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March 23, 2009
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Sherlock Holmes – Management Consultant

A recent article in Astronomy magazine dealt with the subject of resolving binary stars. “Resolving” in the astronomical sense refers to splitting, separating or clarifying. 

When an 80-year-old astronomer or an eight-year-old child looks up at the stars, such as the middle star in the handle of the Big Dipper called Mizar, they may at first see a single relatively bright star. But with careful observation, even with the naked eye one soon realizes that Mizar is really a binary star. That is, it is really two stars. 

The reward of careful observation is the ability to realize the presence of differences and, in this case, to recognize a binary star.

ImageMy fictional detective friend Sherlock Holmes was created with a genetic map produced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which provided him with an uncanny ability to observe and deduce.

Holmes could enter a crime scene and “with one of his quick all-comprehensive glances” he was able to observe the entire scene. After this overall reconnaissance of the broad perspective of a situation, he would focus sharply, like a laser beam, on a particular clue or aspect of what he saw. 

Fortunately for the readers of the great detective’s adventures and for public administrators in general, Holmes did not then dwell excessively on the one element in a larger puzzle. What he would do is take the essence of his observation about a single aspect and focus back out to the broader whole. By using that technique of a broad perspective followed by a laser-sharp focus on key aspects of a problem, and then returning for a fresh look at the overall situation, Holmes was able to find solutions out of apparent chaos — solutions which even impressed, if not annoyed, Scotland Yard.

Sherlock Holmes was certainly a master detective whose keen observations and powers of deductive reasoning led to his fame and legend. However, a little-known fact is that Holmes was also a career city and county administrator, specializing in Human Resources. I believe that he lived for a time in Kansas, and finally retired to a small farm after participating in the DROP program and receiving law enforcement retirement benefits.

While the latter account is not in any of Conan Doyle’s pages, what is true is that all of us who lead or manage in government and private organizations have important lessons to learn from Sherlock Holmes.

The fundamental lesson for this article is that solving even relatively tactical or smaller-scale problems is best done by first framing them in the larger context of what led to the problem in the first place.

Visiting the beautiful doctor daughter Rachel with complaints of a stomach ache leads to a medical overview of the person’s general health condition and any other compounding symptoms. Once that is done, and it can often be done very quickly, generalities can give way to targeted specifics. In the case of the stomach ache, as any fan of the great movie Airplane can attest, it was probably the fish!

Beginning with the view from 40,000 feet and then focusing on a specific problem will help the leader develop a solution, often in collaboration with others or in delegation to others, which not only fixes the particular problem but leads to the avoidance of future problems.

Then stepping back and looking at the impact of the solution on the larger picture helps us “resolve.”  The fact is that what looks like one thing on a microscopic level is very often something much different at a telescopic level.  Holmes certainly helps us see this approach as having value in creating policy and techniques for seeking out innovative solutions to difficulties.

What is also little-known is that Sherlock Holmes was also a licensed employee assistance program counselor. He could take this same approach of looking at an issue du jour and relating it to a larger more strategic assessment of what might be happening.

An employee with performance or behavioral problems may act-out in a particular way which becomes the focus of the organization’s coaching or corrective action. However, the underlying causes of the poor behavior may have much broader implications for the life of the employee and family members.

Employee assistance program leaders like Pat Erickson in Broward County, Fla. can be the master detective in helping the individual, and by extension, helping the whole organization as she applies Sherlock Holmes’ all-encompassing observational techniques. Visits these days to employee assistance programs are often spurred by a feeling of financial hopelessness and distress. But there may very well be other underlying contributors, including possible substance abuse or underlying health issues.

So it is with Sherlock Holmes the detective, the human resource public administrator and the employee assistance professional. Employing the power of observation and applying it carefully to particular situations is a valued way to do exactly what all careful observers, including the amateur astronomer HR Doctor, hope to do — to clarify, separate, and to resolve.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •


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