The Next Common Sense: Mastering Corporate Complexity Through Coherence

By Michael Lissack and Johan Roos

Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 1999

Some divine hotshot has punched the accelerator of time just to see how fast the world can go. What used to be a leisurely landscape is now a blur out of which competitors appear without warning. Everything is moving so fast that by the time you unclasp your briefcase to pull out the company manual, it’s too late – the next challenge is looming.

So what rules do you apply to handle change in a complex world? According to Michael Lissack and Johan Roos, both of whom have extensive business and consulting credentials, you use common sense, or more exactly, The Next Common Sense. In a wonderfully rich expression of irony, they advise us to attack complexity with simplicity. The authors, in 12 clearly worded chapters, set forth 12 rules for companies to inculcate a corporate culture that heralds individual creativity. It’s really that simple: in a world as complex as this, there’s no way that top-down management directives can anticipate all situations or that a company can react if all decisions have to go through channels.

In psychobabble terms, the concepts they recommend are called “letting go” and “empowerment.” Lissack and Roos recommend letting interactions take place, thinking about ecosystems rather than entities, and sending out what they call “scouting parties.” The old common sense, they say, involves “sticking to your knitting.” The book is peppered with examples of teams and workgroups that broke out of their boundaries to achieve greatness. Granted, Southwest Airlines Co. and General Electric Co. are not original examples, but their stories are worth retelling in the context of this high-speed world.

But how do you change a culture weighed down by its own inertia? The authors make it sound simple, and in a way it is: Reward creative behaviour. Be open to new ideas. Hire the kids who are going to live in the future you create, and make the boomers acknowledge that not everything that worked in the past will work in that future.

This blueprint for tapping into the creative energy of every employee is also remarkable for its own accessibility. It’s an exceptionally easy read, with examples and definitions broken out and guidelines repeated incrementally at the end of every chapter.

No boring pedantic academics, these guys. They, too, use simplicity to conquer complexity.