Sherlock Holmes and the Case for Coherence (in the midst of Disruption)

In 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle was traveling with his wife through Switzerland, when they happened upon the perfect place to kill Sherlock Holmes. The couple had taken a scenic walk to the Reichenbach Falls near the village of Meiringen in the Bernese Alps and it was here the author decided to have Holmes and his nemesis, Moriarty, engage in a death struggle in which both men fall in the, well, the falls.

In today’s parlance, Conan Doyle had been considering “disrupting” his career for some time. The author wanted to spend more time writing historical novels, but his first attempt to change directions backfired: he hiked his rates for the stories to lessen demand from the publishers and wound up “one of the best paid authors of his time,” according to Wikipedia. A transition would not work; this had to be a wholesale upending, something more dramatic, perhaps, even… murder. Two years earlier, he had written to his mother about the idea. She wrote back: “You won’t! You can’t! You musn’t!” Moms. Who wants her kid’s career disrupted?

But the setting of the Reichenbach Falls gave him the inspiration to write “The Final Problem” in which his faithful companion James Watson witnesses Holmes and Professor Moriarty in the death struggle. To say that The Strand Magazine readers were shocked to hear of this sudden turn of events is an understatement: more than 20,000 canceled their subscriptions and young men in London were said to wear black mourning bands on their hats and arms. In modern parlance, the death of Sherlock Holmes was a kind of literary disruption.

For the disrupted in today’s businesses and governments, the (sometimes painful) mystery is: what’s next? What are the ways companies, departments, agencies, and employees can find ways to embrace Disruption and find creative ways forward?

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

—Sherlock Holmes

In 1992, Jean-Marie Dru, chairman of the advertising agency TBWA (Wells Rich Greene BDDP, at the time), coined the term Creative Disruption. He promoted his concept with a full-page ad that ran in the Wall Street Journal, Frankfurther Allgemeine and Le Figaro.

By 1997, Clayton Christensen and Joseph Bower, authors of The Innovator’s Dilemma, were applying the term to disruptive innovations and technologies.

Since that time, disruption has become, to use another neologism, “the new normal.” C-suite executives of the latest hyped start-ups are regularly regaled as “Disrupters.” (Or “Disruptors” – if you’re using British English.)

It is certainly the world view, the weltanschauung, of the moment – that we are under a constant siege of disruption. We are told this multiple times a day. But what if this focus on Disruption belies or at least obscures other significant forces at work? What if the focus on Disruption simply perpetuates the very American notion of “Winners and Losers” or worse, promotes a narrative of victimization in which anyone with an aversion to change (a constant in life) can see themselves as “Disrupted,” displaced by forces beyond their control?

Don’t get me wrong. Certainly, since 1965, when Moore’s Law predicted computing power would double every two years – we have indeed seen exponential growth in computing power. And along with that growth, we’ve seen a massive transformation of data and stuff: telephones, televisions, books, to name just a few.

But even the technology mavens at MIT have made the Nietzchean pronouncement that “Moore’s Law is Dead.” More to the point though is that using measures of computational power or technological growth can distract us from how we as human beings need to work and communicate.

What if what is making us more anxious, more depressed, more stressed, and just plain angrier is that we have placed too great a focus on technology and Things and not enough on how Humans thrive in the midst of that change?

[Let’s pause here before we are sucked into some epistemological or existential wormhole about human beings finding meaning in their lives. What I’m addressing here is not Big Science, the Abyss, the Kardashians, or any particular Higher Power; what I’m interested in exploring is success factors for business and business communication in the 21st century.]

Separating ourselves from the things we invent and use has become an increasingly difficult challenge; just glance around the interior of any subway car and try to find a person not focused on a device. But I think we can all agree that in the 50-plus years since Moore’s Law, we have not witnessed the same exponential increase in human speech, human language much less (sadly) human intelligence.

While I write significantly more correspondence to significantly more people today, my fingers move at about the same speed, I talk at the same speed, and coworkers disagree with me about as often as they did 30 years ago. In fact, if I’m honest, the quality of my communications may have devolved a bit, being spread so thin. “If I had had more time,” the saying by Cicero (or Pascal or Winston Churchill) goes, “I would have written you a shorter letter.” Meetings can be just as boring as they were 30 years ago, perhaps moreso, when half of the attendees are checking mobile devices.

What are the human factors that have contributed to the success of companies in the face of disruption? What provides coherence and clarity in the midst of so much seeming uncertainty (to cohere being defined here as, to hold together)?

