Lessons in entrepreneurship from Inspector Morse

When I read my first Enid Blyton Famous Five mystery at six years old I was hooked on crime and detective novels. By the time I was in my early teens, I was working my way through the Sherlock Holmes stories and my mum’s collection of Dick Francis books, adding to those each birthday and Christmas when I received book tokens.

On top of that, every time I visited a jumble sale I’d be stocking up my bookshelf, devouring the likes of PD James and Raymond Chandler. Latterly the Ian Rankin novels around the Inspector Rebus character are my must-reads.

To this day, I’m unable to walk past a second-hand bookshop. Crime novels put the balance back in life – the bad guys get their comeuppance and the good guys win after solving the puzzle. You know that the villain will be apprehended by the time you reach the last page, the detective will have solved the mystery, and all will be right with the world.

But it’s the excitement between the first page in the last and trying to work out who the bad guy is, or how they will be stopped, before the detective does. Crime novels puts puzzle-solving at the centre of everything, stocking up on clues but never quite giving all the answers. The reader is driven by quests for conclusive information and happy endings.

The skills of a good detective mirror some of those of an entrepreneur – active listening, critical thinking, problem solving, and good observation skills, combined with astuteness and intuition to develop insights quickly by piecing together myriad pieces of information to see a pattern or picture.

My favourite detective character is Inspector Morse, which was a popular television series based on the novels by Colin Dexter. It starred John Thaw as Chief Inspector Morse, with Kevin Whately as his assistant Sergeant Lewis.

The first of the Morse novels, Last Bus To Woodstock (1975), was written by Dexter because with his wife Dorothy and children, he was on holiday in North Wales at a time when the rain never stopped. Thoroughly miserable and bored, he read both the detective novels in their holiday accommodation, and decided that they were not much good and thought he could do better.

Over the next 18 months, he carried on writing the book in longhand, and had it typed up – as he did all his future novels. Once he found a winning character and setting, Dexter resigned from his teaching post and set about writing Morse novels for a living. There were thirteen novels in the Morse series, four of which won awards. The last was The Remorseful Day (1999), in which he killed Morse off.

Dexter gave Morse an idiosyncratic character with his own interests – a fondness for Mozart and Wagner, pleasure in cryptic crossword puzzles, real ales and single malt whisky. Morse’s first name, Endeavour, is revealed on only one occasion, when he explains to a lady friend that his father was obsessed with Captain James Cook, so he was named after HMS Endeavour.

Morse was a brilliant detective, but unlike many classic sleuths, he often struggled with his cases. Curmudgeonly but entertaining, Morse solved murders by deep thinking, often stimulated by ironic circumstances and chance remarks made by his sidekick Lewis, which gave him inspiration late in the day to bring the case to an end.

He was a highly credible detective despite ignoring forensic science and not being able to stand the sight of blood. He had a penchant for drinking while working, and subsisted on quickly downed pints of ale in pubs, usually bought by Lewis, who struggled to keep up.

Morse was all about observation and gave the utmost importance to details. His strategy was simple – observe, deduce and eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how mad it might seem, must be the truth.

Observance is a great tool for an entrepreneur to notice the detail and trends in a market, then knowing when and where to tap into an opportunity. You need the eye to see what others don’t and utilise it before everyone else does. The traits of an enquiring mind, stimulating exploration and discovery constitute significant activities for entrepreneurs, with their instinct, curiosity and search for solutions to problems.

Like detectives, entrepreneurs search for a hidden truth. Even with a breakthrough for a new product, you will need to understand what will be required to get customers to buy and pay for it. Often there are incorrect assumptions masking the path to success – it’s not the things we don’t know that get us into trouble, it’s the things we think we know that aren’t so.

Before entrepreneurs begin working on their business venture, they need to do some detective work on the market, customers, pricing, marketing etc. Entrepreneurs who do their delving before setting up a new business are more likely to succeed in the long term, rather than launching blindly.

So how can we train our entrepreneurial brains to think like Morse, with his detective behaviours and habits for investigation, deductive scrutiny and problem solving?

