Home Opinion The pandemic, common sense and creativity

The pandemic, common sense and creativity

Martin Lindstrom
The business and cultural transformation expert rues the direction companies are headed in
An interview with
Bestselling author and brand consultant
Martin Lindstrom speaking in one of the events

The future of work has been forever altered due to the pandemic. While positive outcomes have emerged, the future of work could be marred by a decline in both common sense and creativity says New York Times bestselling author Martin Lindstrom, in this interview. 

Mr Lindstorm’s latest book—The Ministry of Common Sense: How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses, and Corporate BS—published last week, is about how organisations can rid themselves of the bureaucratic bottlenecks and red tape they are plagued with. It comes down to a lack of common sense, he says, and also talks about the future of work, the decline in creativity at corporations, and offers some predictions on society and business in 2021.

Unravel: Why is company culture important in promoting innovation and creativity?

Martin Lindstrom: Company culture is all about establishing a sense of belonging around a shared purpose. If this is gone – you just ‘go to work’. The consequence of this is a drop in collaboration causing silo effects, a break down in customer service and a sharp increase in bureaucracy. And along the way, a sharp drop in creativity and innovation, due to the simple reason that people are held back by red tape, bad excuses and corporate bullshit.

Unravel: How do you see it evolve in the future of work?

Mr Lindstrom: We’re all increasingly stuck behind our screens at home. The numbers are saying that productivity is up. However, what few are talking about is the fact that creativity is down. Here’s the fact. As we sit in our back-to-back zoom calls there’s no longer time for reflection or strategising. We’re more or less all in ‘survival’ mode trying to get through the day. As a result, all pauses in life are gone, breaks in between the next call have vanished. Here’s the future of work – if we do not manage to redesign our day-to-day life completely, the risk is that we’ll not only apply all the ‘lack of common sense’ from the past but that creativity will vanish too.

Unravel: In what ways is bureaucracy and red tape an impediment?

Mr Lindstrom: It just makes things slower, more cumbersome, more time consuming. At the end of the day, it reduces creative freedom given the fact that no one will have the courage it requires to break rules and dream up breakthrough innovations. Think about it this way, if you’re up to your ears with water in a tank, you won’t be able to think a single creative thought. The only thing you’re thinking about is how to survive.

Creativity will be on a sharp decline. We have no energy to be creative as we’re bombarded with ‘stuff’ occupying our mind—avoiding us from getting bored—and boredom is the foundation for creativity.

Unravel: Your new book’s overarching theme is the lack of common sense among corporations. Can you tell us more?

Mr Lindstrom: Common sense is about seeing things as they are; and doing things as they ought to be done. Or said in another way – to treat consumers and employees as they themselves would expect to be treated.

However, most companies are obsessed seeing the world from ‘inside out’ – totally forgetting the customers’ perspective. Suddenly, internal rules and regulations become the guiding light. This is a growing phenomenon. In fact, we estimate than an average of 35% spent on a daily basis in larger corporations is wasted on bureaucracy and red tape – slowing down any initiatives and further distancing the company (and its brand) from the customers.

Unravel: You’ve talked about empathy being central to ‘humanness’. Has reduced empathy led to distress among certain companies during the pandemic?

Mr Lindstrom: Absolutely! Remember, empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.

A majority of companies are horrible at seeing the world through the eyes of its customers. Let me give you an example.

One of our pharma clients, the world’s leader in respiratory disease medicine, witnessed stagnating patient satisfaction. They reached out for help. When I asked their top executives when they last spent time with patients, their answer was, “Never”. So, we set up a visitor programme for the executives. During one visit, we met with this 28-year-old lady who’d suffered from asthma since birth. She told an extraordinarily touching story about being teased and isolated in school. When I asked how she overcame such a traumatic experience, she pulled a straw out of her handbag. She explained that she asks all her friends to breathe through the straw, while holding their noses, for 60 seconds. “That’s what asthma’s like,” she tells them. It instantly establishes a sense of empathy.

I was so inspired by the idea that I ran the same exercise with the company’s board of directors. A few seconds into it, one of the executives spat out the straw and said, “This is ridiculous!” I told everyone in the room, “This is how your customers feel, every minute of their lives.” That moment came to define the entire organisation. Suddenly, HR was hiring staff with empathy, and R&D began designing products from the patient’s point of view.

Common sense recovered.

I would say this is very much aligned with Blue Ocean thinking. In Step 2, you stress the importance of understanding where you are now. The empathy exchange helps create that realisation.

