Revolutionary Times

Sherlock Holmes: non-conformist innovator


It was Sherlock Holmes who, in my early teens, inspired me to be a consultant, and who has – in a surprising number of ways – remained my most powerful consulting role-model. I don’t mean Basil Rathbone, or Jeremy Brett or Robert Downey Jnr, or even Benedict Cumberbatch. It is Conan-Doyle’s original creation that opened my eyes to the world of client relationships, fees, expenses – and above all ways of thinking about problems. I have failed to solve any murders – and don’t play the violin or inject cocaine – but in most other ways Holmes continues to inspire me. Here’s why.

Holmes avoids jumping to conclusions, eschews bias, and knows how to prioritise and focus in a complex situation

Sherlock Holmes does more than merely solve crimes. He provides an entire way of thinking, and ideal model for how we can think better than we usually do. His explanations, methodology, and approach to thinking, all predict the psychology and neuroscience that today are received wisdom. The Holmes method is: clarify the objective, evidenced-based observation and insight; understand and frame the problem; hypothesise (or imagine); test and decide; and repeat. He is deliberately sceptical and inquisitive towards the world. Nothing is taken at face value.

Holmes avoids jumping to conclusions, eschews bias, and knows how to prioritise and focus in a complex situation. He even knows when to let go, stop worrying and clear the mind by going for a walk, or by picking up his Stradivarius.

His approach to clients and fees is transparent and simple. He works for free when there is an important project with someone with no money yet who is worthy – and charges much more for a difficult client with plenty of money.

Holmes has no automatic respect for hierarchy, status or protocol. He turns down a knighthood because it means nothing to him. He refuses to work on a brief from the Prime Minister unless it is on his own terms, and has no compunction in exposing the problems of several royal families. He doesn’t do all this innocently or aggressively – he is simply much more interested in sticking to his own standards and doing what is right, regardless.

He is of course a famous innovator. His scientific approach to crime scenes – he invented pretty well all the rules in what was to become CSI – was not simply the work of an other-worldly boffin. Holmes was very aware of how the world was changing. He knew what his few competitors were up to and he had a restless pursuit of progress, very much driven by the thought that ‘there must be a better way’.

Finally, there is his very interesting relationship with Watson. Recent research now shows that teams make better decisions than individuals – even better with people who have diverse skills, attitudes and backgrounds. Holmes understood this well and regularly explains to Watson why he is such a useful partner – precisely because he is so different.

Now, over 40 years on from first discovering Holmes, I start thinking about the fact he quit while he was at his peak, and retired to keep bees in a quiet coastal village. Sounds right to me.

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