OPINION: Are you a Sherlock or a Watson?

Alex Siewert
By Alex Siewert | 28 January 2014

This weekend I (sadly) finished the last of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes books. It struck me that if a student was to ask me what they should read to succeed in a strategy job, I would have to say start with Sherlock Holmes.

Clearly I am biased, and my admitted obsession with crime mysteries allows me to confront my particular brand of cognitive dissonance regarding my choices of work and entertainment. But it wasn’t until I read Sherlock Holmes, that I realised that the world’s most famous detective, was actually a qual/quant strategist.

For those would be sleuths out there, Sherlock Holmes called his approach “systematised common sense” which is essentially a process of deduction leading to the best possible conclusion. But what separated the accuracy of Holmes’ conclusions from inaccurate guesses of Watson’s was the rigour he put into analysing all of the relevant data points.

Holmes was a voraciously curious fellow, so much so that if he didn’t have a complex problem to navigate he’d inject himself with cocaine to stay intellectually stimulated (I, like Watson, wouldn’t endorse this approach). For Sherlock, everything was worth figuring out, quantitatively and qualitatively and, if I may stretch the metaphor, only then would he draw a conclusion (or deduce his strategy behind the mystery).

It is this combined “passion for exact and definite knowledge” and for “deduction – when the subjective becomes objective” which formed the backbone of Sherlock’s approach, and that which I think is fundamental to truly effective strategy and planning. A strategic proposal without these is akin to plotting a brand’s future based on a superficial glance at newspaper headlines and a wet finger – i.e. the Watson approach.

So if you’re a young upstart in the industry, or simply one of those in strategy or planning who are growing tired of the Strater/Planner-tainement term, then maybe this year you can try strategy Sherlock style. If so, I’d recommend starting with the Hound of the Baskervilles, or the Sign of Four, or pick up one of the 'How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes' books out there (I’ve yet to read either, but my copies are on the way).

Of course not everyone has a one and a half hour commute to work like I do, so if you need a short-cut to improving your strategic sleuthiness, simply give these four Sherlockian principles a try:

  • Come at all problems objectively
  • Pursue, acquire, then analyse, both quantitative and qualitative data from all angles
  • Develop multiple theories (or strategies) and use your data to validate, refine, and then prove or disprove them
  • Constantly seek out new methods discovering the truth

It’s fair to assume that the Sherlock approach requires copious amounts of time – but it doesn’t. The secret to the Sherlock method is to spend whatever time you do have proving the facts in whatever way you can. Otherwise your strategy will always remain a theory, and clients need theories like they need holes in their heads. (dum dum dum!!)

Alex Siewert
Director of Strategy
The Leading Edge

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