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The AREA Method: Five Ways To Build Trust When Making Decisions

How do we build trust with other stakeholders when making decisions? It was a question that an official at the State Department asked me to address last month when she invited me to speak to a group of foreign counter-terrorism experts from around the world. The official came to me after reading about my book Problem Solved. She felt my AREA decision making system, laid out in the book, fit State’s program needs because of its emphasis on understanding other perspectives and managing for your own cognitive bias.

I wasn’t sure how my decision making method would apply in counter-terrorism situations untiI I asked for the State Department’s program goal: “To explore underlying conditions that promote extremism such as social structures and economic disparity and look for community-based efforts to create safe spaces, resist violence, the emergence of isolation and extremism.”

The threats the representative countries faced were from diverse extremist organizations: Maoists in India, white supremacists in Sweden, ISIS  in Lebanon and Kosovo, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and others. Still, while the threats were varied, one of the most basic underlying issues was mistrust. These rebel communities distrusted the government and the government was equally suspicious of the rebels’ motivations. Neither party could get its problems addressed until this fundamental issue was fixed.

But what does the execution of a trust-building system look like? What is the process to achieve such an ambitious goal?

In the workshop we discussed a list of the components of a plan that builds trust. It included:

  • A collaborative system
  • A clear definition of what success looks like
  • A way to use perspective-taking to focus on the motivations and incentives of the stakeholders
  • Self-awareness of, and control for, mental short-cuts, biases and judgments
  • A way to share information within a research system that vets assumptions with evidence, is transparent, and creates an audit trail of the work and the thinking

The list lined up perfectly with the essential elements of the AREA Method.

In the windowless conference room, I laid out a case study that explained how to put those pieces of trust together. This case, which is profiled in Problem Solved, began in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Nepal in 2015 when John Christopher, the founder of a basic healthcare charity in rural Nepal called The Oda Foundation, wanted to quickly expand his organization’s ability to deliver healthcare. After assessing his options, John chose a plan that would allow his organization to quickly scale up its offerings by using already available space within government clinics. The problem: local Nepalese didn’t trust the government because of its shoddy reputation for providing healthcare so the government clinics sat empty.

Oda needed the government’s facilities to administer care but it also needed to broker trust between the government and the locals. Two issues needed to be addressed: How could Oda convince a mistrustful population to get past prior negative experiences with the clinics, and how could Oda protect its reputation so that it was seen as the independent charity it was, separate from –and untainted by– the government?

Using AREA, John came up with a plan that addressed all of the above components to build trust.

  • John made his AREA Journal public. The AREA Journal had been John’s personal record of his work and his thinking as he researched his decision options for how to best expand Oda. Once he realized that his best expansion path was by partnering with the government, John saw that his personal decision-making journal was an excellent tool to explain Oda’s vision of success –to provide acute healthcare treatment and preventive care programs with both local and government support—as well as his AREA process. The Journal worked as a discussion document that invited conversation and removed the emotional tenor of the fraught relationship between the government and locals.

It grounded the communication around evidence that Oda found as to why government clinics could provide Oda the most efficient and effective care delivery system. It showed that John had gathered data about healthcare delivery issues from different perspectives –the government’s, the local populace’s, experts in emergency care from other developing nations, organizations that had worked in disaster relief, and so on — and vetted their opinions and analysis against evidence. Thus the Journal provided a ‘safe space’ in which Oda, the local Nepalese and the government could have the important conversation of how to provide quality care while ensuring that persistent and prevalent problems at government clinics would not occur with Oda’s efforts.

  • The Oda team tested out their decision before enacting it by using a pre-mortem exercise that imagined that the decision had failed. This exercise enabled Oda first to think about how and why the decision might fail, and then, having imagined failure, to set up safeguards to prevent it. The pre-mortem exercise enabled Oda not only to avoid failure but to bolster the plan’s strengths.

For example, to directly address the trust issue John identified lay leaders in the area where Oda currently worked who could assist Oda’s expansion by acting as emissaries to new communities. These leaders would identify other lay leaders and vouch to them that Oda provided high quality health care and was an independent organization that the local population could trust.

This transparent plan’s success was greater than John and Oda anticipated. Patient visits increased 62% after the plan was enacted. “Community members are far more inclined to use government services now,” says John.

Moreover, since Oda rebuilt the locals’ trust, it has become “the go-to organization for international charitable groups in the area,” he says. Five new charities are now on the ground in this region of Nepal “because of our ability to effectively work with the government in an area that has been historically challenging.” The bottom line for Oda: “Whether looking at medical camps, outreach campaigns, or awareness initiatives, working together has increased community trust and engagement.”

How did the counter-terror experts react? The expert from India said, “Personally speaking AREA could help us. Community conflicts have to be resolved methodically. Rash actions may lead to failures, as recent practices in my country demonstrate.  In a multi-religious society as in India, radicalization happens not merely because of textual narratives, but largely because of the lack of effective redressal mechanism after conflicts. AREA makes the process of exploration before any concrete action more significant and vital.”

Another expert, from Nigeria, said “using AREA will help us to have an open mind about collecting data and doing research. The method supports independent analysis using all variables at our disposal. I don’t have to rely upon clouded judgement and can pre-empt my biases.”

Whether you are making a high-stakes personal or professional decision, it’s important to recognize that we don’t operate in a vacuum. We all make decisions within a context. Our decisions –even the most personal ones– involve others and by taking these other stakeholders into account you can not only build trust, but you can also build bridges.

How can AREA help you and your business make big decisions better? Sign up for coaching, workshops or have Cheryl come speak to your organization by emailing Cheryl can customize an in-person workshop for your company. Follow Cheryl on Twitter: @cheryleinhorn or visit Pick up a copy of Cheryl’s award winning book Problem Solved, which was just honored as a finalist for the best business book in the general category by the International Book Awards.

One Comment

  • KS Shameer says:

    HELLO. I was one of the participants in the meeting. Area is one of the significant methodological practices that I found useful and potentially effective during my 20-day visit of the United States as part of the immensely enriching IVLP programme. After that visit, there were some incidents in India

    In April this year, Naxals (Indian “brand name”for Maoists) blew up a police vehicle and killed five policemen. This happened in a tribal area where tribal communities, deeply frustrated over the expansion of corporates into their areas of livelihood, are recruited to thee guerrilla group.

    Two weeks later, police fired at people who were peacefully protesting against a corporate firm called Vedanta in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, South India, and killed 13 people. What links this incident with the first is that repressive state actions often enkindle resentment in public, a majority of whom are potentially recruited to non-state violent groups. This incident had reverberations in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, where the memory of LTTE is still afresh.

    Three days ago, the Hindu-right wing groups, notorious for cow vigilantism and anti-Muslim and anti-Dalit violence, killed a Muslim man in North India on the “basis” of rumour that he slaughtered a cow. During my interaction with the representatives of IVLP, I said that creating bridges between communities in such a way that values and lifestyle of each community are respected is vital in India for mutual co-existence. But it is easier said than done. Since the right-wing groups have enjoyed immunity from indifferent and to an extent supportive government at the centre, the targeted community, in extreme resentment, might join radical solutions and Muslim groups fostering such an ideology would benefit from that.

    I am still reading “Problem Solved” amidst busy work schedule. But the method will help me on many counts. 1, Identifying communities that are being targeted. 2, Creating resources and data about them 3, Chalking our actions plans on how to address the violence from the state and non-state actors. 3, Doing research and analysis so as to arrive at the best solution, ie building bridges between communities 4, Paving ways for economic and social self-sustainability among communities in association with government and non-government groups

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