Unravel: You’ve written about Hyundai’s growth following the Global Financial Crisis at a time when US majors had to be bailed out by the government. What sort of consumer research insights did they employ?

Mr Lindstrom: Hyundai took the time to really ask people why they were holding back spending money on a car. They didn’t just issue a survey but decided to understand the underlying reasons why people were hesitant to purchase a car. As a result, they learned that consumers not only had the money to buy a car but were willing to buy one if they had a safety net underneath them. In Hyundai’s case this resulted in the Hyundai warranty – guaranteeing every customer that they could return the car at any time over the next year if they were to lose their job and Hyundai would return their money, no questions asked.

Unravel: Big data is regarded as one of the cornerstones of innovation. In the quest to collate and analyse big data, are we overlooking ‘small data’?

Mr Lindstrom: I’m obsessed with small data – the seemingly insignificant observations in our daily lives. Where big data is all about correlation, small data is all about causation (the reason why). What’s the difference? Well big data typically would conclude things like: “It rains more if you sell more umbrellas” – interesting statistics – but useless. A lot of companies today rely on big data only. My philosophy is simple. You first need small data as the foundation (shaping your hypothesis) – then you can verify this using big data.

Unravel: What do you mean when you refer to this pandemic as the “8th point of market entry”?

Mr Lindstrom: Right now, pet food is flying off the shelves, people are buying life insurance policies like never before, and the best-selling products in supermarkets bear a striking resemblance to the favourites of the 1950s. The reason why is what I call the 8th entry point.

We’re all increasingly stuck behind our screens at home. The numbers are saying that productivity is up. However, what few are talking about is the fact that creativity is down. As we sit in our back-to-back zoom calls there’s no longer time for reflection or strategising. We’re more or less all in ‘survival’ mode trying to get through the day.

Let me explain. If you’re a proud mom or dad, I’m sure there came a moment, when you were expecting your newborn. Then a whole range of products you’d never noticed before—strollers, diapers, bottles, pacifiers, toys, cribs—were suddenly everywhere you looked. A magic wand seemed to have made the invisible visible, opening your eyes and mind to an entirely new world. In marketing-speak, we refer to this as a “point of market entry”. It’s a universal point where a customer segment becomes receptive to a whole new category of products and services. Studies throughout marketing history identify seven standard points of market entry in most people’s lives: arrival of newborn, first day in school, going off to college, first job, moving away from home, getting married and retirement. We now have the 8th entry point with a pandemic that has altered the way we live, work, socialise, interact and spend.

Unravel: In a general sense, what are some developments in business and society that you expect to see in 2021?

Mr Lindstrom: Common sense will reach an all-time low. COVID-19 and all the additional restrictions penetrating our society will be used as a universal blanket excuse – making things even more difficult on a day-to-day basis.

We’ll continue working from home even after COVID-19 is hopefully somewhat gone. The reason is simple – companies have realised the enormous cost savings having people work from home and as a consequence are cutting real estate and travel budgets.

Creativity will be on a sharp decline. We have no energy to be creative as we’re bombarded with ‘stuff’ occupying our mind—avoiding us from getting bored—and boredom is the foundation for creativity.

The millennials will age 35 years because of COVID-19 because of the simple reason that they’ve discovered that we’re all vulnerable – and have no eternal life guarantee. When you’re young you’d never think of this – but COVID-19 has become central to everything in our lives. As a result, the millennials will begin doing things people typically only would do when in their 60s—like creating their own bucket list—and living by it.

Global brands will suffer, and in many cases, move into an existential crisis. I don’t think the concept of global brands will continue. Of course, we’ll still see the Apples and Louis Vuittons of the world around. However, the majority of brands will ‘go local’ and adapt to truly local trends – and with that adapt a local image, visual design and even product offerings.

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Bestselling author and brand consultant

Martin Lindstrom is a global branding and culture transformation expert with experience across five continents and more than 30 countries. TIME Magazine has named Martin one of the “World’s 100 Most Influential People,” and for three years running, Thinkers50, has selected him to be among the world’s top 50 business thinkers. Among the companies he advises are Burger King, Lowes, Boar’s Head, Beverly Hills Hotels, Pepsi, Nestle and Google. Martin is the author of seven books including several New York Times bestsellers that have been translated into 60 languages. His upcoming book Ministry of Common Sense will be released worldwide on 19 January 2021.

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