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4xiInsightsIn5: Meet me at the corner of Poirot and Columbo

Updated: Oct 29, 2022

Coaching and leading are most often about asking the right questions and about tenacity when it comes to understanding. This kind of detective work not only drives understanding but often uncovers unanswered questions.

At 4xi we believe in digging beneath the surface and we are inspired by the unlimited possibilities of curiosity and imagination.

Simon Elliot, Managing Partner at 4xi, and Tony Johnson, Chief Experience Officer both have a soft spot for literary detectives and their observational exploits. They each have a favorite and they believe that their particular styles – although fictional in nature – have relevance in real-world leadership, consulting, and execution.

So, let’s begin with Simon and his love of the television detective Columbo. Simon is famous for beginning sentences with “forgive this Columbo question,” but it never fails to elicit a deeper level of reflection.

Just one last question…

For those of you old enough to remember Columbo, he was a somewhat scruffy, ruffled-haired, always mackintosh-wearing detective of the Los Angeles Police Department. Over 10 seasons, and 69 episodes, Peter Falk played this unlikely character who drove a clapped-out old 1959 Peugeot 403 convertible, and with his beloved Basset Hound solved the most unlikely crimes of mystery and murder.

Now, it wasn’t always the most sophisticated of television, however always good entertainment but Columbo had this knack of asking what to most might seem obvious questions, the “Columbo Question”.

The thing is, as per 4xi’s TRUE NORTH© principles of listening, learning, and understanding being the foundations of problem-solving, the same apparently applies to solving crimes, and the lesson learned from Columbo – If you don’t know the answer to a question, then there is never such a thing as a bad question, and even if for some the answer may seem obvious, if you’re vested to solve the problem then you need to know.

In life and business, it's easy to make assumptions, but it’s the hard facts that reveal the truth, and beyond research, and of course doing your homework, asking questions is imperative to avoid the well-known phrase of the impact of ASSUME.

Columbo always saved his “killer questions” typically as he was just about to walk out of the scene, and often taking the prime suspect off guard, and his, “just one last question before I go…” routine was always the highlight of the show.

Sometimes these questions would sound innocuous, like: What time does the ballpark open its gates? Isn’t the Peugeot a Diesel engine on the 59? Or what time was sunset last Friday?

In business, it’s like asking some of these questions:

  • What’s your core business (think Mcdonald's as an example of how this isn’t always obvious)

  • What is your Purpose, your Mission, Vision, and Values?

  • You say you want to double revenues in the next 5 years, what does that mean?

  • Explain how you’re bringing your people-first strategy to life?

  • How are you going to deliver your commitments to ESG?

Tony, on the other hand, is a fan of Agatha Christie and the observations of the great detective Hercule Poirot. As a long-time veteran of the hospitality spaces, Tony is known for his boots-on-the-ground approach to coaching and training, much like our fictional detective Hercule Poirot liked to be in the thick of the action when investigating a case.

Poirot is a bit more on the obsessive side, but no less effective than Columbo. He takes observational analysis to a different level, much in the vein of Sherlock Holmes or Adrian Monk.

Poirot was a master of details.

He looks deeply and from alternative points of view. That is a key attribute for a leader or a business owner as that is where success lies. It is rarely the large ticker-tape parade moments that make or break an organization, it is the boring day-to-day execution and processes of a business that drives success or failure.

When you look at things through the lens of customer + employee experience it becomes about the intentional details that others choose to ignore which can set you apart.

This is reminiscent of the painstaking way in which Poirot looked at the details – if you have seen the most recent Kenneth Branagh version of Murder on the Orient Express, you see this in the way that the famous detective agonizes over his breakfast and the size of his eggs. Painful, but allows him to see the world in a different way.

He connected the dots.

Poirot was nearly magical at making connections and aligning seeming disparate thoughts into a coherent narrative. That is because he had a wealth of experience from his life that he cataloged away and pulled out as needed to make leaps of understanding and draw logical inferences within his cases.

That is not so different from leaders who learn both from success and failure – and every experience they have had in between. The sum of our experiences is really where the ability to lead and coach comes from – extrapolating them into a framework of understanding, helping us make even better decisions as our journey progresses.

Being able to see what is happening in your business and translating that into action separates all-star leaders from ineffective managers, just as it separates the local authorities from Poirot in many novels.

He followed the evidence.

While not easy, our intrepid detective collected facts, interviewed witnesses and followed the evidence wherever it led. Even if you have just seen the two most recent movies, you’ll note that in Murder on the Orient Express he ended up implicating nearly everyone on the train, and in Death on the Nile, he even has suspicions about his friend Bouc for a moment in time.

This is important because so often leaders must make tough decisions – and often need to do so based on data, not emotion or anecdotal evidence. One of the biggest challenges for large organizations is turning insights into actions. That is to say, putting survey data and consumer trends to work rather than letting them rot in a desk drawer.

This is also a lesson that not all our ideas will be good ones – and that’s okay. When you follow the evidence (or the data) you can react to what is happening in real-time and work to build a predictive rather than reactive approach to decision making.

Both Columbo and Poirot had several other attributes worth honorable mentions as well – they were both great listeners and could read body language and the slightest giveaway signals. They both had a commanding (yet quiet) presence and weren’t afraid to ask the hard (and the dumb in the case of Columbo) questions. All attributes of effective leaders and business owners.

Tony and Simon have spent a lifetime working with organizations to help them improve the overall experience of their teams, customers, and clients. The tactics they shared above not only served these two fictional detectives well but are also a cornerstone of their perspective when it comes to working with businesses around the world.

It isn’t a mystery that great business execution takes attention to detail, fearless questioning, and a willingness to follow the data to the most successful course of action. This is why these two fictional heroes continue to inspire us today.

Contact the Authors!

Tony Johnson

Chief Experience Officer (CXO)

Simon Elliot

Managing Partner & Co-Founder

Our Strength is in the Power of Our Collective


4xi Global Consulting & Solutions is a team of talented leaders from both the client-side and service provider side creating an impact on the Human Experience (HX) for people at work, in education, rest, and at leisure.

We believe in a people-first, experience-led philosophy, whether client, employee or guest – their experience is the fundamental foundation of success.

We work with corporations, service providers, and innovators:

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  • Global Amenities Strategy, Design & Operations

  • TRUE NORTH©: Strategic Partnership & Growth

  • Explorers Innovation Directory: Gateway to Innovation

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  • Market Research Reports & Benchmarking


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1 Comment

Dina Wiltshire
Dina Wiltshire
Jun 10, 2022

Best blog ever - just sayin'...😁..on a more professional note, the comparison between detective work, consulting and problem solving is a tremendous analogy. A consultant by any other name is a business detective. Great read - lots of fun and charming!

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