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The AREA Method: Rethinking the Whiteboard For Creative Problem Solving

By June 9, 2018June 16th, 2021Podcasts

What do you think of when you see the classic image of a group of people surrounding a blank whiteboard? Innovation? Idea generation? Problem-solving? While a blank canvas, or the universe of infinite possibilities, seems like a great way to solve a problem or make a complex decision, it might not be effective or efficient to explore all options. Most of our decisions are constrained by time and resources — as they should be — so the idea of infinite possibilities can prove frustrating at best and counter-productive at worse.

I was thinking about this recently while participating in a Booz Allen innovation conference. Several of the presenters showed those classic whiteboard teamwork images and touted “out of the box thinking” and “building diverse innovation ecosystems,” idealizing limitless possibility. Being out-of-the-box and innovative are great goals, but solving complex problems can often benefit from a process that adds focus to problem-solving, whether you’re solving a personal problem or working as part of a team tackling a professional decision. Limiting your options can actually accelerate the creative process and align all of the stakeholders involved.

After all, problems –personal and professional–are often specific. You, or your company, have unique needs. If, for example, you’re struggling with what direction to take your career, you’re not doing it in a vacuum. Instead, you are solving for the right career for you personally, perhaps even for a set period of time or phase of life. The same is true for your company, which sits in a specific industry, with a unique set of core competencies, and will want to leverage its capabilities to improve its processes, products or services.

Instead of imagining all paths, invert from where the paths begin to where they end up. For example, instead of asking: What career should I pursue? Flip the question over and instead ask: “What is my vision of career success?” What has to happen in the outcome of the decision for you to know you’ve chosen the right career for you personally?

Once you’ve identified a successful outcome, you can more easily identify the one, two or three things that matter to you in reaching it. I call these your Critical Concepts because they are critical to a successful outcome for you. They focus your process and your thinking so that you’re no longer solving an open-ended question, but instead deeply and creatively investigating those few factors that will get you to your vision of success. Is it important for you to be in an entrepreneurial career or one with a clear ladder for professional development? Do you love interacting with strangers or shy away from it? Different decision makers will answer these questions differently and will, therefore, want to come to different decisions. While there is no one right answer, there is one right answer for you.

At the Booz Allen conference, I shared the story of a CEO, Neil, who wanted to change his import company’s compensation scheme.

Neil was frustrated and stymied by looking at all possible options. Should he base compensation on the number of new contracts a salesperson signed, or on the size of the contracts? Should he set monthly data targets or quarterly ones? Should seniority figure into compensation, or should the playing field be level? He was worried his managers would balk at any change and he didn’t know how to move forward. Too many options didn’t free him up, they tied him up. When I met with him, I suggested that he not solve for “n=all.” I Instead I asked him: “How would you know that your decision to change compensation plans had succeeded?” He was able to easily articulate his vision of success and could then derive his

Critical Concepts:

  1. He’d be able to grow sales and profits by a certain percent each year
  2. He’d be able to retain his current staff while having a compensation plan that would attract new salespeople
  3. He would be tying compensation to performance metrics that mattered to the company — sales — while recognizing that good salespeople also build customer relationships, which don’t always lead immediately to sales. By tracking both sales and customer interaction, his managers would get frequent feedback and some measure of control.

Inverting the decision process has another bonus: It is strategically relational. That is, this kind of problem-solving recognizes that a good outcome is rarely about only the decision maker. Yes, Neil’s Critical Concepts were about his business, but they were also about a positive work culture which required buy-in from his employees, whom he wanted to retain and to motivate. Neil recognized that understanding his employees’ incentives and motivations would help him achieve an outcome that could truly succeed because it solved the problem holistically.

Yes, a group of decision-makers gathered around a whiteboard may look inclusive because it involves people working together towards a common goal, but getting people into a room is different than building trust. Not everyone feels comfortable speaking up in that kind of a setting and welcoming people into a room isn’t any guarantee that they are being welcomed into the conversation.

By thinking carefully and deliberately at the beginning of the decision-making process about your Critical Concepts and the stakeholders’ incentives and motivations, you are no longer beginning the productive whiteboard session with a blank canvas; it is already framed by your vision of success. You’ve heightened your self-awareness by focusing on your –and others’ — needs, creating a welcoming environment for a productive decision-making session.

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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@areamethod.com. Cheryl can customize a workshop for your company, or she offers one-day or three-day in-person workshops and a month long, once a week webinar.

Follow Cheryl on Twitter and find her on Facebook

 

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One Comment

  • Steve Moolin says:

    Thanks for the insight Cheryl and especially Neil’s story. I think we want to approach problems with a ‘blank slate’. I think more often we approach problems with the memory of solutions that worked and those that didn’t. These memories may become a diversion or a roadblock while structured inquiry methods like AREA can help us focus on the issues at hand.

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