Martin Lindstrom Transcript


Martin Lindstrom is a New York Times bestselling author of seven books including Buyology, Small Data, and his upcoming book–The Ministry of Common Sense: How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses, and Corporate BS (Jan 2021).

Martin is the founder and Chairman of Lindstrom Company, a global branding and culture transformation firm working with Fortune 100 companies in more than 30 countries. He has advised companies such as Mattel, Pepsi, Burger King, and Google. Martin has been ranked on the Thinkers50 list for 3 years in a row and TIME Magazine named him one of the “World’s 100 Most Influential people”.

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Have you ever had to deal with rules or guidelines at work that don’t really make sense? Have you ever had a great idea for your organization that would save time or money only to have the idea killed as it went up the corporate command chain? I’m sure we’ve all experienced these bureaucratic red tape in our careers and this is exactly what Martin is trying to combat. He is trying to bring common sense back into the workplace.

How innovation is killed

For the past 20 years, Martin has been working with companies to transform their brand and corporate culture. And what he found was that every company has an immune system that works as a defense mechanism for change.

He says, “Companies have it (the immune system) because as soon as they migrate from being a small startup company to become a real serious bureaucracy, what happens is that people are protecting what they already have. And through that, they create processes and compliance and rules and guidelines. And all that becomes almost an invisible straight jacket, which is almost sucking the oxygen out of the room in terms of innovation and transformation.”

He gave an example of something he experienced while working with McDonald’s many years ago. The company had come to Martin to help reinvent the happy meal. Martin and his team came up with a great concept of redesigning the meal to be healthy, but fun. They realized that in order for kids to eat healthy there had to be a narrative that made the food cool, fun and exciting. They came up with a story where the broccoli was the bushes in the forest, and the tomatoes and the cucumbers were tools and weapons in the story along with all of the other food. They tested this on kids and they loved it. Parents loved it. The McDonald’s franchisees loved it. So McDonald’s gave the green light to pilot the idea across Europe. After two years the company went to launch the new happy meal and guess what it was? The old happy meal food with an apple added.

After that experience, Martin realized he needed to understand the “immune system” and actually address the lack of common sense that happens with bureaucratic red tape and corporate command chains. Since then they have actually hired psychologists to join the team at the Lindstrom Company.

Why companies need to think like entrepreneurs

So what can companies do to start removing the red tape and stop killing innovation? Martin says they need to go back to the concept of entrepreneurship. One key trait entrepreneurs have is they see the world through the eyes of a customer or a consumer, they don’t see things through the eyes of a business person. Usually the reason an entrepreneur is starting a new business or service is to fill a gap they experienced so they are the consumer. They have felt the pain or frustration on the consumer side, so they know how to make the experience great for others. But what happens over time is the company grows and the entrepreneur starts getting nervous about others stealing their idea or that some of their 3000+ employees will mess up the company brand or philosophy. That’s when the safety net comes in, in the form of rules, regulations, policies, etc…And slowly the company starts seeing the world from the inside out instead of the outside in. This is when the common sense starts fading away.

As Martin shares, “When you lose a sense of common sense it is quite often because you lose contact with the consumer, the customer. Really the people who are paying your salary, and you need to reconnect with the real world. And most companies today believe that they’re doing that through data, they believe that the spreadsheets and all these statistics and research studies are telling them the truth. But the reality is, there’s one little thing missing. And that thing is empathy. The ability to put yourself in the shoes of another person and feel what that person is feeling. And as soon as that happens, it’s almost like you’re resetting the whole mindset. And that’s where common sense is coming back.”

The six roadblocks to common sense

In Martin’s new book he lays out six of the most common roadblocks to common sense. They are:

  • Bad customer experience–The company is not feeling the pain the customer feels so no one inside the company acts on behalf of customers to fix problems. The way to fix this is through empathy–finding ways to put yourself in your customer’s shoes.
  •  Politics–There are two issues in this roadblock. First not knowing what other people in other departments or divisions are feeling and not caring. And the second issue is the KPIs that are not aligned.
  • Technology–Technology is a wonderful thing, but there are always multiple issues with it throughout the day that can be a time waster and it can build frustration. We spend around 15% of our day fixing tech issues. It can be a tool or a weapon
  • Meetings and PowerPoints–Not only do we have too many meetings, but almost everyone is multitasking in them and the culture most companies have created around meetings is toxic. They run over, everyone has their own agenda, people are trying to show off instead of be productive. We cannot be productive if we spend all our time responding to emails and sitting in meetings.
  • Rules, regulations, and policies–There are a lot of rules, regulations and policies inside of organizations that just don’t make sense. We have to be able to question rules and eliminate them if they are not reasonable.
  • Compliance and Legal–A lot of times people in this function of the company say no just for the sake of saying no. When this function has too much power, it can destroy your company and how it evolves. You have to have the right balance between keeping the company safe and secure, but also they have to be service minded and remember that any rules put in place should be sensible and be for the best of everyone involved.

How do we get back to common sense?

We have all probably experienced at least one of the six roadblocks, if not all six. So how do we start moving our organizations back to common sense? Martin’s advice is, “First of all, acknowledge there is an issue. Number two, map down what the issues are. And the best way you can do that is to look around in your office everyday, take photos and map this down. Then the third thing is then to categorize it. The fourth thing is to create a whole new business model around it. So you actually are both earning money while you’re fixing the problem at the same time. And the fifth issue I would suggest, is really to celebrate this whole thing internally.”

Why should we celebrate internally? A lot of times we want to change, but we don’t dare to. He gives an example of a group of chickens he had that were kept in individual cages for 6 months and then the cage doors were opened for them one day. They all went out the door of their cage for 30 seconds and then went straight back to the cages. So in order to get them to come out he had to put corn in front of their individual cages and each time he would put the corn further and further outside the cage.

Martin says, “That little piece of corn just outside the chicken case, I call a 90 day intervention. These are short lived, very quick changes you make in the organization. And what you do is whenever you succeed, you’re celebrating that throughout the organization. And the celebration is really important, because if you celebrate when picking up the first corn, all the other chickens are looking around, and they feel Wow, I want to feel that too. And it kind of justifies or verifies, or at least it somehow tells the world this is the right thing. And it changes the culture as a consequence of that. And if you continue having these small wins, time after time, certainly it’s solidified the fact that we are on the right path. And that’s where you have a transformation of a culture happening. So really what I’m saying here is it’s super important for you not to just have these long term goals and talk about what’s happening five years from now is the goal still fine. But you have to break it down to small bite sized things and celebrate it every time. And I think the key problem in organizations today is that companies are setting those small goals sometimes, but they’re not celebrating the success of them, the victories, and that’s just as important as fulfilling them.”

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