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What Can We Learn from Sherlock?



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In a self-diagnostic, I would categorize myself as a multi-tasker and believe (ed) that I was pretty good at it.  A juggler.  But Mastermind:  How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes — and who wouldn’t want to be capable of that kind of insightful thinking — has caused me to reconsider the wisdom of the approach.

In her self-help book, Maria Konnikova explains that our minds are wired to wander.  Unless we consciously will our minds to focus, our minds quickly move to a resting state, which, far from resting as we know it, is a state of constant gathering of information about what we experience around and inside ourselves.  This “resting” happens unless we are consciously on guard, and when it does, the attention we give to one thing is at the expense of another.  The fact is, neuroscientists tell us, that “multi-tasking” is not possible.  It actually is “task-switching,” which creates negative stress and diminishes our thinking and work product.

The natural state of the brain, they tell us, is also to believe what we see.  Ms. Konnoikova contrasts the Watson System of believing everything we see and hear with the Holmes System of analysis through observation and questioning of everything.  The Holmes System, because it does not follow the brain’s natural state, takes discipline and practice.  While it sounds like common sense, it’s not common practice, and according to neuroscientists, the way our brain works is part of the challenge.  Could developing Holmes’ power of observation help us think more like the great man? What impact would that have on sales results?

Mastermind outlines the steps of The Holmes System

  • Observe with a good dose of skepticism, not as a cynic but as a creative problem solver.
  • Question everything.
  • Keep learning.  “Education never ends.”
Customers, rightly so, expect and demand that we come to them with industry, customer, and stakeholder knowledge.  But knowledge itself is not as valued as it once was.  The real value is in the connections we can make among knowledge (content), relevant insights (deeper understanding between two points), and an idea that is actionable for our clients.  In a recent blog, Seth Godin reminds us, “Right is meaningless unless it leads to a connection …”

Insights help us connect.  There are multiple sources of insights, including customer analytics, research, experience, and observation — and customers themselves.  Mastermind puts a needed spotlight on focus through observation as a source of insights.  Keen observation can fuel the insights and ideas needed to differentiate and produce results.  Observing at the Holmes level requires willing the mind to focus — whether it is getting ready for a client meeting or the meeting itself.  It demands intimate listening and perceptive and informed probing into the answers clients give that otherwise would seem complete or reasonable.  It takes asking questions that make invisible needs visible; for example, probing deeply into things such as what’s important in the customer’s buying process.  It demands understanding and probing the status quo with clients and within our own organizations.

Leaders from the Buddha to Steve Jobs have had as their mantra the importance of focus.  But there are so many demands that it is easy to use the multi-task Juggler System, and the brain is all too willing to accommodate.  Steve Jobs said, “You have to work hard to get your thinking clear.  But it is worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”  So it seems the question for all of us is, do we want to move hills or mountains?

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