What can a Sherlock Holmes story teach us about management?

‘My name is Sherlock Holmes.  It is my business to know what other people don’t know.’

Sherlock Holmes – fictional English detective

As business owners and managers, we are often concentrating on ‘the business noise’ and daily work activities rather than what is not happening in the business. The Sherlock Holmes mystery The Adventure of Silver Blaze, involving the apparent murder of a champion race horse’s trainer and the disappearance of the race horse illustrates this point.

On the night of the alleged crime, the residents in the house near the stables heard no sound.

The dialogue from the book makes interesting reading:

Inspector Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?

Sherlock Holmes: ‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.

Inspector Gregory: ‘The dog did nothing in the night-time’.

Sherlock Holmes: ‘That was the curious incident.

What was Holmes’ conclusion?

As dogs often bark at strangers and the dog did not bark perhaps the offender lived in the house near the stables. This important clue where the ‘dog didn’t bark’ helped Sherlock Holmes to solve the mystery.

What can we as managers learn from Holmes’ actions in The Adventure of Silver Blaze?

We normally think that important clues involve events that did happen, however we often forget that events that did not happen can be more important. Using customer service as an example, we concentrate on replying to customer’s phone calls and emails, whereas instead we should also be concentrating on those customers we do not hear from?

The equivalent of the dog that did not bark.

The customer could be very satisfied or extremely unhappy with our products and services? Reconnecting with the customer presents us with a great opportunity to reconnect and reinforce the positive experience they are having with our service or products or save their business from going to competitors because of a poor experience.

Remember, like Sherlock Holmes perhaps we should as managers and business owners also allocate time away from the daily ‘business noise’.

Are you looking at what is not happening in regard to staff and customers, especially those we do not hear from?

This may give us valuable clues on where to improve our products, services, staff relations, or our management style.

Another lesson from the farm……

“There’s nothing like putting your bare feet into fresh cow dung on a cold day. It’s great “
Makhaya Ntini – first ethnically black cricketer to play for South Africa

In a previous blog I wrote about constant renewal using lessons from the farm and I now have another ‘farm story’ from my childhood.

One of my jobs was to ‘pen up the calf’ each evening. This was done so that when my father milked the calf’s mother in the morning it would have enough milk to collect for our growing family of four boys. Rounding up the calf each evening was often a challenge. Regularly the calf would be cunning and refuse to go through the gate to be penned up.

The cow paddock was also a world of excitement for young boys. A creek to cross, dive bombing plovers in mating season, the odd angry bull, a mob of kangaroos with joeys, snakes……….

What a challenge!

However, the paddock other dangers. Yes, it was full of ‘land mines’ (our nickname for cow manure) — ranging from the very fresh to the dry and dusty.

It was fun to trick my youngest brother. He sometimes followed me around on my afternoon chores. On one of his first adventures into the paddock with me to pen up the calf for the night I encouraged him to jump on a week-old cow pat. Not being entirely convinced, he tapped it with a stick. It sounded hard so he then, with my encouragement jumped on it.

Two things happened.

Firstly, he was shin deep in cow manure and secondly, I doubled up with laughter — apparently the look on my brother’s face said it all. What a mean older brother. I certainly had some explaining to do to my mother when we got home.

The cow paddock in many ways was a great learning ground for a life in business. It was a very practical lesson –

‘what you see is not always what you get’

Are you careful enough in assessing opportunities and problems which are your land mines?

Are they what they seem on the surface?

Questions and Answers

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

Voltaire

One of the biggest mistakes  we can make  as managers is to talk too much and  ask too few enough questions.

Are you a manager who suffers from “I” strain? – I did this, I do this, I, I, I, …

Furthermore, if we do ask questions do we listen to the answer?

Asking questions is one of the most effective ways of gaining information and eliciting team co-operation. It is therefore one of the best tools available to managers.

The skill in asking questions is to know what type of question to ask, when to ask it and how to ask it.

There are 2 main types of Questions:

  1. Closed Questions – these are those questions that require a yes  no, or one word answer. They should be avoided unless you are clarifying a position or answer
  2. Open Questions – these are questions that elicit an open response where if handled carefully you can obtain valuable information and opinions and have your staff committed to the organisation.

 

A useful technique in asking questions is to start the question with one of the following………Why, Where, When, Who, What, and How

You can continue a conversation and explore ideas by rolling through the five Ws and H:

‘where’ did it happen?

‘when’ did it happen?

‘who’ was involved?

‘what’ happened?

‘why’ did it happen?

‘how’ did it happen?

Other types of questions include

Direct Questions (can be used to slow down a fast talker, confront an obstructionist or draw out a reluctant participant),

Leading Questions (should be generally avoided  but can be used to gain support or bring a meeting to a close),

Ambiguous Questions (when more than one answer is possible. Can also  be used to provoke a response, slow down a domineering talker, start a discussion or spark some action),

Provocative Questions (should be used with care and often used to provoke a response or defend a position),

Rhetorical Questions (very effective in putting an issue ‘to bed’ and moving on)

and

Re-directed Questions (used by politicians to avoid answering the question).

Questions are good tools to have when conducting a meeting.

More importantly we should avoid asking questions that are:

  1. Closed questions (yes/no) unless you follow up with a direct or factual question
  2. Invoke antagonisms
  3. Of a personal nature which may embarrass
  4. Sarcastic

So now the question I ask is “how active is your listening?”

Are you getting the feedback desired and does the person you are questioning feel that you are interested and actively listening to their answers?