In today’s episode, thanks to our guest, Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, we learn about AREA, an evidence-based decision-making system she created to counter cognitive bias to expand knowledge while improving judgment. Cheryl developed the AREA method after over two decades as an award-winning investigative journalist writing for The New York Times, Foreign Policy Magazine, Barron’s, and Harvard Business Review.
Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world today. I am thrilled with our guest. She is incredibly talented and brings so much experience. She founded Decisive, a decision sciences company that trains people and teams in complex problem-solving and decision-making skills using the AREA method. This is an evidence-based decision-making system that uniquely controls the counters and counters cognitive bias to expand knowledge while improving judgment. I’m really excited to come back to that statement. Cheryl developed AREA during her two decades as an award-winning investigative journalist, writing for publications ranging from the New York Times to Foreign Policy magazine, Barron’s, and the Harvard Business Review. Welcome, Cheryl Strauss Einhorn.
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn: Thank you, Steve. It’s great to be with you.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, we’re excited to have you here. Just a little bit more about her before we launch into the questions. She’s a longtime educator. She taught at Columbia Business School for over a decade and currently teaches at Cornell University’s SC Johnson School of Business and Cornell Tech. She is the author of three books, all focused on problem-solving. Her new book about problem solver profiles and the psychology of decision-making — “Problem Solver: Maximizing Your Strengths to Make Better Decisions” was published in the spring of 2023. She loves to be in the great outdoors, spend time with her three children, and bake all kinds of good cookies. We indeed need to get to know Cheryl, that’s for sure. Cheryl, to kick things off, tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that had a significant impact on you. What’s your story?
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn: My story professionally comes out of my background in investigative journalism. As you mentioned, I’ve spent over two decades as a journalist, over a decade of which was with the business magazine Barron’s. While I was there, I ended up specializing in what you might call the bearish company story — those are stories to take a skeptical look at a company’ finances or strategies. When those stories came out, there would often be an out-sized reaction; maybe the stock exchange would halt the shares, a couple of companies went out of business, regulators sometimes got involved for one company after a series of investigative stories, a CEO ended up receiving a 10-year jail sentence. While journalism celebrates bringing truth to power, as I had these experiences, I realized that it’s not just somebody’s investment portfolio that is being impacted, it’s somebody’s retirement accounts. If they work at one of these companies, it’s their ability to get up and go to work in the morning. And if you happen to be a consumer of the goods or services that the company was producing and I might be raising questions about the company, it’s your ability to feel comfortable and confident that you’re buying something that’s safe for your family. One of the series was actually about the largest maker of diabetic test kits at the time. This is a product that somebody would use multiple times a day to help them have information about their health. And so I just started thinking about, “Well, who am I as a decision maker? How do I know that I’m telling stories that are true and should be told? How do I know that I’m marshaling the right evidence, that I’m giving it the proper kind of analysis? And how do I know how I’m thinking about the incentives and motives of the people who allowed me to interview them for the stories?” So, that was really the journey that helped me begin to think about how could I improve my decision-making. And at the time, there were articles saying that we all have mental mistakes and that we see the world in effect through a dirty windshield of bias. And if that’s true, then I started to think about what can I do to pry open cognitive space to allow for new information and insight to think about how to better ensure that I’m making thoughtful decisions.
Steve Shallenberger: Great background. I love it. Decision-making and how to have good judgment — those are critical, especially in that business. So I love the perspective that you’re bringing there. Let’s talk, first of all, about what AREA stands for. It’s an acronym. I’m captivated by this description here: “It’s an evidence-based decision-making system that uniquely controls for encounters cognitive bias.” So, we’re getting right to the issue you just talked about to expand knowledge while improving judgment. So, tell us about AREA. How did it come about? What is it? And how do you apply it?
