Investigation Skills: A Mindset Beyond Police Work


By Skills for Health | 19 November 2020

Whether you’re investigating a crime, accident, a person or an organisation, investigation skills are an essential part of our day-to-day lives. Because here at Skills for Health, we recognise that we have all:

  1. Been lied to or been told contradictory information.
  2. Faced difficult decisions we cannot choose between.
  3. Had to place blame or accountability on one individual.
  4. Have experienced a conflict that needs resolving fairly.

Investigation skills are also vital in our work environments. Whether you’re a detective, doctor, or working in recruitment, interviewing potential candidates – you are bound to face these challenges. When that happens, you need the ability to gather and analyse relevant information in order to discover the truth or help make an informed decision on how to proceed.

What are investigation skills?

Investigators gather information and use the data available to them to discover the truth (or the culprit). But knowing how to use that information is key.

Nicky Smith and Conor Flanagan (of the Home Office and Reducing Crime Unit,) define “investigative ability” as that which requires the skills to assimilate (to learn and comprehend), assess and prioritise incoming information, and draw inferences from that information that will inform a line of enquiry. The aim being to gain further relevant (more detailed or valuable) knowledge on the matter.

In short, investigators use various investigative techniques to gather information and then use their critical judgement to aid them in prioritising what is relevant and what isn’t when contradictory data or multiple lines of enquiry arise.

The police force

According to Gary Shaw of the Northumbria Police Department, what’s remained constant in the Police Force over the last 50 years is the need for an investigative and inquisitive mindset.

Whether they’re investigating thefts, assaults, fraud or road collisions, detectives are encouraged to exhaust as many pipelines as possible. Nevertheless, there are six investigative techniques police usually start with: obtaining relevant documents and performing background checks on suspects; physical and electronic surveillance; use of informants; undercover operations; conducting interviews and interrogation tactics, and laboratory analysis of physical evidence (actually performed by a forensic scientist).

The more obscure the crime, the harder it is to solve, and sometimes the most serious crimes are the hardest to prosecute because the punishment is so severe. Thus it takes a higher level professional to investigate such crimes, in which The Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) plays a pivotal role. Concerns have been expressed, however, that there is a shortage of investigators with the appropriate qualities to perform this role effectively.

Five skill areas were referenced in regards to investigative ability in criminal investigations:

1. Investigative competence

At the beginning of an investigation, you start with very little information or direction. What strategy do you want to take? How do you want to gather your information? You will have to come up with hypotheses for what you think could have happened and then test it in reality. The ability to learn from experience is key to identifying hidden and revealing cues early on.

2. Appraisal of incoming information

Information is only helpful if it is valid and credible.  So being able to evaluate the relevance, reliability and validity of information is crucial. This means remaining objective and avoiding speculation at all times, verifying  ‘expert’ advice and it even requires you to play ‘devil’s advocate’ from time to time.

3. Adaptation 

Investigations evolve and can change direction when you least expect it. Thus, investigators need to remain flexible and open-minded to the changing needs of the investigation, grasping new opportunities as they present themselves – not concentrating on one line of enquiry at the expense of all.

4. Strategic awareness

Investigations are disruptive. You should be aware of the impact on the wider community, victims, and witnesses.

5. Innovative investigative style

The clues to a mystery can be found in many places. Instead of being confined to traditional approaches, lateral thinking might help you find several sources of truth. With new investigative methods and technologies developing every day, one should adopt a creative, integrative approach, incorporating new strategies wherever and whenever possible.

Investigators across all industries

TV shows like the BBC’s Line of Duty mean we often associate investigative skills with detective work. So it may come as a surprise that these skills are fundamental to a range of professions outside Scotland Yard. Let’s talk through a few examples.


Here in the UK, these skills are required both for the safety of patients and staff. The NHS regularly undergo internal reviews to ensure it’s operating as safely and efficiently as possible.

