4 min read.Updated: 12 Nov 2020, 08:33 PM ISTHarish Bhat
To mark the 100th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s legendary character, we look back at famous detectives to learn how they can offer veritable masterclasses in the art of becoming a better, more efficient manager
The legendary detective Hercule Poirot turns 100 this year. Created by the famous crime writer Agatha Christie in 1920 in her first book, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, Poirot has an egg-shaped head with plenty of grey cells inside, a waxed moustache he’s very proud of, and a fetish for absolute order in everything he does. He solves every murder mystery he is presented with, using the powers of his great mind. Small wonder then Poirot novels continue to be best-sellers, a full century after he was born.
That’s good news for the publishers, but why should we, managers of the modern world, bother about Poirot stories or other detective novels? After all, our KRAs include finding answers to leading teams, understanding consumer behaviour, building robust processes, delivering sales growths—not solving crime.
So you may well conclude that the most useful books to invest in are serious business tomes, not fun detective novels.
I disagree. And that’s because the same powers which detectives like Poirot employ to solve crimes can help us become far more effective managers in the offices. There is no mystery to this, if you consider the following points.
Keep it sharp
Great detectives observe the scene of the crime and human behaviour very carefully. They constantly pick up every small thing or event that is out of place—a second stain on a carpet, a book that is wrongly stacked or a man who appears too eager to talk but only at night. One or more of these small observations provides the detective with a clue to what could have really happened.
Well, that’s true for managers too. If we observe our teams and workplaces carefully, notice a team member who is suddenly silent, or a task that is slowly falling behind schedule, or a colleague who appears unduly harried, each of these deviations from the “normal order" can provide us clues on what we can do to set things right. Sharp observation enables us to show empathy to colleagues. It helps us spot and curb wastages. Observing consumers closely throws up surprising insights that can lead to the next big idea. Detective novels bring to life some amazing methods of observation.
Poirot and other great detectives are excellent at spotting the red herrings, which initially appear quite seductive—in many cases, the criminal has planted them to lead people astray.
Similarly, in our own organizations, there is no lack of red herrings, which can lead us to entirely wrong conclusions. First and foremost, there is a deluge of data that reaches us, from multiple physical and digital sources. Misinterpretation of such data, either consciously or inadvertently, is a big red herring we are faced with almost every day. Often, selective data is used to justify a wrong conclusion. How do detectives cast aside the red herrings that they come across and focus only on the essential information, which can then lead them towards the eventual truth? Detective novels are likely to provide you better pointers on this subject than any business book can.
The right question wins
Brilliant detectives succeed in their quest for the truth because they ask the right questions. These questions may appear innocuous or stupid, but they are carefully designed to elicit some information that helps complete the jigsaw puzzle. That’s true of managers too. Unless we ask the right questions, it is unlikely that we will get the right answers that will help us deliver growth, profitability or innovation. To do this well, we always need to have the larger jigsaw picture in mind. Our questions have to emanate from the gaps we wish to fill in this picture instead of being merely led by the colourful PowerPoint slides in front of us. Detective novels, featuring greats like Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, are veritable masterclasses in the art of asking the right questions in the most disarming way.
Action and reflection
When the famous detective Sherlock Holmes wishes to think deeply, he retreats to his rooms to play the violin or smoke his pipe.
Similarly, the shrewd old Jane Marple (another Agatha Christie creation), who solves many complex village crimes, engages in silent knitting, as she reflects on everything she has seen and heard.
Detective novels bring home to us the need for reflection, to solve difficult problems. As managers, we are often addicted to action—our familiar world of project meetings, email trails and action plans. But if we study the methods of Holmes and Poirot, we find that action and reflection need to happily co-exist to produce the required results. Reflection is not easy. It can be lonely and challenging. But, as Poirot will tell you, the grey cells need space and silence to work at their best.
A clean break
The simplest and the best reason to read detective novels is that they are so enjoyable. Most of us love a good murder mystery. We engage in trying to solve the mystery ourselves, faster than the detective does. Most of the time, our guesses are wrong, but this reading voyage is so immersive that it takes our mind away from the stresses of our lives. That’s a clean break we owe ourselves, particularly in these stressful times.
Harish Bhat works with the Tata Group. He acknowledges the idea for this article came from his colleague Suparna Mitra, who works at Titan, and loves detective novels.