What are the forces of Coherence?

One answer, from Susan Nealon, CMO of Eagle Hill Consulting, came in the form of an equation all in upper case: STRONG CULTURE = STRONG BUSINESS PERFORMANCE.

“Culture is the heartbeat of an organization, driving employee behavior and consequently, organization performance,” she further explains. “Our own research finds that workplace culture has a strong impact on employees’ commitment and job performance in critical areas.

“A nationwide poll of working age Americans we commissioned earlier this year, explored how various aspects of employee performance relate to workplace culture. Failure on culture translates into business failure when it comes to serving customers, avoiding scandals and lawsuits, keeping star employees and achieving business results. On the flip side, a strong and intentional culture results in employees who are empowered to deliver for customers, a workforce that sticks around for the long-term and employees who are engaged in fulfilling the organization’s mission.” (You can read more from Eagle Hill’s fascinating study here.)

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review cites research that finds: “More than 90% of CEOs believe that their companies will change more in the next five years than it has in the past five.” It outlines five ways to develop a culture that is open to change:

Building a culture where employees can find – and build upon – a narrative of coherence in the midst of change creates a positive feedback loop that can help break the vicious cycle and negative storytelling associated with disruption. To return to Holmes: think fewer cancelled subscriptions and fanatics wearing black arm bands and more readers curious – even excited – about Conan Doyle’s next literary adventure.

Core Values and Getting to Radical Optimism

For almost a decade, I had the privilege of interviewing the then-CEO of a Fortune 500 consulting firm once or twice a year. He’s one of the most down-to-earth, approachable executives I’ve ever met. Early on, I learned of his distaste for the words “problem” or “challenge.”

“They’re opportunities,” he’d growl.

How one frames the situation at hand not only affects how you approach it, but more importantly, what the outcome will be.

Ryan Barrett, c|change’s VP of Client Services and resident guru of all things motivational, turned me on to the work/performances of Loretta LaRoche. LaRoche is the nearly 80-year-old author and stress expert who talks about “awfulizing and catastrophizing,” the inner dialogues of our lives that elevate day-to-day events to operatic dramas. She discusses how our conversations about the world around us can lead to vicious circles of negative thinking, and ultimately, self-fulfilling prophecies. “Be the fun you want to see in the world,” she challenges her audiences.

Finding coherence in an age of disruption requires Radical Optimism – which just happens to be the first of c|change’s three Core Values. Radical Optimism assumes that what you may currently be viewing as a problem or challenge is an opportunity to innovate, to imagine a new way through, not around.

We say “Getting to Radical Optimism” because, if we’re honest, we’re always a work-in-progress. Heaven knows, the ambient noise around us can often be tuned to the Perpetual Pessimism channel; we can use some help in maintaining that point of view. That’s where culture is so important, because applying Radical Optimism helps us to achieve our second core value: Compassionate Collaboration.

Sparking (and Speaking to) Creativity

There is nothing more stimulating than a case where everything goes against you.

—Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles

[If I were to carbon date my career in advertising and marketing communications, I’d say that I came into this business sometime after the Mesozoic and before the last gasp of the Mad Men era (though I was still a kid when Don Draper and Coca-Cola proposed teaching the world to sing.) I’ve had a client call my copywriting “s**t,” watched an Art Director throw a chair at an Account Executive, and had an inebriated agency President challenge me to an all-night duel of headline writing. (He was in his red silk pajamas by midnight.)

All of which is to say, it’s taken a while to get to a Core Value of “Compassionate Collaboration.”]

Let’s be clear from the outset: “Compassionate” here is not code for some mealy-mouthed relativization of creative work. We’re not saying “Gosh! They’re ALL good ideas.” In fact, “compassionate” says that you care enough about the work you’re engaged in to offer your honest appraisal – without being a jerk – to the people with whom you’re collaborating. And that if you are not moved by the storyline, the visuals or the copy, then you offer up an alternative, knowing that we can always make it “better” (with sometimes diminishing returns). And that “best” is a superlative better left for conversations about the “perfect” or the Academy Awards.

That word “Compassionate” needs to extend to both your collaborators and your target audience(s). And the essential component of “Collaboration” is, of course, Communication. Communicating, your vision, your core values, is in some ways more important to your internal teams as it is to your external customers and prospects.

Elizabeth Cahail, Director of Digital Marketing for First Data Corporation, sees Disruption as an opportunity for companies to become more creative – but also stresses the “essential importance of communicating your position in the midst of that disruption.”

