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Jan 22, 2021

When people start working inside organizations, something happens to them. They forget they’re human. They start adhering to rules, processes, procedures, and official and unofficial codes of behavior that make no sense to anyone outside the organization. 

Somewhere along the line they forget how they would feel if a bank told them their checking account was frozen or if their “customer-care” call involved four different departments and tore a 90-minute hole in their lives while being told repeatedly that “this call is being recorded for training purposes.”

The good news is that by restoring common sense to organizations, employees are beginning to see the world through more human eyes and, along the way, to rebuild their companies’ brand. 

Is Your Org Like a TV Remote?

Imagine that, as a consumer, you order a pair of flats online. They show up in the wrong size. When you can’t find the return postage label (because there isn’t one), you jam them inside an old wine carton and pay $17 at your local post office to send them back. Two weeks go by without any acknowledgment from the company.

When you call to inquire about a refund or exchange and the customer-service phone number isn’t listed on the website because the last thing the company wants is for you to call them you’re placed on hold three times as you get transferred from one department to the next. You put your phone on mute, and start yelling, vowing never to buy shoes from that company again. In fact, you vow never to wear shoes again if it’s going to be this much of a hassle.

As an employee, is this the kind of service you would want or expect if something similar happened to you? Would this experience lead you to recommend the shoe company to friends and family members? I doubt it. Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Ford, once told me that during his first two weeks on the job, he knew his company had gone off the rails when he found that the majority of the cars in the employee parking lot were…well, not Ford cars! 

In the end, improved efficiency, productivity, morale, and happiness all come back to how much common sense there is inside an organization. Meanwhile, the lack of common sense, in turn, has a significant effect on items you would never expect, such as your TV remote control.

I was in Miami a couple of years ago for a conference, staying at a hotel. Wanting to check the day’s headlines, I reached for the TV remote. It was remarkably complex. It looked like it could launch a rocket ship, actually. Infinite tiny numbers. A multitude of buttons. Three separate numerical keypads. Where was the on button? Was it the red one labeled “On”?

Wait why were there two red on buttons? If I pressed both, would my TV be incredibly on, allowing me to access supernatural programming that viewers with just one on but ton couldn’t? What did “Source” mean? What did “a-b-c-d” mean? What did all the arrows signify? 

After stabbing indiscriminately at the thing for a few minutes, the TV finally came to life. I watched the news for a few minutes, then shut the TV off, or tried to. There were two off buttons. When I pressed the first one, the lights in the room dimmed in a moody, sexy way. When I pressed the second off button, the air conditioner shut off. The TV stayed on. I ended up climbing up onto a nearby desk and, with my butt in the air, yanking the plugs from the wall socket, disconnecting the TV, the minibar, and the standing lamp.

A few months later, during a flight to New York, the passenger seated next to me introduced himself. It turned out, purely by coincidence, that he was an engineer at the very same company responsible for that TV remote. “You’ve probably never heard of the company,” he said. “Want to bet?” I said. 

Powering up my laptop, I showed him the PowerPoint slide I’d made of the remote control. “What the hell went wrong with you guys?” I said. 

He stiffened in his seat. He explained that the company had internal problems, with various divisions vying for real estate on the remote control. No one could agree which department “owned” what. Ultimately the TV remote was divided up into zones resembling each of the internal departments in his company. One was for the TV. A second was for cable. A third was for TiVo. A fourth was for satellite. A fifth belonged to the folks responsible for broadcasting big band era or hip-hop music 24/7, or for displaying a crackling yule log in winter. 

The engineer seemed proud of what his company had done and how equitably things had been resolved. There were no more internal squabbles. Every division now had fair representation on the remote. 

“Except for the fact I have no idea how to turn the TV on!” I said. He looked at me, still not understanding. 

Not Everybody Deserves a Button

How does an overcomplicated remote control circle back to an absence of common sense in an organization? Very simply. 

As the engineer sitting next to me pointed out, the average TV remote control with its logographic script of arrows, keys, buttons, numbers, and letters reflects any number of internal miscommunications and power struggles inside a local telecom. Just as a footbridge with a small crack along one side can indicate more serious foundational problems, an unintuitive remote control points to a few core problems within the company that issued it. With half a dozen silos inside the cable company vying for representation, no one was looking at the remote control holistically that is, from the consumer’s point of view. 

Those internal corporate divisions probably don’t even speak to one another. That’s why we as consumers reach for this slender, schizophrenic plastic monster with such confusion, irritation, and anger. Because the root cause of a lack of common sense generally comes down to a series of disconnects among departments, employees, and consumers.

Adapted from The Ministry of Common Sense: How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses, and Corporate BS by Martin Lindstrom. Copyright © 2021 by Lindstrom Company, Ltd. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.