common sense

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Enough of the Red Tape: A Return to Common Sense

When is enough red tape and bureaucracy enough? Is it time to return to the days where common sense prevailed?

Don’t you just love the glossy annual report, no matter which company it represents? The financials change from report to report, but the descriptive material remains pretty much the same.

The company’s rosy impression almost always begins with its values, starting with Integrity and ending with People. Next comes the “meet the team” page, with the perfectly staged line-up of smiling senior executives. Then you’ll see the company’s promises to its customers (which bear a striking resemblance to the promises that friendly voice makes while the customer is on hold: “Your call is important to us. We place the customer front and center in everything we do.”).

Those annual reports look polished and perfect. Unfortunately, if you have a chance for a few off-the-record conversations, you’ll likely discover layer-upon-layer of frustrating, bureaucratic red tape. From an outsider’s point-of-view — this represents a complete lack of common sense. By “common sense,” I mean seeing things as they are and doing things as they ought to be done.

Or, said another way: To treat consumers and employees as you would expect to be treated.

The Impact of a Loss of Common Sense

Consider the global shipping company that brought me on to explore their surprisingly low Net Promoter Score (NPS) customer satisfaction rate. I was perplexed to find that the call center categorized every complaint as resulting from force majeure. Every single complaint. This made it impossible for customers to make insurance claims for damaged goods. I discovered that leadership evaluated the call center staff in terms of efficiency (time per call) rather than customer satisfaction. Clicking the force majeure button required the employee to fill out just one page, while any other option required three or more pages. Of course, they clicked force majeure.

Or how about the international company that required staff, before they could jump on a plane, to fill out a travel form for approval. Fair enough, you may say, until you learn that the form was set to auto-reset in 12 hours if approval didn’t come through. Slightly tricky, considering that most senior management works from Asia headquarters. With a 12-hour time difference, you’d stand better chances surviving Duck, duck, goose than getting your trip approved.

Lack of Empathy = Loss of Common Sense

Bureaucracy, red tape, and bad excuses have reached an all-time high. And with technology infiltrating every crack in every business — and now at home, too, piped straight into our home offices — something fundamental has vanished: empathy. Yes, I know: Empathy isn’t at home in the business world. Most executives tend to associate empathy with crying children and cupcakes. But don’t forget. Empathy is our ability to place ourselves in another person’s shoes and feel what that person is feeling. It’s sharing the customer’s pain when their case is labeled force majeure, or relating to your employee’s frustration when they still don’t have permission to travel to an important meeting scheduled for tomorrow.

In fact, I’ve come to realize that a lack of empathy typically means limited common sense within the organization. It leaves one wondering: Is this at all reparable? In the business world, can we restore common sense?

Time to Establish The Ministry of Common Sense

That’s what I wondered until, while working with Standard Chartered Bank, one of the world’s largest banks, I had a eureka! moment. One of the bank’s staff members told me: What we need is a Ministry of Common Sense. Her suggestion was pure common sense! The bank needed a place whose mandate was to receive internal issues — and solve them.

Two months later, Standard Charter opened its brand-new Ministry of Common Sense. It had its supporters, but it also garnered a lot of laughs. Who on earth would submit their common sense issues? Even worse, who would solve them?

Working in culture transformation for nearly 20 years, I’ve learned that we find solutions within the organization itself. The only thing required is a little kid to shout, “But the emperor’s not wearing any clothes!” People just need help removing their blinders and releasing themselves from their straitjackets.

For sure, they did at Standard Chartered. First in the hundreds, then in the thousands, common sense issues arrived at the ministry’s website. But it didn’t stop there. Solutions arrived, too. Employees ensured they provided every common sense issue with a solution, capable of almost immediately solving the problem. For instance, the person who received 800 emails a day and suggested the company remove the CC and Reply All functions from Outlook. Simple common sense. Email traffic dropped in half.

Or how about another company that set up a ministry, resulting in the company banning PowerPoint presentations. Wasted time dropped by 21% — and people actually began to talk to each other.

Not So Common

Through my work, I’ve come to realize: Common sense is not actually all that common.

I’m not saying that every company needs to set up a ministry of common sense. But one thing is for sure. Adopting empathy — seeing the world through the eyes of customers and other employees — is a huge part of the solution. By seeing the world from another point-of-view, you’ll be able to spot and remove one stupidity – and one moment of insanity – at a time.

You’ll be able to remove your straitjacket while rebuilding a strong company culture that puts employees and customers first. You’ll enable a return to common sense.

 

 

Named by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people, NYT bestselling author Martin Lindstrom’s latest book, The Ministry of Common Sense: How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses, and Corporate BS (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is out today, January 19, 2021!