Be observant, and keep your mind sharp What makes Morse great is that he notices things that others miss – a key skill of entrepreneurs. Often the solution is right in front of our eyes, but some miss it. Sherlock Holmes once said It is my business to know what other people don’t know. To be valuable in startup business, you have to know what others don’t.

Morse thought useless information in his brain was like having boxes of junk in the attic, it only makes the stuff you need harder to find. Cluttering your mind with peripheral distractions can derail your focus, so keep your mind sharp and orientate simply on the matter in hand.

Remain objective Morse is impassive while on a case, he only looks at what the evidence suggests. He only speculates to create a hypothesis to test assumptions, not make decisions. Whether it’s a tight customer negotiation or a tough staffing decision, emotions can be your enemy in business. Be objective in your dealings and don’t let emotions cloud your judgment.

Always be imaginative Morse thinks outside the box, that is he pieces together seemingly ordinary and unrelated elements of a case into a cohesive story. One of the key requirements as a startup is to constantly innovate and separate your business from the pack, being distinctive requires a constant stream of good ideas and weaving them together to form your own story.

A mediocre detective, is one who fails to imagine new and different possibilities. Morse, on the other hand, has learned to look at data and recombine it in ways that will suggest new possibilities. Is my mind still open? Morse asks. Does this data somehow make me think of new ideas? In business, think of new approaches, think of things that you hadn’t thought of as possibilities and test them out.

Observe the details, pay attention to the basics When Sherlock Holmes famously quips that the solution of a case is elementary, he’s not simply dismissing the detective work as easy. Rather, he’s talking about elements, the essentials of a situation. As a physicist begins with the laws relevant to a problem, a detective begins with the framework, structure and facts of a case before adding in interpretation.

Likewise Morse, he can tell you a person’s entire story and background after the first meeting! He takes the meaning of due diligence to another level using his intuition, lateral thinking and rapidly draws conclusions from the known facts. He is mentally agile, confident in making decisions quickly.

Say it aloud Morse talks to Lewis about everything. The telling helps, it’s ‘thinking outloud’. Nothing helps clarify your thinking more than stating it to another person, it forces reflection. It mandates mindfulness. It forces you to consider each premise on its logical merits, allowing you to slow down your thinking.

Give yourself distance and quiet thinking time When Morse is dealing with a particularly thorny case, he occupies himself with another activity, for example, taking time out to deliberately listen to music. He also drinks, but that’s not a necessity! This is a way for Morse to constructively distract himself from his thinking, to sort through his thoughts, check in and reflect, packing and unpacking in a positively distractive way.

If you’re out there detecting all the time, you need to give yourself a break. It’s not just about getting some rest, the key is to allow your mind to filter the important observations from the inconsequential ones. Solitude gives you the opportunity for ‘quietness of mind’, to simply sit and think in peace and quiet.

Be actively passive when you’re talking to someone When Morse is listening to somebody, he’s not fussing with his iPhone. Morse focuses all of his faculties on the subject of observation and the conversation. He listens, as is his habit, undistracted by any other task. When he meets with someone, his total absorption in their presence is absolute.

Taking the leap into the rollercoaster ride that is entrepreneurship, it’s all too easy to do the easy things, however, if you’re serious about doing your own thing, it’s time to get comfortable being uncomfortable. The real work you should be doing is asking yourself the difficult questions, those that typically mean looking outwards for the answers, and nothing is more important than testing your idea by collecting evidence.

Great entrepreneurship is a magic formula of skills, timing, hard work, and luck.  You have to parse all the facts, just like a detective looks at a broad range of facts – some circumstantial and some deductive – to deduce who committed the crime, as to whether a venture can progress.

Looking at his character, Morse had all the ingredients for being a disaster – he drank too much and was highly irregular in his investigation methods. But what rescued him time and again was his disciplined process and intelligence-lead approach, which allowed him to spot clues where none had seemingly existed.

Like an entrepreneur, he had his idiosyncrasies and own way of doing things. One quote attributed to him captures this entrepreneurial flair underpinning his detective instincts: The secret of a happy life, Lewis, is to know when to stop and then to go that little bit further. I stumble about. That’s what I do. Sometimes I stumble in the right direction.