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Five Ways to Start Problem Solving like Sherlock Holmes by @vmcntosh

Sherlock Holmes
Posted in

Five Ways to Start Problem Solving like Sherlock Holmes

by Victoria McIntosh | Featured Contributor

Struggling to solve a particular problem for your company? Why not take a few pointers from the mastery of mind and deduction, Sherlock Holmes? After all, when it comes to great minds, few characters are as infamous as the fictional detective consultant from Baker Street. Say the name Sherlock Holmes and you’ll automatically bring out visions of deerskin caps and smoking pipes, Victorian era London, and actors including Robert Downey Jr. , Benedict Cumberbatch, and Basil Rathbone. Holmes has become infamous in all media as the ultimate problem solver. When Sir Arther Conan Doyle created the character, he developed Sherlock Holmes as the embodiment of scientific thought, the ideal in analytical thinking and logical reasoning. However while Holmes is fictional, sharpening your mind like the master detective is not impossible: Holmes powers of observation were based on real-life surgeon Joseph Bell, and according to psychologist Maria Konnikova, author of the bestselling book Mastermind, there is a method to his mindfulness.

If you’re on the edge of sorting out a problem for your business and need that extra push, here are five ways you can go about solving it like a great detective:

1. There Is Nothing so Unnatural as the Commonplace: Question Everything.

In the mind of Sherlock Holmes, nothing is beyond reproach. One of the more memorable aspects of Holmes is his ability to to avoid stepping over critical details, including those right in front of Scotland Yard. Holmes is not a man who is satisfied with events or details in place because they were simply ‘there’: instead he asks why. In Silver Blaze, a key detail that cracks the case is a dog who doesn’t bark:

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

As Holmes later explains, why would a dog, trained to be on the alert for the unusual, not make a sound? The answer is that the dog did not see anything unusual at all: the perpetrator of the horse’s theft was someone already known. When problem solving, look at how the problem appeared: why was one action preferred over another, why did a sequence events come to play out as they had, or is there a small detail that appears odd given the circumstances?

2. It Is a Capital Mistake to Theorize Before One Has Data: Gather as Much Information as You Can.

What is the first thing Sherlock Holmes goes after before solving any problem? The answer is information. From searching for data, getting those involved to re-tell their stories, to observing the environment, digging up past histories or blueprints: no deductions can be made until all the facts are in place. “Data! Data! Data!” he cries in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches. “I can’t make bricks without clay.” Providing an answer without analyzing the facts is akin to picking an answer by coin tosses: for some theories you might get lucky, but the result is less problem solving and more hoping for inspiration by chance.

Consider what goal you want to accomplish, what obstacle your mind is trying to overcome: would more information make things clearer? Could it present new options, or help remove some of the roadblocks? More information alone won’t make your mind put the puzzle together, but it will certainly eliminate guesswork and provide a better picture of what you’re working with.

3. Never Trust to General Impressions, but Concentrate Yourself upon Details: Be Aware of Your Own Bias.

Even physiologists have been shocked by just how much preexisting bias plays into our thought process and lines of reasoning: our unconscious minds are constantly at work, filtering and adding to create stories out of what we see, and unfortunately those stories aren’t always accurate. Becoming aware of existing biases and consciously removing them from the facts is a critical part of Holmes problem solving. An individual could have appeared the most charming, caring person in the world, but according to Holmes they are no more than ‘person’ until evidence can be found to attest their character. There is no place for personal bias or opinions in logical thinking: one changes from person to person, and is based purely on past history and cultural assumptions, the other is the examination of what exists, as-is based on physical law. Remove bias and you remove potentially inaccurate information, which then forces you to collect facts your mind might otherwise gloss over.

“It is of the first importance.. ..not to allow your judgment to be biased by personal qualities. A client is to me a mere unit, a factor in a problem. The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.”

4. Know When up Against a Three-Pipe Problem: Try Your Head at Something Else, Take a Walk and Switch Gears.

In The Red-Headed League, Holmes refers to the plight of Jabez Wilson as a three-pipe problem, alerting Watson he is in need of a smoke, and not to be disturbed for a full hour. It may seem as an odd request, but there is a method in Holmes’ choice: he knows that the only way his brain will be able to digest the facts and uncover a solution is by letting his subconscious mind have at it, for him to consciously give his brain time to put the puzzle together. In a similar manner, for The Lion’s Main the true cause of a murder comes to Holmes only after he allows himself to step away from the evidence and go for a walk. To psychologists, this isn’t a surprise: research has already revealed walking does wonders for creative thought. It may sound counterproductive, but sometimes the best thing you can do is allow your mind a break from trying to solve it in the first place: change the scenery, engage in another activity that will keep you mentally stimulated enough to switch gears from a while, and let the subconscious wrangle the issue in the background.

5. Nothing Clears up a Case so Much as Stating It to Another Person: Know When to Use Your Watson.

If there’s one element that every great master of detection needs, it’s access to a ‘Watson’; another person who can act as a soundboard for the mind. Your Watson doesn’t need to be a medical surgeon returned from a military tour of Afghanistan, they can be a spouse, a friend or a coworker; all they need to be is someone you can comfortably speak to about the problem as it’s swimming through your head. The Watson does not answer the question for you, rather the Watson allows you to re-examine the problem by putting it out in language for someone else to comprehend, forcing a fresh breakdown of the facts, asking questions to probe for more details, and providing a fresh perspective. If the magnifying glass helps Holmes view smaller details in more clarity, Watson provides a different lens from which to view the problem altogether. “I am lost without my Boswell,” proclaims Holmes in the Scandal in Bohemia, waving off any concerns the doctor has in getting in the way of a fresh case. After all, even the greatest detectives of all time can benefit from a little help.

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