We all grow up to be decision -makers. Yet somehow there’s no well-established way to make high-stakes decisions well. That’s a problem, since throughout life we’re faced with many of them — decisions that will have a long-term impact on our lives, but where the outcome is unknown, and the price for making the wrong decision could be costly.
Imagine if we all learned decision making before turning 18. Is there anything we do more frequently that has higher stakes than making good choices? If we could master decision making, I believe the world might get along just a little bit better, and everyone would live happier lives – and work smarter.
There is a system that can help us solve complex problems, and there is a way to do it that boosts our confidence in our decision-making capabilities and enables us to have conviction that our solution has a good likelihood of succeeding.
I created one: the AREA Method decision-making system. I initially developed it to help me do better at my work as an investigative journalist. I was searching for a way to better control and counteract my mental biases, those assumptions and judgments that help us every day when making small decisions but that don’t go away when we need to solve complex problems. I also wanted to better understand the incentives and motives in the other people I was dealing with.
AREA, an acronym for absolute, relative, exploration and exploitation, and analysis, gets its name from the perspectives we use to work with, and through, ambiguity. AREA can be boiled down to four simple steps that you can use immediately to help you make smarter, better decisions when you’re facing a complex problem that you need to solve. They are:
- Recognize that research is a fundamental part of decision making. Your ability to make a thoughtful decision depends on the quality of the information you have. Therefore, you need a good research process to be an integral part of your decision-making framework. But keep in mind: Research is an umbrella term for a whole series of tricky steps that need to be carefully navigated and thoughtfully completed. Break down your research so it’s manageable and organized.
- Be aware that we are all flawed thinkers. Much has been written lately about how we are all prey to mental mistakes. Behavioral science research and books like Robert Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” and Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” explain that we rely on faulty intuition and are swayed by authority and public sentiment. The research they offer explores the many ways that we allow biases, snap judgments and assumptions to drive our decision-making. Having a heightened awareness that we don’t see the world as it is, but that rather we see it as we are,can help prevent mistakes.
- Address the critical component of timing by resisting rushing to judgment. High-stakes decisions deserve time and attention, but often we’re in such a rush to reach a conclusion that we never really take the time for deep reflection. We’re already overprogrammed, answering emails late at night and waking to urgent texts. We struggle with the need to react when we also need to really think.
We all need a way to have a check and balance for bias, and that’s why a process like the AREA Method can alert you to disconfirming data. The idea is that when it comes to making big decisions we deserve the time needed for thoughtful reflection as well as tools to examine both our data and our thinking. Insight doesn’t come from collecting information alone; it comes from brainwork, so slow down and think about the meaning behind the information you are gathering and the work you are doing.
- Recognize that good decision-making needs a repeatable process that works as a feedback loop. Not all investigations are linear, nor should they be. At times, you need to be driven back into earlier steps to do more work, collect more data or conduct more analysis.
We can’t control our luck, but we can control our process and, in doing so, we make smarter, better decisions.
Cheryl Einhorn is the founder of CSE Consulting and the author of the book “Problem Solved, a Powerful System for Making Complex Decisions with Confidence & Conviction.” She is also an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.
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