True Detectives

Whether or not you have seen the True Detective TV show (five Emmys: Hello!), there is very little difference between crime detectives’ work and digital analysts’ work: We are both faced with an unending supply of problems to solve and mysteries to unravel.

Let us take a moment to internalize some important lessons from detective fiction’s most successful sleuth, the incomparable Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chronicled Mr. Holmes’ amazing powers of deduction and logical reasoning coupled with his mastery of observation and forensic science in four novels and 56 short stories.

In them, Holmes utters a wide variety of words of wisdom, three of which are featured here as particularly edifying for the digital analyst.

Quote #1

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.”
A Study in Scarlet

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

“‘Data! Data! Data!’ he cried impatiently. ‘I can’t make bricks without clay.'”
The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

Clearly, our dear Mr. Holmes was not plagued by Big Data. He worked hard to scrounge what bits he could find – even the smallest trifle. But he did have a large store of knowledge wedged into his head that he could access instantly and he was very deft with a wide variety of problems solving approaches.

“You know my methods, Watson. There was not one of them which I did not apply to the inquiry. And it ended by my discovering traces, but very different ones from those which I had expected.”
The Crooked Man

Nevertheless, Holmes was very careful not to impose his vast knowledge without cause. We, as analysts are far too often tasked with validating an opinion rather than deriving a theory from the facts.

Suggestion #1

With every project, stop to ask whether you are hunting for the truth or merely satisfying the need of a colleague to prove their own success. You may be forced to comply with that someone for political reasons, but spend a little more time on the issue.

Sift through all the data you can to discover how the self-aggrandizer might have been successful, then deliver the desired report as requested, plus a bonus: some insight that will point them in the right direction next time.

Quote #2

“‘You have formed a theory, then?’
‘At least I have got a grip of the essential facts of the case. I shall enumerate them to you, for nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.'”
Silver Blaze

Holmes is often portrayed as an egoist who must have an audience. But in this quote, we see another side of him. He likes to think out loud. He knows that speaking activates a different part of the mind and forces one to coalesce random facts into a formal narrative. He knows that talking something out is a powerful way to put all the pieces together.

Suggestion #2

Work with others.

Whether you are analyzing the content consumption habits of multiple audience segments or optimizing shopping cart conversion rates, your job is to understand the data. It’s somebody else’s job to understand – and make decisions about – the business problem you are analyzing.

Rather than spending countless hours trying to form the best possible insight, engage and collaborate with your insight consumers. They know things about the way the website was developed, the product was promoted, the article was conceived, or the audience was segmented that you may not.

It is the act or working in concert with a subject matter expert that true insight is derived.

Quote #3

“I have already explained to you that what is out of the common is usually a guide rather than a hindrance.”
A Study in Scarlet

The thing that goes bump in the night is not an outlier to be ignored but, indeed, a fact to be cherished. To quote a very different source:

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny…'”
Isaac Asimov

Suggestion #3

Be on the lookout for anomalies.

If you don’t see what you expect to see, work your hardest to understand why. It may be that you do not have enough facts. It might be that you have already, unknowingly, come to a conclusion or formed a pet theory without all the facts. It might be – and this is the most likely – that there is something afoot which you have not yet considered.

Dig deeper. Ask, “I wonder….”

And, by all means, be on the lookout for that which isn’t there. It might also be important.

“Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): ‘Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’
Holmes: ‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’
Gregory: ‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’
Holmes: ‘That was the curious incident.'”
Silver Blaze

What does it suggest if the dog did not bark?

Detective novels are a wonderful means of relaxation and they are also filled with good advice. Especially for those of us who would use data to unlock the secrets of the universe… or at least of online marketing.

After all, we are all cut from the same cloth as Mr. Sherlock Holmes:

“I cannot live without brain-work. What else is there to live for?”
The Sign of Four

Image via Shutterstock.

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