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Just one more question...

I love TV detective shows. I'm a geek, I know, but without Diagnosis Murder during my lunch breaks, I don't think I would have got through my PhD at all. I had thought that if you liked one TV detective, then you'd be pretty sympathetic to them all. But no. Recently I discovered something shocking. Someone who I thought was a kindred spirit - with a shared love of Murder, She Wrote - claimed to dislike Columbo. How can that be? So I've been thinking about the relative approaches of the two super-sleuths and what we might learn from them. Well, it is still lockdown here in Scotland and I *might* be suffering from lockdown brain!

Murder follows Jessica about so much that she's either very lucky (given she writes murder stories) or she's a serial killer. Whichever she is, her approach follows this broad pattern. She's minding her own business, either at home in Cabot Cove or out on a book tour somewhere, when the murderer strikes. Of course, it's not really anything to do with her but - despite police protestations - she gets involved. She sleuths about, finding clues and proving that the police have their sights on the wrong person. She never gets it wrong, never gets arrested (ok, maybe once), and never gets seriously threatened by the murderers she outs. She simply follows her nose, in her cooky, quirky way.

Columbo, on the other hand, is a detective par excellence. As an audience, we watch the murder unfold at the start of each episode and it's as though Columbo has watched along with us; he just seems to know who's in the wrong. He spends his time asking just one more question, riling the perpetrators until they lose their temper. He takes it slowly, gathering information as he goes, all so he can build up to a grand finale and recreate events. And when he does the big reveal, it's a complete masterpiece! The joy in watching Columbo is that - as he's getting closer - we witness how the murderer starts to unravel.

To bring this back to something vaguely work-related, what interests me are the approaches that these two TV detectives take to solve the problems they're presented with, approaches I think we can learn from as we tackle problems in our workplaces. If we're like Jessica, we'll do detailed background research, ask for a range of opinions and form strong relationships to find the evidence, before a process of analysis, often using previous examples (earlier cases, or books she's written) to provide insights. If we're channeling Columbo, we'll take a quick appraisal of the situation to form an initial idea - drawing on experience of similar situations - and then spend our time asking questions to test the hypothesis, tweaking it as we go.

There are clear merits in both these approaches. Research and analysis are essential ingredients when it comes to solving problems, and the value of gathering and understanding a wide range of perspectives should never be underestimated. But neither should using your past experience - or even just taking a punt - to form an initial idea, that's then open to questioning. Problem solving should be a creative process, sometimes drawing on what you already know, and sometimes taking a leap in the dark. What's most important - and a feature shared by both these characters - is the ability to probe the issues, to ask questions and to challenge ideas. It's this continuous process of questioning that leads to the best results.

Just imagine what would happen if Jessica Fletcher and Columbo teamed up. They'd be unstoppable! Now, that's a show in the making...


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