The Ministry of Common Sense by Martin Lindstrom Book Summary

The Ministry of Common Sense, How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses, and Corporate BS by Martin Lindstrom


Global consultant Martin Lindstrom knows corporate foibles from the inside. Here, he recounts the business world’s most ludicrous bureaucratic rules. His entertaining jaunt through inanity may lead you to consider what your company does and why. His five-step program shows leaders how to apply common sense, even in highly regulated industries. Lindstrom’s useful and fun manual is perfect for executives and staff members who know there’s a smarter way to get things done.


  • Sometimes business solutions don’t address the real problem.
  • Common sense falls out of use for six common reasons, including failure to focus on your customer.
  • Quantitative measures help analytically, but you also need to understand your customer’s experience.
  • To inject common sense into your company, follow five steps:
  • 1. “Activate the need for change.”
  • 2. Change takes courage, so make sure any turnaround is quick.
  • 3. Celebrate your successes.
  • 4. When you mandate a change, never leave a way of going back.
  • 5. Foster a culture of contribution.
  • To create a “Ministry of Common Sense,” tackle cost savings first.
The Ministry of Common Sense Book Cover

The Ministry of Common Sense Book Summary

Sometimes business solutions don’t address the real problem.

One consulting firm found that rules which companies enacted at some time in the past and never updated generated a cost of $15 billion each year. And that is in addition to the $94 billion firms spend to ensure internal compliance with their rules.

About half of all people in the world work for commercial, governmental, educational or not-for-profit organization, hot-beds of nonsensical rules. About 8,000 of those people work for a financial company in New York, which had 6,000 unassigned desks [this is before COVID-19]. Every morning, employees got to the office and dashed for desks. People who didn’t get one had to go work at home. The company never told its employees that it had installed seat sensors to indicate when a desk became free. If someone went for a cup of coffee or a bathroom break, by the time he or she returned another person would be sitting at that desk, and the first employee had to go home.

“I can confirm that the disappearance of common sense is at epidemic levels in companies.”

Author Martin Lindstrom works with companies to establish a “Ministry of Common Sense” department to increase productivity and boost morale while reducing costs. As a consultant, he witnessed the way making compromises can erode new, crisp ideas until they become unrecognizable. This happens worldwide, in part due to the increased use of productivity-based Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

A company’s culture affects its business outcomes. Frustration soars in companies beset with problems that emerge without the leveling influence of common sense, defined as a decision or gut feeling based on “experience, observation, intelligence and intuition.”

Common sense falls out of use for six common reasons, including failure to focus on your customer.

In business, six issues undermine common sense:

  1. Businesses that focus more on their stock market results than their customers lose valuable opportunities to create long-term loyalty, growth and profit. 
  2. Office politics exacerbate issues in any layered organization with multiple locations and divisions. These organizations falter when they don’t integrate across silos.A lack of understanding of other people’s roles can spark turf wars fueled by “ego, hierarchy, power” and money.
  3. Technology increases convenience and saves time, but it often displaces people’s common sense. In 2018, Swiss International Air Lines wanted to reduce costs at its head office. A vendor proposed a lighting system with sensors that shut off the lights when a room was empty. The lights went out repeatedly when people were in meetings or working at their desks.
  4. Many meetings and PowerPoint presentations waste time and effort. When customers hear Lindstrom’s presentation and ask him to send a PowerPoint deck, he knows they don’t like his idea, and no one will read what he sends.
  5. Companies often have official and unofficial rules and policies. Since no one can read the unofficial set of dictates, they take on a life of their own.
  6. Compliance and legal departments run all companies. They can define what you wear to work and how you talk with customers. This destroys self-agency.

Quantitative measures help analytically, but you also need to understand your customer’s experience.

A decrease in empathy in the world caused a similar reduction in common sense. Common sense requires connecting with people and identifying their emotions. 

Film director Alfred Hitchcock’s approach provides a great example. When working on a movie, he had a “blue script” and a “green script.” The blue script contained the actors’ lines, locations and cinematography directions. The green script outlined Hitchcock’s goal for how the audience should feel while watching a scene.

“Improved efficiency, productivity, morale and happiness all come back to how much common sense there is inside an organization.”

For a company, the blue script is factual and clear; it provides the building blocks for metrics. The green script reveals the results the company desires as a result of its blue script actions. Often, this does not include the goal of engendering empathy among colleagues in different divisions, between customers and staff, or within management. Yet, empathy can make the difference between a lifelong customer and one who will never buy from you again. 

The senior executives at a large credit card company consulted Lindstrom on why its customers “hated” their corporation. The executives focused on metrics and didn’t seem to care about their customers. The author ran an experiment. He asked the company’s fraud division to disable the leaders’ credit cards for 24 hours and, that night, he set up a dinner meeting. After the company rejected an executive’s card when he tried to pay a cab fare, the man called the customer service line. He hung up the phone, furious, repeating that he “hated” his own company.

Lindstrom admitted orchestrating the situation. The manager now understood and had empathy for what almost a 25% of his firm’s customers went through every year. Within months, the company restructured customer service, based on customers’ needs.

To inject common sense into your company, follow five steps.

To restore common sense, support a focus on “human to human” interaction and adopt the term “H2H” rather than B2B or B2C. 

“We’ve permitted technology and data to overwrite centuries of accumulated human intuition.”

Companies can instill common sense five ways:

1. “Activate the need for change.”

People fear big changes and actively resist them. Instead of projecting 10 years from now, chief executives should look one or two years ahead.

