What can we learn from Agatha Christie?
Outsold only by the Bible, Agatha Christie’s crime novels have sold over two billion copies. For fiction written in English, only Shakespeare comes close in total sales, but he has had a four hundred year head start. In more than eighty novels, Agatha Christie held readers in suspense as they tried to use their ‘little grey cells’ to deduce the villain in a series of nasty murders. Over the years, many theories have emerged that seek to explain the secret to Christie’s success.
The 2005 documentary, The Agatha Christie Code, told how text analysis was used to try to explain some of the mysteries of Christie’s famed stories. Cognitive science recognises that the conscious human mind can only respond to a limited number of inputs at one time. Princeton University psychologist Professor George Miller in a 1956 paper, claimed that this number was seven, plus or minus two. In theory it means that no one can hold more than nine ideas simultaneously in their conscious mind. In The Agatha Christie Code, the theory proposed was that Agatha Christie always had at least ten threads to her stories. This meant that it was impossible for the reader to keep track of them all—a clever way to maintain the mystery and suspense.
Whether Agatha Christie consciously wrote in this way, we will probably never know. However, it’s an important reminder of the need to be aware of the limitations of the conscious mind when designing your business strategy. More recent neuroscience suggests that Miller was optimistic and that the limit to processing capacity is more likely 3 to 5 items.
A strategy should not be an unsolvable mystery.
Having a 55-point plan for growth might be fantastic, but nobody can remember all the points. To be effective, strategy needs to be internalised.
Recently, I worked with a client to narrow their focus areas down to six. In fact, the second three are a mirror of the first three, so there are really only three to remember. Everybody in the company can internalise these three things and everyone can apply them to their daily work. In practice, this means you should limit your areas of focus to no more than five.
There’s really no future for a strategy that can’t be comprehended by the conscious mind. How fathomable is yours?
I'm about to head off to Perth for this year's AMPEAK Asset Management conference. I look forward to seeing some of you there. For those who can't make it, I'll report back on all the learning and excitement when I return.