“When the spotlight is on your industry,” she councils, “it’s a great time to share your point of view in a fresh and honest way. Acknowledging the benefits and risks of the change will speak to your relevance with target customers and reassure clients that you know your business.”

Festina Lente

There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.

—Sherlock Holmes, The Boscombe Valley Mystery

As I’ve said, to deny the technological disruption of industries and careers would be absurd; what I’m looking to explore is the human response. It would be equally naïve to ignore that the very nature of disruption itself leaves countless cautionary tales and billions of dollars of venture capital in its wake.

One of those tales involves Vine video-hosting services. Even before its launch in January of 2013, it was acquired by Twitter for $30 million in October 2012. The service allowed users to create and share six-second videos. By October 2015, it had 200 million active users.

Within exactly one year, Twitter announced it was disabling uploads.

In 2014, one of our clients called, asking in a near panic: “Do you do Vine videos?” This question had a fairly straightforward answer: a fair number of people at c|change had “done” Vine videos. Even I had done a series of them while traveling through Switzerland and France. More curious was the client’s insistence: “We have to do some Vine videos.”

As it turned out, our client’s boss was obsessed with them. His kids were posting them all the time. He was a dinosaur if he didn’t embrace this new platform.

We acknowledged that six-minute videos could be used to build brand awareness but politely probed if the platform was suitable for promoting IT systems worth hundreds of millions of dollars – to an audience largely made up of teenagers, his boss’ kids age.

For the next few months, we created more than a dozen Vine videos until our client, underwhelmed by the response (from her boss) killed the program. My guess is the kids had moved on to Snapchat.

This is an ongoing problem. Across the board, marketers are taking a hard look at their investments in social media platforms such as Facebook, media companies such as Buzzfeed and Vice, and digital advertising platforms such as Google Ads.

Steve Kasten, a Senior Marketing Consultant based in Atlanta, advises “prioritizing technologies and solutions that augment, without doing away with, legacy tools. This enables enterprises… to capitalize on digital advantages like speed and flexibility, without having to initiate a massive overhaul right away.”

As usual, the Greeks and Romans knew a thing or two about change in the world. Festina lente is Latin for “Hurry slowly.”

“Fail fast, fail often, but always fall forward” is a convenient nostrum for our times. But in a culture obsessed with winners and losers that can be a hard pill to swallow.

Come, Watson, come!” he cried. ”The game is afoot. Into your clothes and come!”

—Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes

After publication of “The Final Problem” in 1893, The Strand Magazine barely survived its loss of 20,000 subscribers. The staff referred to the death of Holmes as “the dreadful event.”

Indeed, Sherlock Holmes didn’t just make it back from the Reichenbach Falls, he made it all the way to the 21st Century. Today, fans dress up as characters in the story and take part in a reenactment of the events in the story at Reichenbach Falls, organized by the Sherlock Holmes Society of London.

Eight years after he killed off Sherlock, Arthur Conan Doyle published the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. When the first episode appeared in The Strand Magazine, circulation of the magazine rose by 30,000 copies. Long lines formed at the magazines offices and at bookstalls.

While Hound was written as an adventure earlier in the detective’s career, the following year Conan Doyle brought Holmes back to business in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” Turns out that Holmes had staged an elaborate ruse to escape Moriarty’s confederates, and gone so far to keep his faithful companion, Dr. Watson in the dark.

Lest it seems that the moral of this story is to get back to doing what you were doing… During the intervening eight years, Conan Doyle worked on the historical novels, including The White Company, that he regarded more highly than all of his Holmes’ stories. It’s also important to note that The Hound of the Baskervilles went on to become one of the most popular of all Holmes’ (and Watson’s) adventures. In 2003, it was ranked among the BBC’s listeners and viewers as one of the UK’s “best-loved” novels and it was been listed as the top Holmes novel by Sherlockian scholars, earning a perfect 100 rating. One can reasonably argue that that literary disruption was important for his development as a writer.

As inevitable as change of any kind may be, acknowledging our shared culture and core values – and communicating them internally and externally – can bring great coherence to the next chapter of our own story.

What is your next chapter? How would you define the culture in which you operate? Is it committed to radical optimism? Does it work for coherence and collaboration?

We’ve focused plenty of time on the things and technologies that are supposed to connect us. Perhaps it’s time to examine the more human bonds that connect us and how we can bring greater joy and, yes, perhaps even fun, in the midst of this tale of Disruption.

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