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The AREA Method: Warren Buffett & Untangling Your Plate of Spaghetti

Recently I sent a copy of my book Problem Solved about decision making to Warren Buffett. He responded with a lovely note of encouragement and had this observation: “It always amazes me how many seemingly intelligent people have trouble thinking clearly. Their thoughts get tangled into a plate of spaghetti.”

Mr. Buffett is so eloquent, and so clear thinking. He’s right of course. We do get tangled, and spaghetti is a wonderful-and apt-metaphor.

When we are faced with a complex problem we look at it like a plate of spaghetti. What we think we know about the problem is tangled with other problems, thoughts and perspectives. We don’t have a process for separating out the strands — how we think and feel about the problem, what we actually know, and what others are recommending and why. It’s a hot mess. Still, we too often simply grab a few strands and twirl them together; it impairs our decision making.

A recent example: I gave a workshop for Vistage, an executive coaching organization. I asked each CEO about a major decision that he –and yes there were only men—had to tackle in the next six months. Almost all were dealing with problems of how to best grow their companies, which were mostly service businesses, including electronic waste management and disposal, intelligence gathering, and legal and financial services. Many of them were contemplating acquisitions in related industries where they might improve their value proposition and leverage their customer base; one was considering becoming more vertically integrated.

First we developed their Critical Concepts, those key factors that are necessary for a successful outcome. Then, as we zeroed in on one of AREA decision making system’s creative exercises, they each acknowledged that they didn’t know their problem well enough; they’d been ‘dating’ their decision instead of committing to it. In other words they, like many of us, only thought about the problem now and then, when it fit into their busy schedules. When they engaged with AREA, they developed a deeper connection with their problem and it reframed each CEO’s decision.

Each CEO realized that he’d constricted and constrained his thinking. By ‘dating’ their ideas they weren’t investing in the relationship.

  • One CEO realized that he’d been responding to a need that he thought his customers had. But what did he actually know about how his customers fulfilled that need? He realized that for him to fulfill that need, he’d be moving outside his company’s core competency. If he wanted to pursue this change he realized he’d need to enter that market slowly and with better safeguards.  He’d also need to make personnel changes and focus on his company’s culture. The new service would require meshing employees with different professional skillsets.
  • One CEO realized that he’d focused on what the acquisition would do to his company and hadn’t considered what was happening more broadly in the acquisition’s industry: it was quickly consolidating. What were the implications of that consolidation? How was it working out for competitors?
  • One CEO realized that the adjacent target claimed all kinds of accomplishments but that he had not directly done the due diligence to verify that the activities occurred as described.

Like these CEOs, instead of taking dedicated time to examine our big decisions mindfully, we are often so entangled in other activities that we rely upon our preconceived notions, our assumptions and judgments to guide us through big decisions. We might decide whether, and how, to expand our business the same way we eat spaghetti. We stick our fork into our tangled mess of thoughts and take whatever is picked up.

In other words we ‘swipe right’ on our lives. Like the Tinder app that originated the term, we often view our decisions as something that should be made quickly, on the basis of a gut reaction. We ‘hook up’ with a decision rather than thinking carefully and rationally about whether it’s the best decision we can make to further our goals.

By simulating the omnipresent, fast-paced technology devices in our lives we end up relying upon our biases, missing the opportunity to empower ourselves, to commit to becoming experts in our lives, to vet our ideas with evidence and to invest in the other people involved in our decisions.

But we don’t really want to keep making mistakes –and heaven forbid the same old mistakes. We want to hit back on our mental shortcomings and prevent ourselves from making poor decisions out of a poor decision making process.

That’s the idea behind AREA: to give you an operating system that creates both the atmospheric attributes – the mental preparation and space for thinking — and the tools to enable you to solve your problems so that you can better achieve your goals.

When you are ready to invest in yourself and your decisions, AREA gives you the spade work to get it done. It begins by building the mental space you need to make complex decisions — your self-awareness and your sensitivity to the incentives and motives of others, enabling you to confront your biases and assess your problem’s edges and pitfalls. You are preparing your mind for the problem solving you are about to do.

AREA then also gives you the tools to pull apart the strands of your decision and to bring in new strands to look at and organize the situation anew. Finally, it helps you knot the strands back together. Instead of a plate of spaghetti, you can transform those strands into a sturdy rope, carefully woven together into a strong, evidence-based decision.

Once you understand the AREA system and have applied it, it’s yours to keep. And like a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets — and the more mindful you become. You’re not only seeing and solving problems differently, but also seeing and interacting with other people involved in your decisions differently, more collaboratively.

Our daily lives and our technology may be telling us to make big decisions faster. But faster is not always the goal. Many of us want something that is far more fulfilling: the process and the skills to make big decisions better.

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 a workshop for your company, or she offers one-day or three-day in-person workshops and a month long, once a week webinar.

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One Comment

  • Steve Moolin says:

    Great timing Cheryl! A really apt metaphor helps.

    You know when you think about pace of decision making speeding up it reminds me of what athletes who are performing at the highest levels say about their sport, that is it seems to happen in slow motion and larger than life. Most often they talk about how it has been their training and coaching that enabled that state of clarity, of what Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. I think AREA can help more of us achieve that level of clarity and enjoy the spaghetti at the same time!

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