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn: If you step back from it, AREA is sort of the opposite of Google. Right now, when we’re faced with a decision that we need to make, a lot of us will type, as a prompt, the question and the decision into Google. And they’re not only giving an opportunity for Google to make the decision for them to some extent, but all of the information that comes up is information that you have no idea if it relates to why you’re making the decision, if those people have the same values that you do, in terms of what they need from a decision to feel good about it. So, what AREA says is “Let’s change the way that we collect and we analyze information. And let’s make sure that we look at the individual perspectives of the stakeholders involved in our decisions.” Because one of the things that I think has really not been true about decision making, but it’s almost a myth is this idea that our decisions are ours alone, because there’s almost no decision that you’re going to make that isn’t at some point impacting some other stakeholder. And to the extent that we can build a sense of inclusion, and understanding with these other stakeholders, now we’re talking about holistic problem solving, which is a problem where we’re not only making a decision, but we’re also strengthening our relationships. So, AREA, as you mentioned, is an acronym for the steps of my process. And you can think of them like concentric circles of information. First, you begin with Absolute, which is up close on the target of your decision. Think of it like primary source information. Then the next letter in AREA is the R for Relative information. These are related sources to the center of the decision, but not from the target of the decision alone. So, here, you would be gathering information to put the decision into the broader context, to understand how others may think and feel about the decision you’re making. Then AREA E is what I call the twin engines of creativity: AREA Exploration gets beyond documents to help you identify good prospects and ask them great questions. So, it helps to counsel you in interviewing, because there’s a huge difference, as you know, between the map and the terrain. So the actual experience of people becomes very important. Then AREA Exploitation turns this lens of inquiry on you as the decision maker. This is a brand new piece to the decision-making puzzle, where I give you a series of creative exercises that I’ve learned from experts from fields like journalism, the intelligence-gathering community, and medicine, where you can check your assumptions against evidence. And then the final, Analysis, strength tests your decision prospect by helping you think about failure, and then helps you to come to a conviction on the decision that you want to make.
Steve Shallenberger: So, Absolute is the center part. Is that what you said? Do I understand that right?
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn: That’s right. That is up close and at the center of the decision. So, let’s take leadership decisions for a moment and let’s think about a strategic direction to take your organization in. So, the strategic direction that you’re thinking of may be the absolute target. What is that? What type of strategy are you thinking about? Then, in relative, you would look at, how do other people think about that particular kind of strategy. Where has it worked? What kind of pitfalls have there been? In AREA Exploration, you might be talking to people who have implemented that strategy before. Or you may talk to your customers about the type of strategy that you’re thinking about and whether or not it would be meaningful for them. In AREA Exploitation, you would use these creative exercises to look at the diagnostic validity of the data that you’ve collected. And think about the different ways that you can interpret the data that you’ve collected. And then in the final, Analysis, you would think about failure in part by using a pre-mortem exercise, and then be able to identify some of the weaknesses in the plan so that you could be able to shore up and prevent the type of failures that you’ve identified, prevent evolving hypotheses so that you would know when to make a new decision and help you come to conviction on that decision. So, what you’re getting is, first, a breakdown of what is research as a logical progression because all other decision-making systems basically say, “Do your research as a single step.” But research is actually an umbrella term for a whole series of tricky steps that need to be thoughtfully and carefully navigated. It’s also giving you a way to control encounter cognitive biases, it’s also giving you a series of strategic stops by showing you how and where to pause in the process to chunk your learning and make your work work for you. And it’s showing you that quality decision-making is ultimately a feedback loop. We’d like it to be a linear progression, but that’s not what research is. You should be updating and iterating based in part on the information that you collect, which at times will not bring you forward, but instead tell you to go back to do more, or to understand something differently before you again progress through the system.
Steve Shallenberger: So, you’re really looking at it from all kinds of different lenses, trying to get a good picture. And this is how you counter the cognitive bias, which is to be a clear thinker about this and don’t bring all of your past or prejudice. I like the curiosity about this. As we think about this, Cheryl, why do we need to investigate our own decision-making? Why is that important?
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn: Well, because the truth is, while we would like to think that we’re rational thinkers, we’re not. As I mentioned earlier, we all operate through this dirty windshield of bias. And these biases help us to make the many small decisions that we need to make each day, whether it is how to get quickly in and out of the supermarket while we’re also on the telephone with our child and planning out an important meeting that we might have the next day, or it is anything else that we need to naturally navigate in a day. But those same biases that help us make a lot of small decisions easily using our lessons from the past, don’t go away when solving for complex problems. But big decisions have big consequences. So, we need the time and we need the system that can help us to be able to navigate through these biases so that we don’t fall prey to things like liking bias, confirmation bias, narrative bias, planning fallacy, and so on.
Steve Shallenberger: From your experience, what have you learned about how people make decisions?
