I recently finished The Moonstone, which was published by Wilkie Collins in 1868 and is recognized today as one of the first great British detective novels. This book got me thinking about how the perplexing problems we face in the workplace, whether they be related to a project, process, or product, often require a good deal of detective work. I pulled out three key techniques which I’ve seen great leaders use to solve complex issues in the workplace.
Before I get into those lessons, here’s a quick plot summary.
The story focuses on a young heiress, Rachel Verinder, who inherits a priceless (and possibly cursed) gemstone. On her 19th birthday, she wears the gemstone (nicknamed the moonstone) to a well-attended party in her home. That night, the gem mysteriously disappears, and a search ensues. Unable to find the moonstone, Rachel’s family decides to contact the police.
First to arrive on the police’s behalf is Superintendent Seegrave, who misses several key clues, bullies and intimidates key witnesses, and in general does a very poor job. Because he zeroes in on the wrong suspects and bungles up the crime scene, he complicates the investigation almost beyond resolution.
Unsatisfied with Seegrave’s efforts, Rachel’s mother calls for the services of the well-respected Sergeant Cuff, whose techniques as a detective are an extreme contrast to those of Seegrave. Cuff befriends the servants of Rachel’s household. He becomes familiar with the entire grounds of the home, and silently observes the different suspects. Although he does engage in some direct interrogation, most of the time he casually strikes up conversations that elicit key pieces of evidence. Without giving away any spoilers, Cuff is the only person able to correctly deduce the thief’s identity at the end of the novel.
With that background, we can now take a look at how Sergeant Cuff’s approach can be applied to solving our most pressing business problems.
- The importance of genba
In Japanese, genba means “the real place.” (Coincidentally, genba is also the term used for “crime scene” in Japan). The Gemba Walk is a process-improvement technique business leaders can use to gather insight on a team by going to where the work is actually completed. Sergeant Cuff was a master of this in The Moonstone. He quickly immersed himself into the intricacies of the physical landscape of the crime, as well as the complex relationships between the Verinder family, friends, and servants. In a similar way, if we are too far removed from a business issue, we will likely follow Superintendent Seegrave’s example in focusing on the wrong evidence, people, and symptoms.
- Recognize red herrings
As in any great detective novel, there are several red herring clues which misdirect both the reader and Sergeant Cuff in his investigation. When Sergeant Cuff suddenly discovered a piece of evidence he had been working on turned out to be a red herring, he immediately admitted as much to those working with him and focused on other areas of the investigation.
In the workplace, sometimes we are reluctant to admit when a high-visibility project has gone awry and continue to invest resources, time, and money in trying to make it work. Instead, we should frankly acknowledge when our efforts aren’t solving the end problem, and redirect resources as quickly as possible. In that spirit, it pays to fail fast.
- An agile, set-based approach
Amazingly, even after Seegrave completely disrupted the crime scene, Cuff was able to discern a single, critical clue within the first day of arriving at the Verinder home. Instead of waiting to proceed with his investigation until he found more evidence, Cuff investigated the different avenues presented by his initial discovery. In contrast, Seegrave sought to identify a single suspect at the front-end of the investigation and could not progress in his efforts as a result.
Much like a detective has to consider several different suspects at the same time, agile teams often follow set-based design principles. Under this philosophy, team members pursue multiple design options at the start of a project, whittling down the solutions little by little until the best solution is determined. This incremental approach avoids the pitfalls of investing too much into a single design that is too costly to modify at the end of a project lifecycle. Jeff Bezos recently shared that he believes if you’re making decisions with 90% of the needed information gathered, you’re moving too slow. Instead, he argues that decisions should be made more at the 70% level, which allows for more adjustment after the initial customer response. (Amazon delivers new code to customers about every 11 seconds). Whatever the ratio, moving efficiently to deliver incremental value is critical for today’s business teams.
Maybe this article is a bit of a stretch, but the next time you’re faced with a mystery on the job, grab your pipe and follow Sergeant Cuff’s example–you might be surprised at the results!
Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.
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Justin Scoville's unique adventures in project management have spanned international volunteer opportunities in Mexico and Israel, complex government grant programs, and more recently education technology implementations in the private sector. Proudly bearing the battle scars of initiatives both small and large, Justin enjoys exploring the frontiers of project management, particularly its intersection with process improvement methodologies, strategic planning, and product management.
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