In 1968 a disheveled homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department made his first appearance as a television show character. Columbo, played by actor Peter Falk, quickly became one of my favorite sleuths. Each week viewers observed a perpetrator committing their crime as the show opened. Then we would settle in to watch Columbo go about cracking the case.
He was especially fond of asking questions that seemed irrelevant or annoyed the guilty party, who was doing his or her best to maintain an air of innocence. Columbo was particularly observant and very meticulous with details of the crime. Yet, his unkempt hair, rumpled trench coat, pungent cigar, and frequently malfunctioning 1959 Peugeot 403 convertible gave the appearance of an absent-minded buffoon.
Today’s leaders could learn a few lessons from Columbo, sans the dress, the smoking, and the car. Here was a detective who took the same evidence available to his colleagues and framed it in new ways. He regularly revisited the crime scene to notice details he may have overlooked initially or to test his theories about what had taken place. Columbo always maintained an air of respect and humility as he went about his work, even when the potential suspects were arrogant and dismissive of his approach.
Like a detective, leaders are often faced with daunting problems and challenges. Sometimes it is tempting to simply blame others for what is wrong, to distance oneself from the situation and act as though you want to help but there are just too many obstacles getting in the way. Or you might focus your energy on fixing what is wrong without examining all the evidence, or reframing the situation, to see it with a different set of eyes.
A more effective approach could be to pose better questions by focusing on what is already working and considering how to do more of that. This process may actually create the energy and spark the creativity required to address a problem in a new way. If leaders model humility and respect during these conversations the team, the customer, or the employees may voice concerns and ideas that otherwise would have remained unspoken. These revelations could hold the key to real solutions.
One of Columbo’s favorite ploys was to subject the unsuspecting culprit to a series of mundane questions, turn to leave the room, and then pause to ask “one more thing.” It was often this final pointed question that gleaned substantive information to solve his case. Leaders would do well to design their own vital questions; intentional enquiries of themselves, and their team. Your ability to crack the case depends on it.