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn: So I have a brand new book on this, and the book is called Problem Solver. And it is about the research that I have conducted into understanding what are the dominant ways that people approach their decisions. And what I’ve learned and what the book discusses is that there are five dominant ways that people approach their decisions. And I’ve given them each a fun name. We think in language, so having a lexicon with which to think about this gives us the opportunity to really wrestle with it more easily. So, the five ways that people tend to approach their decisions, I call them the adventurer, the detective, the listener, the thinker, and the visionary. And the listener is a decision-maker who has an underlying optimism bias. This is somebody who thinks that the future is endlessly more interesting than the present. So, the way that they make decisions is they make them relatively competently and relatively quickly; they don’t need a lot of information. Because if they make a decision that they’re not that happy with, guess what? They can make a new decision. So, it’s a wonderful kind of decision-maker to be. The next problem solver profile is a detective, and I’m a detective. Now, a detective can fall prey to confirmation bias. We are people who love data. And we think of data actually, as facts and as evidence. We don’t see people and their opinions with the same kind of certainty. So we tend to overvalue information and facts rather than people. The listener is a collaborative and cooperative decision-maker who can fall prey to social proof because she likes to be able to get along well with others. And she values opinions and the wisdom of a trusted group over raw facts and data. The thinker is somebody who can fall prey to a relativity bias. This is somebody who’s a relatively slow decision-maker, they want to understand the Why. They are somebody who stays in the problem solving as opposed to the decision making, and the action is between their ears. For the visionary, now you have somebody who can fall prey to a scarcity bias, for instance, because this is somebody who sees the rainbows that we haven’t seen yet. They come into the meeting, they’re listening to what’s going on, but then they may suggest something that’s not on the table because they favor something that is original and creative. So, each of these different problem-solver profiles has some beautiful strengths, and they each are cross-referenced with some key cognitive biases that can impede clear thinking. So, each of these decision-makers value different parts of the process and they bring different lenses to the way that they enter into their decision-making.
Steve Shallenberger: So, just to help our listeners today, and to help Steve, can you give an example of a problem how the different lenses of each one of these five profiles might approach it?
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn: I’ll give you something that’s not a work-related example because this is an example that almost all of us probably have had. You’re out to dinner with a group of friends. You’re out to dinner with the five Problem Solver profiles and the menu is brought by the waitress. So the adventurer looks at the menu, sees a meal that looks good, and she puts down her menu — she’s all set. The detective looks at the menu, and she sees that one dish has olives and anchovies. And from those facts, from those details, I’m going to order that dish. The listener wants to hear what everybody else has ordered to make sure that she’s not, for instance, ordering the most pricey thing, especially if you’re all going to be splitting the check. The Thinker looks at the menu and may say to themselves, “Well, I really haven’t had enough vegetables today. So, what else have I had today, and had the options of what I already have had impact the options that are now before me?” And that has a real frame blindness to it. The visionary looks at the menu, sees that there’s a dish that she likes, but there’s a sauce from a different dish. So she asks the waitress if she can have this one dish but take the sauce from the other dish. So, you can see that each of these profiles are going to solve the same problem very differently.
Steve Shallenberger: So, how have you found, Cheryl, is the best way to leverage this in making decisions with other people, or in teams, or even a family?
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn: So, it has enormous repercussions about this. And when you think about it, first, if you’re a hiring manager, what is the intellectual diversity of the groups of people that you have, in terms of how they think? Second, if you’re creating a team, even if you don’t have all five Problem Solver profiles, simply reading problem solver and learning about the intellectual diversity of the five, you can bring in questions from the various vantage points, which really is what gives you the full some understanding of the decision or the problem that you are making. The other thing that I think you can probably hear from the descriptions that I’ve given is that there can be real friction between different kinds of problem-solver profiles. So understanding the problem-solver profile of the person with whom you’re making a decision can allow you to understand their information needs so that you can better serve the relationship so that you can better serve the decision-making. And this idea that you’re building your relationships on a cooperative backbone, a collaborative backbone, really is the practice of inclusion. And that’s really where you’re making people feel welcome, feel heard, and feel able to participate and no longer denigrate somebody’s hasty, somebody’s flighty, somebody instead might be an adventurer, and somebody might be a visionary. And you can better understand, therefore, the value that they’re going to bring to the discussion and the problem-solving that you’re going to have.
Steve Shallenberger: It’s good to be aware of this, to know the profiles because it’ll help you as a leader to maximize and optimize the strength of the team. I would imagine that some people are dominant in one of these profiles, but may have strengths among the different profiles. Do you have a way to measure that? Who is what? How do you learn who is what? And then how do you develop a skill to be better at it?