We like to think we are always in safe hands when it comes to doctors but unfortunately, with the NHS being overstretched significantly in recent years and the high-level bureaucracy that comes with any large nationalised institution, health facilities are not free from scandal.
An affair that takes place within NHS-funded services or care and is deemed worthy of investigation is usually referred to as either a ‘significant event’, a ‘serious incident (SI)’ (‘serious incident requiring investigation (SIRI)’ or ‘serious untoward incident (SUI)’). The first refers to “any unintended or unexpected event” leading or having the propensity to lead to patient harm. The last three are often used interchangeably to describe an incident that resulted in an unexpected or avoidable death, a life-threatening injury or serious abuse.
  • All members of a healthcare team come together to constructively review an event through a Significant Event Audit (SEA) – a process in which individual occurrences are analysed in a systematic and detailed way to ascertain what can be learnt about the overall quality of care and to indicate any changes that might lead to future improvements.
  • Controlled Drug Accountable Officers use critical analyses to decide who it’s safe to give high-dose drugs to.
  • Case Investigators work with patients who have been diagnosed with an infectious disease, to determine who else they have come into contact with.

Organisational abuse

It’s National Safeguarding Adults week, and one of the key themes this year is organisational abuse. It comes in many forms but is commonly exemplified through misuse of medication, restricting patient access to toilet facilities, or poor professional practice.

In the UK, the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch conducts regular, impartial analysis into organisational operations and incidents – to suggest broad improvements that could be implemented. In doing so, they hope to reduce accidents like these.

Human resources

HR professionals are responsible for ensuring that a workspace is safe, inclusive and achieves high employee performance and engagement. And, much like a police officer, when these policies are breached or violated, it is up to them to investigate the nature of the case and communicate this with senior management to decide the necessary penalty. Externally, for example, a thorough interview process ensures the right person is hired for the job. Internally, reliable investigative ability helps reduce workplace conflict by resolving issues like complaints and grievances in a timely manner.

Other professions and uses

Investigation skills are crucial in a variety of other roles. Health and Safety Officers conduct risk assessments and investigate accidents at work. Environmental Health Officers (EHO) perform regular inspections of restaurants’ hygiene levels. And Trading Standard Officers research and inspect whether trading businesses are following consumer laws and regulations.

Investigation skills are also regularly employed by teachers, who have to resolve incidents between children and determine the appropriate course of action

Common mistakes

Being a good investigator often requires you to evade very human instincts. As most investigators are in fact human beings, excluding the formidable Danger Mouse, of course, that can be a difficult practice, making us susceptible to mistakes.

Some critical errors include:

  • Confirmation bias, adapting their findings to match their pre-existing beliefs or emotions.
  • Making assumptions based on the information available, stereotypes and racial or gender biases. Rather than isolating the facts, bad investigators infer things which could be false based on gender, race, religion, socio-economics or just because they ‘seem guilty’
  • They rush in. Rather than making a calculated plan of action, some jump to conclusions; which could leave them missing something out
    • A common example of this would be a detective rushing to analyse data, without properly securing the crime scene – which could lead to evidence going missing.

The characteristics of a good investigator

“The key to success, as in so many other areas, is planning. Before you commence, think through what it is you need to achieve and how to do this. Thinking through these factors at the planning stage will make the process much easier for all concerned and help to ensure that your investigation is a success.”
– Mick Turner, Sancus Solutions

    • They are diplomatic and unprejudiced. They avoid all forms of bias and any preconceptions they might have about a person or situation, purely looking at the objective facts. For example, when a lawyer is experiencing a conflict of interest, they hand the case to someone who can remain impartial.
    • They are level-headed, collected and rationalAccording to writer, Maureen Malone, emotions are usually high in investigations but letting them get the better of you, or allowing witnesses to see that you are affected could harm the investigation. Thus individuals who can handle high-intensity, potentially triggering environments are best suited for the job.
    • They are persuasive communicators, as Mick Turner mentioned earlier, a big part of investigations is interviewing people, and in order to get the information you need, you need the ability to make them feel like they can trust you. This could mean asking inquisitive questions or using language or idiolects that they can either relate to or that will trigger an emotional reaction.
    • They are perceptive. They can pick up on very little hints, like slight irregularities in someone’ body language for example.
    • They are good critical thinkers and problem solvers. They can tie together multiple pieces of data, identifying hidden discrepancies.  For example, the Police must collate data from a variety of witnesses and then begin a process of elimination, disregarding unreliable statements.
    • They are organised and proactive. They plan and get moving quickly, exhausting every possibility. For example, detectives determine the types of evidence they need and act quickly to preserve vital information from a crime scene.

How can you apply investigation skills in your life?

This article only scratched the surface on how to become a better investigator. But regardless of who you are, or what you do – these skills help us resolve issues big and small.

Whether you’ve been lied to, face a difficult decision or have experienced a conflict that needs resolving; improving your investigative ability will help you choose the appropriate course of action.

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