For many organisations, the answer to increasing complexity in the business environment has been to add more reporting lines and heavily detailed processes to everyday operations, often putting common-sense management at risk.
By Peter Barrett
Over the course of his career, Danish marketing and brand transformation expert Martin Lindstrom has worked with some big names in business – think Microsoft, Pepsi, Google, Lego and Burger King.
In 2019, Swiss International Airlines (SWISS) asked Lindstrom to help address a pressing problem for the business. Hundreds of interviews conducted with SWISS passengers and staff had highlighted one overarching theme – passengers were anxious, and not necessarily about the plane crashing.
Myriad little factors contributed to passenger anxiety – getting to the airport on time, having the right documentation, getting a good seat, making a connecting flight, getting through Customs, not losing luggage and so on.
With Lindstrom’s help, the airline responded by implementing small, low-cost changes that equipped passengers with useful information and tools to make their journey less stressful and more pleasant.
In less than a year, these changes translated into a dramatic improvement in the airline’s revenue and customer retention.
Common sense: Increasingly less common
Asking customers exactly what they want and then addressing their needs seems like a very common-sense approach to doing business.
However, Lindstrom says, that in his experience, common sense has become an increasingly scarce commodity for many organisations.
“What we know today is, the bigger a company becomes the more reporting layers it has, the more complex things become, and the more they start to see the world from inside out, rather than what I call ‘outside in’,” says Lindstrom.
Instead of creating a web of excuses to justify an increasingly complex system, Lindstrom recommends organisations adopt a common-sense management approach grounded in empathy.
The three pillars of common-sense management
For leaders, common sense management has three main pillars: the ability to be vulnerable, the ability to create a strong sense of purpose and the ability to create a collaborative environment.
Showing vulnerability is difficult for leaders, says Lindstrom, but it is key to connecting with your team and showing them that you have weaknesses, too.
“As soon as you are willing to exchange weaknesses, two things are happening. First, you’re very clear about where you’re good and where you’re weak, and therefore you can focus on that,” Lindstrom says.
“But you can also let other people admit or share with you their weaknesses, and that means that you can create powerful leadership programs around it.”
The second pillar, creating a strong sense of purpose, is particularly important for younger employees.
“They want to be part of a tribe, or a movement, where there’s a sense of purpose. And if there is no sense of purpose, they’re out of there. Because money is somewhat secondary,” Lindstrom says.
Thirdly, leaders need to create a collaborative environment for their teams, without the constraints of departmental KPIs and office politics.
“A good leader today is only present to break down those silos, through the collaboration aspect,” says Lindstrom.
“As soon as you collaborate, you see things from a common point of view. And common means empathy. And empathy means that suddenly common sense is present.”
Prioritise and be comfortable with saying ‘no’
Leadership expert and founder of BoldHR, Rebecca Houghton, works with organisations to bring common-sense management to all levels of an organisation, not just the very top.
Houghton’s aim is to empower middle managers to adapt and innovate in the face of an increasingly fast-moving business world. She recommends a three-pronged approach to building common sense into decision-making.
First, managers need to exercise strategic prioritisation and control the pace and flow of their own work.
“I often say to my leaders, ‘If you don't have your own priorities, you're always at the mercy of everyone else’s,” says Houghton.
“And without your own priorities, you can never say ‘no’.”
Second, leaders need to cultivate influence, which is particularly challenging in the accounting and finance sectors, which tend to attract introverts, says Houghton.
The key toward managing effectively and exerting influence is about “getting leaders to a place where they realise that their influence is not about climbing the greasy pole or being political,” Houghton says.
“Their influence is actually about helping their teams do more and be more and achieve more. It's about helping their organisation to be better.”
Finally, Houghton says the fast pace of business means middle managers must learn how to be strategic.
“Thinking strategically has to be devolved to the middle, because it can't be the domain of just 10 people in your organisation who do it once every three years.
“It's kind of a constant rethink, but you need to be strategic about how you think, otherwise you'll make bad decisions.”