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.

Build your brand with a helping hand during the pandemic (review)

empathyThe COVID fog rolled in thick and fast at the grocery store and an act of kindness got me home.

I was at my car with a week’s worth of groceries but no keys. I rifled through every bag and made sure the keys weren’t locked in my car.

I went back inside the grocery store to the check-out line, swung by customer service and retraced my route up and down the aisles.

The store was closing in 40 minutes.

The manager took pity, stopped restocking shelves and joined the search. He offered to watch the cart and recheck the grocery bags while I scoured the store for a third time. The manager found the keys buried in a bunch of grapes. I couldn’t remember when or why I’d put the keys there.

Buyology-Coronavirus_3DI thanked the manager. No worries, he said. Lots of customers are distracted and losing things these days. He was possibly being more kind than truthful.

Either way, empathy is exactly what you should be showing your customers and employees, says Martin Lindstrom in Buyology for a Coronavirus World. We need kindness now more than ever and smart businesses are offering it.

“Right now there are a lot of people in need,” says Martin. “Old people struggle to shop without having to leave their home and expose themselves to the virus. Waiters, bartenders, and airline crews have lost their jobs, with no new jobs in sight. Kids’ schools have closed, though mom and dad are still expected at the office. Nurses are working day and night. The list goes on and on, adding up to hundreds of millions of people affected by the crisis. All are in need.”

While offering extra help to your existing customers will cost you money, it’ll be less than what you’ll spend trying to find new customers at a time when most of us are dialing back our overspending.

“In times of need, you can really make a difference — and your customers will notice. In difficult times, you can cement a lifelong relationship. You can build your brand.”

During the financial crisis of 2008, car buyers were offered the Hyundai Assurance. The company promised drivers they could return their new vehicles if they lost their jobs within a year. Sales went up by double digits while only five cars were returned.

Your acts of kindness don’t need to be budget-busting grand gestures. Hilton’s DoubleTree Hotels recently published the recipe for the cookies they give to guests as they check-in. The hotel chain gave out more than 30 million cookies each year at its 500-plus properties during our pre-pandemic days.

cookies“We know this is an anxious time for everyone,” said a DoubleTree senior executive. “A warm chocolate chip cookie can’t solve everything but it can bring a moment of comfort and happiness. We hope families enjoy the fun of baking together during their time at home and we look forward to welcoming our guests with a warm DoubleTree cookie when travel resumes.”

My kids were definitely comforted and happy and ate the entire batch of DoubleTree cookies in two days. 

Compare Hyundai and DoubleTree to companies that are ignoring or taking advantage of customers. Martin calls out an airline that hung up on him and another that’s charging $50 upfront for every call you make, regardless of why you’re calling.

“What strikes me is that most airlines, car rental companies, hotels, supermarkets, insurance companies – you name it – behave like they never plan to interact with customers again. It’s as if this is the end of the world. They may know something I don’t, but I hold another opinion.”

Martin also says now’s the time to rethink and reinvent your business.  The prospect of another shutdown, an economy that’s slow to restart and customers who’ve broken their addiction to overspending should give you the sense of added urgency required to bust out of your comfort zone.

“This crisis is written on every wall, door and panel. I don’t think a single soul will deny it so use it to your advantage. Give everyone in your organization, from the receptionist to top management, a simple but profound task: rethink your business model. Ask the profound questions. If we need to change everything from the ground up, what industry are we really in.”

Legacies will be defined during the pandemic. We’ll remember how you made us feel long after COVID-19’s defeated. So be kind, do good, rethink and reinvent.

“What’s happening right now is a lot more than a story for our grandchildren and the next generation to come. This is the moment when you define your legacy as a leader. You won’t be remembered for wins or losses, but for how you were there for your employees and customers.”

Martin is doing good by making his pocketbook available for free as a digital download.

This review ran in the June 27th edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.