brands on how to build future-proof brands. Lindstrom is a global expert and pioneer in the fields of consumer psychology, marketing, brands, and neuro-scientific research. He is recognized by TIME Magazine as one of the “Worlds 100 Most Influential People.” The best-selling author of seven groundbreaking books on branding, including Buyology: The Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, BRANDsense and Brandwashed, Small Data –The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends, and his latest—The Ministry of Common Sense: How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses, and Corporate BS.
Let’s start by asking what is common sense?
At the very beginning of the book, there’s a one-line quote from the American humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw. It goes something like this: “Common sense is the knack of seeing things as they are, and doing things as they ought to be done.”
How did you choose this topic – the lack of common sense – in the first place?
Typically, a company hires me to identify the deeper purpose of a brand or to improve customer experience. I might be asked to create a new logo; redesign a website; brand a perfume, a beer, a wristwatch, or a retail environment. But in almost every case it soon becomes obvious that the real problem—the one responsible for lousy morale, lower-than-average produ
ctivity, frustrated customers, and an ongoing lack of innovation (despite leaders telling me how eager they are to “harness” or “unleash” new ideas across their organization, two words I’ve grown to hate) — is that companies have abandoned whatever common sense they once had in favor of systems and processes that a two-week-old golden retriever would find dumb.
Do you find this lack of common sense is a driving force internally?
The pervasive lack of common sense hampers the real business of companies — that is, serving their customers better than the competition and becoming more responsive, attentive, and attuned to their needs. Companies are so entangled in their own internally generated issues, and further beset by reams of invisible red tape inside employees’ heads, that they lose sight of this core purpose — and inevitably pay the price.
Is this a symptom of something else?
When I ask the people in charge how many common-sense issues there are in their organizations, most say not many. The truth is that in large organizations, the number of commonsense issues is actually off the charts.
The book is loaded with examples – can you give us one?
Imagine that, as a consumer, you order a pair of flats online. They show up in the wrong size. When you can’t find the return postage label (because there isn’t one), you jam them inside an old wine carton and pay $17 at your local post office to send them back. Two weeks go by without any acknowledgment from the company. When you call to inquire about a refund or exchange — and the customer service phone number isn’t listed on the website because the last thing the company wants is for you to call them — you’re placed on hold three times as you get transferred from one department to the next. You put your phone on mute, and start yelling, vowing never to buy shoes from that company again. In fact, you vow never to wear shoes again if it’s going to be this much of a hassle.
I love the example of the Fantasy Meal, instead of Happy Meal. The idea that was in-ter-est-ing…
When business people tell you an idea is in-ter-est-ing, you might as well jump off the roof. (chuckles)
Or the remote control with two red ON buttons… I loved that story!
Yes, by some extraordinary coincidence, on a plan flight a few months later I sat next to an engineer at the very same company responsible for that TV remote.
He explained that the company had internal problems, with various divisions vying for real estate on the remote control. No one could agree which department “owned” what. Ultimately the TV remote was divided up into zones resembling each of the internal departments in his company. One was for the TV. A second was for cable. A third was for TiVo. A fourth was for satellite. A fifth belonged to the folks responsible for broadcasting big band era or hip-hop music 24/7, or for displaying a crackling yule log in winter.
The engineer seemed proud of what his company had done and how equitably things had been resolved. There were no more internal squabbles. Every division now had fair representation on the remote. “Except for the fact I have no idea how to turn the TV on!” I said. He looked at me, still not understanding.
With half a dozen silos inside the cable company vying for representation, no one was looking at the remote control holistically — that is, from the consumer’s point of view.
Or the example of the maître d’ who has to check the computer in an empty restaurant – only to sit you down next to the restroom! Common sense is everything but. What is it then and why is it so uncommon?
Common sense refers to the judgment and instinct that has been shaped and refined by experience, observation, intelligence, and intuition. It has evolved from centuries of human experience — of you, me, and our forebears observing behavior patterns, avoiding threats to our health, warding off fears, and maintaining our safety, sanity, and well-being.
Common sense is the sum total of our ability to separate right from wrong, efficient from inefficient, useful from pointless, valuable from worthless, orderly from sloppy, clean from dirty, dry from soaked, secure from hazardous, mature from childish, beneficial from harmful, and prudent from ill-advised.
Common sense is practical. It’s reasonable. It’s iterative. It’s dynamic. It’s obvious or, rather, it’s supposed to be obvious. When it’s working, common sense often leads to a sense of happiness, productivity, and an improved quality of life. When it’s not working, you want to tear your hair out.
There are a few factors behind the dissolution of common sense in the business world.
These are the reasons we can’t have common sense in the workplace…
The first reason is that most companies are accountable to Wall Street and their shareholders, period. They overlook the people who actually buy and use their products and services, forgetting that customer-centric organizations not only create value but drive sustainable growth. In this clash of priorities, common sense dies.
