The Ministry of Common Sense Strives to Bring Empathy Back


Global branding expert Martin Lindstrom is on a mission to restore common sense to modern business. In this book, he shares dozens of real-life examples of customer experiences gone wrong along with a process to bring common sense back.

The Ministry of Common Sense

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“Companies are so entangled in their own internally generated issues, and further beset by reams of invisible red tape inside employees’ heads, that they lose sight of their core purpose — and inevitably pay the price.”  — Martin Lindstrom, The Ministry of Common Sense

Common Sense Has Left The Building

Martin Lindstrom was having dinner with his publishing team.  He’d spent the day preparing a list of book ideas that, frankly, fell flat. That’s when one team member asked him what was closest to his passion.  And his answer was “common sense” — or the lack of common sense that he faced with companies that made buying and using their products a hellish customer experience.

In his latest book, The Ministry of Common Sense: How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses, and Corporate BS, Lindstrom shares dozens of these examples along with a process to overcome this corporate insanity.

Lindstrom Gets to What’s Underneath a Great Brand

For decades, Martin Lindstrom has been helping brands like Microsoft, Pepsi and Lego create memorable brands.  He’s written eight books that shared his research and insights about why we buy, how to harness data, the unique way our senses influence our buying decisions, and even the tricks advertisers use to influence our buying decisions

By any measure, he’s had a successful career. But after some self-reflection, he realized that, while his work was transformative and important, it felt like a hit-and-run.  He didn’t like the idea that he would show up, provide ideas and strategies, and leave it up to the company to implement. 

Over the last few years, he’s committed himself toward transforming businesses and cultures from the inside out. And it’s from this perspective that The Ministry of Common Sense gets its juice.

Who is the Audience for The Ministry of Common Sense?

One of the first questions I ask myself is “who is this book written for?”  The Ministry of Common Sense made that a bit of a challenge to answer.

The most obvious audience for this book is the C-level executive in a large global company.  The idea is that he reads this book, reflects on his organization, and wonders if his company was one of these “Corporate Darwin Awards” examples. Because you certainly don’t want to be “That Guy”. 

Small business owners would also benefit from reading this book.  Sure, your business isn’t as big as these examples, but it’s a cautionary tale for those entrepreneurs who are scaling their business.  If that’s you, you’ll find a virtual playbook for what NOT to do.

Finally, I think the other person this book was written for was — Martin Lindstrom. It took me about two rounds of reading and rereading to see that.

In the introduction, Marshall Goldsmith called the book “funny, entertaining and informative”.  This threw me for a loop because it seemed a bit different from Lindstrom’s previous books. Then I read what inspired the book in the acknowledgments (which are at the end in my review copy). That’s when I made the connection. 

I think this book was therapeutic for him.  It’s like he just couldn’t deal with the “crazy” anymore and simply had to tell it like it is. 

The Ministry of Common Sense was like the unvarnished truth about the day in the life of a global branding expert. As a marketer myself, I didn’t know if I was supposed to envy him or feel sorry for him.    

Empathy is at the Core of  The Ministry of Common Sense

Let’s get to the nitty-gritty of this book.  As I said before, it’s a little different from your typical Martin Lindstrom book.  There isn’t a lot of research or data in this one.  The stories and “case studies” are basically a plethora of experiences from his life as a consultant over the years.

If the key question is “What happened to common sense?” Then the answer is “Putting rules, technology and legal compliance before empathy.”

You wouldn’t know it by the chapter names, but each chapter is a drill-down of how internal politics, technology, compliance, and policies that keep large companies “organized” ultimately get in the way of common sense.

I think that the model he presents, with empathy at the core, could have used some type of graphic so that the reader can understand how all of these elements connect and impact one another.  

How to Bring Common Sense Back

The tension in the book revolves around the question of “How am I supposed to fix this?!” This doesn’t get answered until the end.  The final chapter of the book provides some guidance as to how you might put common sense at the center of your business and how to go about changing some policies in the form of commonly asked questions and Lindstrom’s answers.

Here are a couple of recommendations I gleaned from the book that I think will be most helpful for small to mid-sized businesses:

  • Shop your own business. Think of a way to give yourself the exact same experience that your customers have. Define a task, call in, use the website, etc.  If you run a face-to-face business such as a restaurant or retail, get a secret shopper (it’s more affordable than you’d think). 

  • Get into your customer’s world.  This might include simply asking your customers, visit your customers. Explore what they are really thinking about when they use your product or service. 

  • Ask your employees and then LISTEN.  Vow to make small changes based on their feedback. 

Are We In a Common Sense Revolution?

The Ministry of Common Sense isn’t the first book I’ve reviewed on this topic.  Would You Do That to Your Mother (2018)  is another book that pokes the corporate bear in the hopes of inciting a common sense revolution. 

However, I think that it will take more than a book or two to do that.  Perhaps a global pandemic might do the trick.

Remarkably, Lindstrom has incorporated the COVID-19 disruption in this book. In fact, there are several non-common-sensical examples of how companies are trying to do the right thing with unintended consequences. 

But that’s beside the point. 

Disruptions tend to lay bare inconsistencies, gaps and all the different ways that we make life unnecessarily difficult for customers.  

And for this reason, I wonder if The Ministry of Common Sense might nudge more companies toward embracing empathy as a core value and simplifying our lives. If they aren’t sure where to start, they should ask Martin Lindstrom.  I’m sure he’d be happy to help.

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Ivana Taylor Ivana Taylor is the Book Editor for Small Business Trends. She is responsible for directing the site’s book review program and manages the team of professional book reviewers. She also spearheads the annual Small Business Book Awards. Ivana publishes DIYMarketers, where she shares daily do-it-yourself marketing tips, and is co-author of "Excel for Marketing Managers."