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn: All good questions. I’ve developed a quiz: The Problem Solver Profile Quiz. You can go to app.areamethod.com, and you can take the quiz, and it will tell you what’s your dominant problem solver profile, and then how you’ve scored related to the other problem solver profiles. And then my book, Problem Solver, is filled with what I call Cheetah Sheets. All of my books have the same graphic, organizer concept, that cheetah is the fastest land animal but her hunting prowess is that she decelerates up to nine miles an hour in a single stride. And the reason why that makes her such a fearsome hunter is now you’re talking about agility, flexibility, and maneuverability. And that’s what you need in quality decision-making. So, in all of my books, I have these Cheetah Sheets that are worksheets that give you a series of questions that take you through a logical progression for you to be able to rip the skill right off the page and plug it right into your daily life. And in my new book, Problem Solver, in addition to having the worksheets, everywhere that I have the Cheetah Sheets, I also have one that’s been filled out by one of my clients. So you can see how people in all different sorts of backgrounds, industries, etc., use these skills and how it’s helped them to have better relationships, and therefore, make their big decisions better.
Steve Shallenberger: Two quick questions here: one is, I know all of our listeners are saying, “Okay, which one is good? Which one is bad?”
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn: Well, our former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld once said, “You go to war with the army that you have, not the army that you wish you had.” Every single problem-solver profile has a series of strengths. And every single one of them also has these cross winds, the cognitive biases that can impede clear thinking. But once you learn about yourself, which all of us love to do, and you learn about the other problem-solver profiles, you can learn how to bolster your strengths, mitigate some of these blind spots and become more dynamic and working with others.
Steve Shallenberger: What have you learned from the data, from the quizzes?
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn: So, I’ve collected data now from well over 4000 people just since the book has come out in late March. So far, what I’ve learned is that the profile that seems most dominant among people who have taken the quiz is the thinker. And I think that’s in part because I’ve written a series of articles recently about the new book for Harvard Business Review. And I think that that’s also driven traffic to the quiz. And I think, who is willing to take a quiz to find out what kind of decision-maker they are? The adventurer might read about the problem-solver profiles and say, “I don’t need a quiz, I’m an adventurer.” But somebody who’s a thinker, a detective, a listener, these are slower, more thoughtful, more contemplative in the way that they approach their decisions. And I think they may be more likely to take an assessment like this. So, as I continue to work with that, I continue to try to see if I can come on to podcasts like this and give talks to a variety of audiences, which would help me also to better understand the complexion of decision makers that we are as a society.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, I’m always blown away by how fast things go. Any final tips for our listeners today, Cheryl?
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn: I would just say that there are two kinds of learning: there’s knowledge and skill. I tend to think of decision-making as a skill, which means I can teach you those skills, and then they can be yours. If decisions are really the only thing that you’ll ever have control over in your life and you’re going to make so many of them every single day, the idea that you could make them better, that you could feel more satisfied, that you could have better connectivity in your relationships, all that is available to you simply by learning some of these skills.
Steve Shallenberger: So, it’s been so fun. Tell us how our listeners can learn more about what you’re doing.
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn: Sure. My website is areamethod.com. And on my website, I have my articles, my books, my TED talk, and a little bit about how we work with our clients to help them be better decision-makers and to offer professional development and coaching.
Steve Shallenberger: Wonderful. It has been a delight to have you with us, Cheryl. I loved the information that you’re sharing, the ideas and the thoughts are tremendous in terms of stimulating us to do better in this area, which is so critical.
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn: Well, thank you, Steve.
Steve Shallenberger: You bet. We wish you the best. Keep it up and keep going.
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure to be here with you today.
Steve Shallenberger: Thank you. To all of our listeners, wherever you are, we’re so grateful that you would join us. We’re really humbled by that, and it’s an honor and privilege to have you here. This has been fun today, really an invitation to each of us to do a little bit better. And not getting caught up in cognitive biases, but seeing things clearly and understanding strange. So, there’s been some really good ideas. It’s a compliment to you that you’re working on these things. So, congratulations on working on becoming your best and just trying to make the world a better place. We wish you all the best and wishing you a great day. This is Steve Shallenberger, signing off.
CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, and Community Leader
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn
Founder & CEO at Decisive, TEDx Speaker, Author