Use the Columbo Question to Get Strategic Information


Image by whatleydude via Flickr

The recent passing of Peter Falk (age 83) reminded me of one of my most productive techniques for gaining strategic information.

The question is best used in a situation involving interviews with other people, so bear with me as I establish the analogy.

Skillful Questioning

Falk’s Lt. Columbo is a Los Angeles detective investigating to a crime scene (typically a homicide). He doesn’t fit the cliché of the authoritarian lead detective, or the intellectual clue gatherer, or the smarmy and charming gadfly.  He attire and demeanor is famously rumpled; the word bumbling is often used to describe his style.

Every episode of the television program has a scene where Lt. Columbo is inspecting a crime scene and interviewing people associated with the victim. Lt. Columbo is well-practiced in the technique of the false exit: he begins to leave the scene, and is nearly out the door when he stops and turns around to ask a question. The question is prefaced by his now-famous tag,

Just one more thing,…….”

Lt. Columbo makes an observation about some inconsistency. The seemingly trivial, it turns out to be the detail will tie together the entire investigation and establish the culpability.

Strategic Information is Revealed

Now, here is the insight that you can capitalize upon: people will often reveal their important information at the end of a conversation.

Great insights appear when people
think that the interaction is over.

Therapists, salespeople, and consumer researchers repeatedly notice this when interviewing people in home visits and focus groups.  Don’t relax at the end of a session, be more alert.

You ask the Columbo question to take advantage of the principle that the best information might come at the end of a conversation. The Columbo Question is the last question you ask:

Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that I should have asked you?

It Works!

Try out the Columbo Question the next time you are searching for information. Here are some examples of useful information that I and others have discovered with the Columbo Question:

  • There are unrecognized stakeholders who are affected by a decision
  • There are unrecognized project elements that need to be included in the scope
  • People have serious doubts about a strategy, but don’t feel that they have permission to reveal those doubts
  • People have expectations for follow-up from the conversation that might include roadmap that lays out the next steps

Peter Falk’s portrayal of Lt. Columbo made this unassuming-but-determined character a genius at putting people at ease and exploiting the strengths of his own personal style. He brought a sense of curiosity and was sensitive to inconsistencies and incongruities.  He wasn’t intimidated by wealthy, powerful, or brilliant people.

How can you use Columbo Question to improve your leadership skills?

This post orginally appeared in the Linked2Leadership blogazine.

About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
This entry was posted in Competencies of Strategic Initiative Leaders, Useful Practices & Management Tools and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Use the Columbo Question to Get Strategic Information

  1. Pingback: Public Speakers: Flash your Lt. Columbo Badge of Confusion « LEADERSHIP MINTS

  2. Pingback: A Master List of Questions for Strategic Initiatives | Leading Strategic Initiatives

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