Lindstrom interviewed many of the employees at a large corporation to determine the organization’s resistance to change and to ignite the need for change. These conversations uncovered the company’s “real” organizational chart – as opposed its official one – revealing who drives change and how the firm handles problems. 

In one exercise, Lindstrom gave participants cameras and asked them to photograph things in the company that showed a lack of common sense and to write an explanation. Next, he asked executives to define an “ideal company.” Their descriptions usually required fixing the problems that emerged from the conversations with their employees.

“The problems a company suffers from internally are usually mirrored externally.”

Then Lindstrom asked the executives to find a word that encompassed their organization’s mission and purpose. For example, at Disney, the word is “magic” and, at Volvo, the word is “safety.” Selecting just one word to represent a firm (for example “human”) gives employees a clear yardstick, grants them more autonomy and becomes a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

2. Change takes courage, so make sure any turnaround is quick.

Find small changes or “proof points” you can complete and celebrate in 90 days. This built-in urgency focuses employees and dissipates office politics. It stops people in upper management from talking themselves out of instituting changes. A series of small changes has a positive influence on corporate culture.

“If small changes can have immediate and positive effects, imagine what much larger changes can do.”

Making too many adjustments in your change strategy along the way will undermine your initiatives. Projects start out as bright, shiny ideas with sharp corners, but people erode those edges as they modify the initiative. To avoid this, write the core idea of the change plan and refer to it frequently during implementation.

3. Celebrate your successes.

Employees who are working hard to implement change can feel disheartened if their work is not visible to senior executives, so involve your top people. When executives interact with the people who are making the change or responding to customer issues, their support underscores the permanence of the change.

“No matter how small or insignificant a change may appear, it holds symbolic value for the other members of the tribe.”

Importantly, companies should acknowledge their employees’ contributions by celebrating any success, large or small. This makes staff members feel valued, and it strengthens their feeling of belonging.

4. When you mandate a change, never leave a way of going back.

A classic three-act movie plot is similar to the story of change within a company. When companies transform, the change effort stalls about three-quarters of the way through; in a movie this is the Act 2 “all is lost” moment. Seemingly insurmountable problems will arise at about this point. It’s important to realize that they are solvable.

“Make sure you have a concrete solution ready for whatever problems come up – and that you communicate [it] to everyone.”

In Act 3 of a movie, the friction is settled. In companies, the tipping point for change arrives when everyone involved realizes change is really happening, and they must change their behavior and mind-set in parallel.

5. Foster a culture of contribution.

To encourage greater contribution from your employees, identify internal change agents. These people are like “personal trainers” who will push the company out of its comfort zone. Often, they will not be high-level employees. Ask them to change one aspect of their work in order to improve it. After a month, have them tell the group what they found. Ask them to identify five other change agents.

Use storytelling to ignite the desire for change. People act on emotion, not facts, so you can reach them by creating a storytelling culture that teaches and encourages them to tell emotional stories that support common sense.

In 1960, President John F. Kennedy asked a custodian at NASA what his job was; the janitor said he was there “to put a man on the moon.” He exemplifies how everyone at a company should connect to its mission.

To create a “Ministry of Common Sense,” tackle cost savings first.

Your budget request may cause laughter in the boardroom, but companies need to allocate funding to root out problems and solve them. Call it what you like, but the mission is finding commonsense ways to save money.

Executive Gail Ursell coined the name “Ministry of Common Sense” when she set up the first such unit at London’s Standard Chartered Bank. She focused on streamlining policies and procedures that created more “annoyance than actual value.” Within six months, the ministry solved numerous problems from customer service to accounting. Staff members at the bank felt the company saw them as individual people, not merely as employees.

To create a ministry of common sense, “endorse” it (convince leadership), “energize” it (prove its effectiveness), and “externalize” it (be empathetic to all stakeholder viewpoints). Make sure the group is official and have senior leaders fund and support it. Initial energizing actions should include saving money, strengthening your corporate culture and improving the customer experience. At Toyota, one initiative was to turn off the lights in a production plant where robots worked round the clock without people.

When an idea from the ministry saves money, split the savings between the ministry and the division or group involved. This helps units fund further cost-saving, commonsense initiatives, and it provides an endorsement story to motivate other groups.

“The Ministry of Common Sense is…a first defense move against a company sliding backward into old, bureaucratic habits.”

Address issues that increase the company’s esprit de corps to pump energy into the ministry once it has the support of senior leaders. For Swiss International Air Lines, this meant allowing the cabin staff to deal with customer complaints instead of waiting for a third-party vendor. If a drink spilled, the onboard personnel could replace it, saving part of the vendor’s $89 per issue fee and keeping passengers happier.

When commonsense change spreads through a company, look outward to the customer. Microsoft learned that 80% of its hundreds of thousands of customer calls about Office software dealt with fewer than 100 issues.It provided “papers” detailing the solutions to these issues, saving time for both Microsoft and its customers. This process provided information for future software updates and follow-up sales.

Creating a Ministry of Common Sense won’t fix every problem, but if it resolves a quarter of them, that’s a win.The goal is a corporate culture that doesn’t need a Ministry to reduce spending on ridiculous policies, rules or regulations. When that overview becomes an intrinsic part of your company’s practices, your employees won’t need to ask why they are doing something that doesn’t make sense.

About the Author

Martin Lindstrom

Martin Lindstrom’s other books include Small Data, Brand Sense, Buyology and Brandwashed

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