“Columbo Conversations” tell the whole story

Roger Martin has said, “…the best innovators recognize mysteries, and are brave enough to dive into them.”

If we compare the information-gathering modes of two legendary TV detectives, we can see the enduring qualities of Lt. Columbo‘s (1968-2003) conversational style. In contrast to the linear mode of Dragnet’s 1950’s era Sgt. Joe “Just the Facts Ma’am” Friday, Columbo took the scenic route to solving intricate mysteries.

Lt. Columbo’s path of investigation may not have been direct or conventional, but it enabled him to collect diverse bits of valuable insight. The resulting level of understanding led him to his trademark (Just one more thing!) zinger revelations.

By contrast, Sgt. Friday was a information collector who saw problems to be solved. His MO was to nail things down as soon as possible.

As architects we engage in working through mysteries, beyond merely solving problems. In recent years the nature our business has changed from simply designing for clients to designing with clients and their stakeholders. Planning decisions require insight regarding current issues as well as in-depth knowledge to assess future scenarios. There’s too much at stake for us to treat this as a mere data collection investigation or a linear problem-solving effort. Nor will we add much value by manipulating obvious pieces of a puzzle until they fit.

In order to solve mysteries we need to think together with various client groups. Fifteen years of engaging in Columbo-style planning sessions have convinced us that this is best way to help clients make sense of issues they have not fully explored, and to bring fresh options forward that would otherwise be missed.

Joe Friday was an apt character for the 1950’s environment of Cold War, conformity and fascination with machines. By contrast, the Columbo series was conceived when the developed world was just beginning to hear the term “tree hugger.” Since then, the industrial economy has slowly moved toward a greater appreciation for nature, creativity and roads less traveled.  But we’re still coping with the environmental degradation that was the norm during Joe Friday’s anti-conversation era. Part of our job as designers is to accelerate environmental regeneration.

Enduring Columbo-inspired principles that underlie our creative process can be summarized by these Pitfalls to Avoid:

1. Not asking enough questions (“just one more thing” can make all the difference when unlocking a case…or a site plan’s greater potential)

2. Accepting false limitations (maybe the body found in the pool was moved from a neighbor’s bathtub…and maybe there’s another way to generate the necessary revenue for your project)

3. Misled by unexamined basic assumptions (don’t rule out the police chief who is heading the investigation…and maybe you will change your mind about a “no way” planning scenario)

4. Jumping to conclusions (if there are no fingerprints on the gun, try dusting the bullets…and don’t settle for the obvious design solution)

5. The trap of either/ or thinking (it’s possible that the victim both drowned and suffered a concussion…there are many ways to combine and redefine your planning strategy)

Unlike problem-oriented LAPD investigators back at the station, Columbo knew he was dealing with mysteries. As Roger Martin observed in an interview, with Vern Burkhardt at IdeaConnection Ltd., “Dealing with mysteries is one of the hardest things to do. You don’t know what to pay attention to. You don’t know where to start. That’s the tricky thing. When you’ve got a heuristic, you know where to start, and what to do. With a mystery you don’t know where to start so it takes a lot of bravery to dive in and try to figure out what’s going on.”

With Columbo as a model, we can summon the courage to face mysteries and end up with the right answer – not merely an answer.

-Sharon VanderKaay


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  • About The Nature of Innovation

    We see our collaboration with clients and colleagues as providing a living lab for enriching the creative process. Farrow’s built work has been internationally recognized for leadership in human-centric design. This is where we come to discuss our ideas as they hatch and our experiences as they happen.
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