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Business Analysis According to Sherlock Holmes

I have been reading and rereading Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and novels about the brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes for years. With the possible exception of Edgar Allen Poe’s lesser known Auguste Dupin (see The Murders on the Rue Morgue), Holmes stands as the pre-eminent and archetypical critical thinker and detective of all time. Sherlock Holmes provides the model for all the genius eccentric crime solvers who occupy the books, airwaves, and movie theaters of today. Holmes has a lot to say about how to analyze information and evidence and deduce the best solution or the perpetrator of the crime.

Sherlock Holmes is one of the charter members of the Business Analysis Hall of Fame. He has left a vast legacy of advice and counsel to business analysts of all ages. Herewith, direct from 221B Baker Street, are the words of wisdom from Sherlock Holmes.

“Approach the case with an absolutely blank mind, which is always an advantage. That way you formed no theories. You are simply there to observe and to draw inferences from your observations.” (Adventure of the Cardboard Box)

The business analyst needs to be objective. The business analyst cannot have preconceived notions, including those foisted on them by the customer, sponsor, or subject matter expert. When eliciting information the business analyst listens naively and asks questions without prejudice (see the series “How to Ask the Right Questions”, especially part 4: “Asking the Naked Question” for more information about listening naively). When the business analyst comes to an interview with a solution in mind, for example, one proposed to them by the sponsor or another stakeholder with political clout, the business analyst will tend to ask questions and hear the answers that support the solution and ignore or discount any information that may cast doubt on the solution. This is called confirmation bias. Sherlock Holmes cautions us against such behavior if we want to be top notch business analysts.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. One begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” (A Scandal in Bohemia)

This is Holmes’ way of saying “Don’t jump to solutions.” A business analyst should look for more than one solution to a business problem. Once a solution has been established, ask “is there any other way to solve this problem?” In that way we keep ourselves from accepting the first, and not perhaps the best, solution that comes to mind. Looking for that second or third solution also forces us to seek out more information, some of which might invalidate the original solution (that is also a reason for not seeking additional information: it might prove our initial solution wrong, and who wants to be proven wrong?)

“Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.” (The Silver Blaze)

The Silver Blaze was a race horse and presented a challenging puzzle for Holmes. At one point he asks Watson to listen to him while he “enumerates over the facts of the case.” He knows that verbalizing what is in our heads forces us to focus on what we are saying and how we are saying it. We are trying to get the pictures and concepts in our brains into the brain of someone else and will tend to make those concepts simpler and clearer. And so he does. And so should we. Before conducting an information gathering session, perhaps it is a good idea to ask another business analyst the questions you plan to ask the subject matter expert or another stakeholder. Hearing the questions aloud might cause you to restate a question or two, or not ask them at all. You might also verbally walk through your solution, or your requirements, with another business analyst before committing the solution to a formal document for submission. And if you are creating user stories in an agile environment, reading them aloud is not just a good idea according to Sherlock Holmes, but also from others including the “inventor” of user stories, Ron Jeffries.

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” (The Bascombe Valley Mystery)

There are “facts” that everybody thinks they know. One of the more common is “It’s done this way because it’s always been done this way. It’s the only way to do it.” The business analyst is aware of the ‘fact” that cannot be proven, but must be taken as truth. In The Bascombe Valley Mystery, Holmes is responding to Watson’s claim that the evidence as reported is somewhat condemning to their client. Holmes points out that evidence, especially circumstantial, points in one direction, but with a little shift in your point of view, you may be looking at something completely different. It is similar in business analysis in the pursuit of a solution. The solution that everyone seems to agree to may not be the best solution when all the facts are in, including those facts not in play at the moment. In theory, those thinking the solution is best assume that all the facts are known.

“When you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, HOWEVER IMPROBABLE, must be the truth.” (A Study in Scarlet)

“It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” (The Beryl Coronet)

“We must fall back upon the old axiom that when all other contingencies fail, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” (The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans)

These similar quotes refer to the method that Sherlock Holmes uses to solve a mystery. He begins to construct theories based on the data that he has in front of him. He is creating alternate solutions to the problem (the problem, of course, is to figure out who committed the crime and how was it committed). He then looks for more data or evidence that will either further confirm or eliminate each theory. Eventually, through a logical process of elimination, Holmes has solved the mystery. As business analysts we can perform a similar process of elimination by starting with the facts, confirming those facts, and then forming potential solutions. Then our investigative job becomes one of gathering information to disprove or eliminate each solution. As solutions are eliminated based on evidence gathered, we can determine the one, best solution. (Note that if all potential solutions are eliminated, we need to go back and re-theorize.) As Holmes says:

“If the fresh facts which come to our knowledge all fit themselves into the scheme, then our hypothesis may gradually become a solution.” (The Adventure of the Wisteria Lodge)

“A further knowledge of facts is necessary before I would venture to give a final and definite opinion.” (The Adventure of the Wisteria Lodge)

In this piece of advice, Holmes is suggesting that we hold off on rendering opinions or conclusions until we have enough information to do so. In many of his adventures he had the solution to the mystery in mind (his predominant theory, for example) and refused to disclose it until he got that last piece of evidence that confirmed the theory beyond doubt. We should be as careful about advancing our solutions until we are sure of them based on the information. (Or to quote someone from a different world altogether: Davy Crockett said, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead”)

“Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons with the greatest for the last.” (The Adventure of the Red Circle)

As brilliant as Holmes was, he never stopped learning. He admitted when he made a mistake, immediately recognizing what that mistake was. You get the feeling that once admitted he would never make that same mistake again, or perhaps not make even a similar mistake. For example, in “The Adventure of the Stock Broker’s Clerk”, Holmes and Watson enter a room to confront their suspect who is sitting at a table reading a newspaper. Upon seeing them, the suspect races into the next room and attempts to hang himself. Holmes is at first mystified that the fellow would attempt suicide at their appearance. Later when the man is revived, the motive for the suicide becomes apparent. It was something he read in the paper. Holmes then exclaims, “The paper! Of course! Idiot that I was! I thought so much of our visit that the paper never entered my head for an instant.”

Sherlock Holmes had a lot more to say that still resonates across the decades to us, advice that can be applied to our day-to-day work as business analysts and critical thinkers.

If we could all be like Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle’s protagonist would never have achieved the publishing success and lasting fame that Holmes has enjoyed for over a century now. We don’t have his remarkable ability to eradicate the emotional, eliminate the irrelevant, and focus with laser-like intensity on the given problem. We don’t have Holmes’ amazing powers of observation. (He could distinguish 75 different perfumes (The Hound of the Baskervilles) showing that he even brought his sense of smell into his observations). However, we can learn to better examine the information we receive with more critical thinking and withhold our judgment longer when evaluating that information. We can learn to restrict our observations more to the evidence that exists rather than what we think exists, or what we have been told.

While we are pursuing the best solution to the business problem and endeavoring to add value to the business through improving processes and solving problems, we might find we are doing a better job of it if we remember and apply the acronym WWSHD: “What would Sherlock Holmes do?”

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