Second – politics. I can always tell when politics are a problem in a company when: a) the business has multiple “levels”; b) geographical distances exist between company offices and employees; c) bosses habitually change their minds and opinions; d) the culture is dominated by silos; e) frequent internal communication is lacking; and f) few employees know what anyone else in the organization is doing and are instead focused on defending and preserving their own turf. Oftentimes in this scramble, common sense is among the first casualties.
Third – tech is the enemy of common sense. It destroys empathy, compromises our agency, turns grownups into children, impedes innovation, and, worst of all, makes us doubt our own store of common sense (the human kind).
Fourth – meetings and powerpoints. If companies had their way, meetings would be scheduled from morning until night. Breakfast meetings, snack meetings, lunch meetings, midafternoon meetings, twilight meetings, dinner meetings, bedtime meetings.
Fifth – most companies overflow with rules and policies, some official, others less so. Most are written as standalone documents. No one has ever reviewed them as a whole (because there are too damn many of them), just as not one of us bothers to read the privacy or compliance form that shows up after a software update or download. We simply check agree, and hope we haven’t just signed our lives away. Worse, these rules have become part of company folklore. With no one able to get a handle on all of them, which would be impossible anyway, employees get scared.
Sixth – compliance and legal. It’s only your company that’s so gun-shy and rule-bound, right? No, actually it’s every company. Which of us who works in an organization doesn’t inhabit a system of rules, manuals, and restrictions established by compliance and legal departments that dictate everything from our wardrobe to how best to make small talk with customers? But if employees are continually told to adhere to company statutes and edicts and to ignore what their “gut instinct” is telling them, they lose all agency — and surrender their own humanity. As a result, ordinances win and common sense loses.
Finally, the reason why we see less and less common-sense in the world now isn’t as straightforward as we think. In my experience, the lack of common sense in companies (and in life) has a clear, if indirect, connection to the increasing disappearance of empathy.
O wow. So how do you find empathy in a world run by algorithms or zombie policies?
Along with being remembered for his films, Alfred Hitchcock was known for his atypical approach to scriptwriting. For example, for every movie he wrote and directed, he compiled two separate screenplays: a blue script and a green script. The blue script resembled a traditional three-act screenplay, with dialogue, cues, camera angles, camera shots, and stage directions.
Is this the point when James Stewart looks out the window to see his neighbor cleaning a knife? Blue script. Where should Tippi Hedren stand as those birds attack her? Blue script. The green script, on the other hand, focused on what Hitchcock wanted audiences to feel, on a minute- by-minute and even second- by-second basis. Apprehension. Anxiety. Fear. Shock. Relief.
In a company, if a blue script describes the causes (e.g., operational inefficiencies), the green script shows the overall effects (e.g., a lack of common sense). If a blue script highlights those departments that aren’t working together or those systems or processes that get in the way of productivity, a green script reveals where common sense (and a lot of the time, empathy) is missing. It could be the customer service center that shuffles callers to eleven different departments or the weekly, hourlong meeting that exists purely for its own sake.
Again, if the blue script — fact- based, unambiguous, and measurable — focuses on day-to-day problems, stoppages, or miscommunications, the green script focuses on the effects of those problems, most often a lack of common sense and empathy: empathy among various departments or silos; empathy between senior and middle management; empathy between employees and consumers.
The difference between “sympathy” and “empathy” is the difference between me seeing you throw up and handing you a napkin and me seeing you throw up and feeling so bad about how you’re feeling that I throw up myself.
Empathy is deeper, more intimate and less boundaried than sympathy, less a default reflex than an act of identification. When we empathize with a friend who has just gone through a terrible work experience or a breakup, we actually imagine being our friend. Empathy allows us to imagine how we would feel if it happened to us.
Companies have lost the green script.
If empathy is linked so strongly to common sense, how does its disappearance affect companies? The answer is that businesses today have squeezed out almost everything that could be called “human.” If something can’t be measured or quantified, it doesn’t exist. If it does, data determines if it’s right or wrong. If an email bounces back or our laptops can’t connect with a server, we’re the ones at fault!
With empathy eroding, businesses pay a price. Empathy, after all, is what distinguishes a consumer who is loyal for life from another who swears she’ll never go near your company again.
So how does a company stop the madness? How do they establish a Ministry of Common Sense?
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 the approval of upper management. It can’t be seen as a frivolous job. Often when employees are given a mandate, they don’t take it. Do everything in your power to make sure this mandate sticks.
Before anything else, you need to address the short-term mindset of the CEO who, remember, has to justify his own role before a board or, if it’s a listed company, shareholders. The best way inside the CEO’s head is by emphasizing — you guessed it! — cost savings.
There’s so much more in the book for readers and business owners who are serious about creating a company that works. Thanks, Martin for a wonderful book – which is now deservedly a #1 bestseller! Congratulations.
INTERVIEW BY CHRISTIAN SARKAR