The following is a conversation between Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, Founder of CSE Consulting and Author of the book, Problem Solved: A Powerful System for Making Complex Decisions with Confidence and Conviction, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer.
Denver: If someone were to ask you what your decision-making process was when addressing a big problem or facing an important decision, what would you say? Well, for many of us, the answer would be pretty imprecise, a little circumstantial, and far from rigorous. In fact, we might come to the realization that there isn’t much of a system at all.
That observation was not lost on my next guest. So she set out to do something about it, and the result was her new book, Problem Solved: A Powerful System for Making Complex Decisions with Confidence and Conviction. She is an award-winning journalist, media consultant and adjunct professor at Columbia University. She is Cheryl Strauss Einhorn. Good evening, Cheryl, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Cheryl: So happy to be here. Thank you!
Denver: Well, you have certainly identified a significant need that exists out there, but what gave you the impetus to develop a system and then write a book about it?
Cheryl: Well, really it was such an unexpected journey. My background is in investigative journalism, and I spent a decade working as an editor and columnist for Barron’s, the business magazine. At Barron’s, I sort of ended up specializing in what you might call the “bearish company story” – those stories that take a skeptical look at a company’s finances or at their strategy. When these stories would come out, a lot of time, there’d be a big reaction – not only would the share price fall a lot, but regulators could get involved, and sometimes these kinds of stories really had a very big impact. And I started to feel a little bit uncomfortable about the fact that it wasn’t just impacting somebody’s retirement account or their portfolio, but actually their ability to go to work or to buy the products and services from those types of companies.
And so I started to really think about: Is there a way that I could have better confidence and conviction in my own decision-making? And also, Could I better understand the incentives and the motives of the sources who often gave me those stories? And right about the same time, all this new research was coming out saying that we’re all flawed thinkers. We have these assumptions, biases and judgments. They certainly help us every day, so that when we’re in the supermarket, for instance, we’re not overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices in the cereal aisle. But those same well-worn pathways, those shortcuts, they don’t go away when we’re solving for complex problems.
And so given my background in research, I started to think about: Could there be a way where I could apply a process that acknowledges that we really can’t say we’re going to be objective… and just be objective, but that instead recognizes maybe I should go all in on my mental flaws? And could I construct a process that works within the fact that we have these biases, assumptions and judgments, and be able to better understand how to solve problems more holistically… by also accounting for the incentives and motives of others?
Denver: And then you throw in an emergency appendectomy in the process and say, “I think I have the time!”
Cheryl: That’s exactly right! I was getting down after I had an emergency appendectomy, and I was thinking to myself: I really need a good project. So I had already written up my AREA Method, which is what Problem Solved introduces into a textbook to use at Columbia Business School –and also at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism– and I thought: You know what? I have so many friends asking me: What do I do about my aging parents and helping them find the right housing accommodations? Or, my son’s about to start the college journey, or I want to switch careers; I want to re-enter the workforce…and when I looked on Amazon to see what’s out there for you and me…
Cheryl: That’s exactly what I realized, and I thought I’ll rewrite the textbook into a general interest book because we all deserve the ability to have a system that can uniquely help us to solve high-stakes decisions for ourselves.
…we’re very inconsistent decision-makers. If we’re faced with the same decision, but we’re in two completely different situations–either environmentally, or socially with different people– we may make entirely different decisions.
Denver: Make it accessible to everybody with this kind of a book. How do most of us go about making our decisions? Is there a typical pattern that we generally fall into?
Cheryl: Well, I think that’s a very interesting question. I think the best that I could answer that is that we’re very inconsistent decision-makers. If we’re faced with the same decision, but we’re in two completely different situations–either environmentally, or socially with different people– we may make entirely different decisions.
So I think that what I was looking for here is: Could there be a way where we wouldn’t just rely on who we’re with, or where we are, or the well-worn pathways that have served us well when we make small decisions? Is there a way that we could actually pry open cognitive space to allow for new information and new insight, which is what we really need when solving for complex problems?
The AREA Method inverts traditional decision-making… instead of saying: What problem do you want to solve? AREA inverts it to ask what I think is a far more empowering question, which is: What constitutes a good outcome to you uniquely?
Denver: Well, before we get into the steps of the AREA Method, tell us if there is an overarching philosophical view that kind of undergirds this approach?