Why we all need to be more Sherlock

Many marketers are developing strategies now as it’s that time of year and brilliant strategy starts with brilliant detective work.

Sep 29, 2021

By Neil Davidson

Even though Daniel Kahneman has had a bit of a hard time recently, we can still lean on his thinking, to say that strategy work is a bit Marmite because our so-called lazy brains don’t like work that’s harder and demands extended periods of concentration. There’s also a large dose of Nowism involved too, preferring to live in the moment and struggling to place yourself and your thinking in the future.

Challenging times demand brilliant strategies

Brilliant strategy work is never more important when people and businesses need to be clear on how and why they are navigating their way through uncertainty. Everyone in an organisation needs to really understand and buy into the strategy. I’ll go even further and say that everyone should be energized and motivated by it. (What a crazy idea!) I once worked in a large telecoms business where the CMO set out the strategy and plan for the year ahead at a team away day and two people resigned immediately after his speech. So strategies can make a real difference, good and bad. 

Bad habits build bad strategies

If good strategies are hard work, then brilliant strategies are even harder, and no one learns how to create them by chance. There are a lot of bad strategies flying around, we’ve all suffered them, and most are due to bad ways of working on strategy development.

Organisations are often just like people, chasing that illusory goal of a perfect future and trying and failing to do it through pursuing multiple goals at once. So, it needs to be said that a strategy is not a statement of desire followed by lots of things that may or may not get to that desire. (Don’t confuse objectives with strategies.) I once saw a strategy presentation early in my career focused on the clients the business was going to win to grow in the next year. There was no why or how just a bunch of logos. I was impressed. I also thought how easy all this strategy stuff was going to be for me when I got promoted, as you clearly just needed a new business list and Google Images.

The point also needs to make that a vision, mission or other softer visionary tools are not strategies. (This deserves a paragraph on its own, it’s such a common misunderstanding and one I made early in my career, also learned from my seniors.)

Be more Sherlock – brilliant strategy starts with brilliant detective work

‘Form no theories, just simply observe and draw inferences from your observations.’

(Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Cardboard Box)

The right approach to developing strategy is observing what going on in the world outside and inside your organisation based on a rich range of data sources and starting to build hypotheses that you either prove or disprove with evidence. It also demands that you are doing this constantly, not just when it’s ‘Strategy Time.’ (Think ‘Hammer Time’, just without the big pants.)

For a strategy to be of any use, there has to be diagnostic insight that gives you sustainable competitive advantage to aim for, and helps you win as a business. Then you must work out what you need to do to get there, what you don’t need to do, and what you need to fix. It demands that leaders say no a lot to keep the organisation focused on the right things, not just stuff.

It turns out that I wasn’t the first person to think about Sherlock Holmes in this context, so “Reasoning Backward: How Sherlock Holmes Can Make You a Better Problem Solver’ may well be worth a read, although it’s one I’ll have to add to my (long) reading list too. (I haven’t read ‘The Adventure of the Cardboard Box’ either but that hasn’t made it onto my list.) One book that I can definitely recommend and often return to try to keep myself on the right path is ‘Good strategy, bad strategy’.

Happy reading, and good luck with that strategy work. Hopefully, it will be elementary (sorry).