Columbo, The Ingenuous Inquisitor

by Jim Cain

This will be the third and last (for now) in our Napkyn Classics: Smart Thinking Never Goes out of Style” series. All written 10 years ago, they all share not only a pop-culture reference, but have stood the passing of time. If you missed the previous posts you can find them here: “Alfred, Robin, and how to be a Great Analyst” and “What Would Doc Brown Do?” 

I know a lot more about TV shows from the 80s than I do about how eVars and event scripts work.  And for those of you just tuning in, that’s the point here.

A good story, listened to by the right person, will trump a spreadsheet every time.

Now having the story be accurate, and earning the right to have the appropriate person listen, are hard to do.  This week’s pop culture reference is a personal favorite of mine, and once again is a reference that I make continually at the office, especially when training new analysts on how to engage their new executive stakeholders through the Analyst Program.

Unfortunately, I also tend to have to lend them the first season of the show, because anyone under the age of 30 has never heard of Columbo.

For those of you who haven’t seen this show, it’s a murder mystery TV series that was on from the late ’60s to the mid ’90s, and stars the amazing Peter Falk as Columbo, a quirky homicide detective.

Unlike most detective shows (think Law and Order), Columbo was not a menacing, tough talking inquisitor.  He played a disheveled, confused looking, gunless detective who would often ask obvious questions. Every single episode, he would find the murderer by piecing together often tiny details put together over the course of his seemingly innocuous interviews.

Columbo would have made one heck of a good business analyst, and he is my go to reference when discussing how relevant our work is to a particular executive.  Here are the key points about Columbo that make him such a valuable example.

Constant Interviewing Saves the Day:  Columbo is the opposite of the team at CSI, where they use math and science to catch the killer.  He patiently talks to every single person involved with a crime to understand motivations and alibis.  If he was to take a job as a business analyst, he would interview every key stakeholder about what they do and what they care about, before ever opening a reporting tool.  We try to have a conversation as part of every dashboard build or ad hoc report request.  This always makes the work more relevant, and often helps us find even better ways to proactively show insights on the business.

Ask ‘stupid’ questions:  A lot of times the answer to a question is much more important than the question itself.  I try and ask ‘stupid’ questions, or a question where both I and the executive know the answer, all the time.  You would be amazed at the details you learn when getting a smart answer to a stupid question.  In already knowing the answer, the analyst is able to devote 100% of their effort to listening to the language and the specifics of what the executive is saying.  Also, throwing softball questions that an executive is able to answer allows them to feel like their analyst is supportive and listening.  These kinds of questions are going to go a long way in both getting executives to  give you the time of day, and in helping you to write and speak in ways that they will appreciate.

“Just one more thing”: If you haven’t seen an episode of Columbo you won’t get this reference, but it’s a good one.  In almost every episode, Columbo will be interviewing the killer and throwing lots of softball questions.  Right when it looks like he’s leaving, he stops, turns around, and asks a question that starts with “Just one more thing…”.  This question is always a well thought out, hard hitting one, which helps solve the crime.  Many analysts (and I am guilty of this one too), try and lead discussions with executive stakeholders with the hard questions.  Not only does this sometimes mean that we are leading with the wrong questions for the business, it also means that we are starting off a discussion in a confrontational manner.  Save your tough questions for later in a discussion or interview, and allow them to be “Just one more thing”, it will help you ask much better questions, and will create more solid relationships with the people whose decisions you support.

Even if you have never seen an episode of Columbo (which is a shame), there is a heck of a lot of value you can take from his approach to problem solving.  Having continual conversations with the people you work with and support allows you to increase your visibility and your value.  Asking the right kinds of questions in the right ways lets you do better work (and frankly have more fun doing it).



Jim Cain

Founder and CEO, Napkyn Analytics

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