In defense of common sense at work (review of Martin Lindstrom’s The Ministry of Common Sense)

A parent emailed in a panic.

Her son, who used a wheelchair, was graduating from college. His convocation ceremony was just days away. His dream was to walk across the stage to accept his diploma. To do that, he’d need help from his mom.

But mother and son were told that couldn’t happen. There was a hard-and-fast rule against family and friends being on stage during convocation. No exceptions even in exceptional circumstances.

The mom’s plea found an empathetic ear. Her email was forwarded to the president. Common sense prevailed.

When the student got up from his wheelchair, everyone in the packed theatre got out of their seats. With help from his mom, he walked across the stage to a standing ovation, lots of cheers and more than a few tears.

So how about your organization? What hard-and-fast rules, regulations, policies, procedures and practices are driving out common sense?

Count on the number of common-sense issues to be off the charts, says Martin Lindstrom, author of The Ministry of Common Sense: How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses and Corporate Bullshit. “This 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 have abandoned whatever common sense they once had in favour of systems and processes that a two-week-old golden retriever would find dumb. Either businesses never had much common sense to begin with or they’re not aware it’s gone missing.”

If common sense is MIA in your organization, Lindstrom blames eroding empathy, an insular inside-out rather than outside-in perspective, corporate politics and technology that more often complicates, rather than streamlines, our lives.

So how do you help common sense make a comeback? Start with small, modest changes that’ll yield quick, easy and momentum-building wins, says Lindstrom. The people you serve will be more than happy to tell you how you frustrate them to no end. Your employees will do the same if they believe candor won’t cost them their jobs. Having senior leaders experience your organization as a customer, client or frontline employee is also highly instructive.

Once you’ve identified red tape and roadblocks, stage a three-month intervention. “This strategy involves doing things quickly, accurately and efficiently – within a 90-day time limit. A ticking clock injects a sense of urgency to the proceedings, which typically dissolves company politics. The busier and more focused that employees are on hitting a target, the more that internal politics disappears.”

Optimism will wane so celebrate your wins no matter how small. “Only rarely do organizations commemorate truly special occasions. If they do, these usually revolve around boring economic metrics, soaring stock prices or a cursory email that shows up in your inbox telling you that Barb in accounting is turning 50 next week, and asking whether you will be chipping in for cake and a hot stone massage. Designed mostly to please HR or throw a bone to employees, these sorts of celebrations are often the extent of a company’s recognition of the culture.”

To pull off these changes and make sure they stick, Lindstrom recommends establishing a CEO-endorsed Ministry of Common Sense, “devoted to overturning the frustrations, hurdles and roadblocks within corporations that most leaders and managers don’t even know are there. And by the way, the Ministry isn’t some cloying, whimsical, feel-good jurisdiction either. It’s not a Band-Aid. It’s real, and it serves as the first line of defense against the thoughtlessness, at-times-incoherent systems, processes, rules and regulations that squander resources, morale and productivity.”

As Lindstrom shows, reviving common sense in your organization will save you money, improve your culture and strengthen the customer experience.  As the pandemic forces us to rethink and reinvent how we run our organizations and do our jobs, we should also revisit all the hard-and-fast rules that are crushing common sense. Let empathy reign.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s