Your Problem Solving Style May Have Some Blind Spots

In a previous post, I cited Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, the founder and CEO of Decisive, a decision sciences company. She’s studied how people make decisions for years, and has written a book called Problem Solver: Maximizing Your Strengths to Make Better Decisions. She’s developed five decision archetypes (find the descriptions here.) She says that each style has useful strengths, but they each also have blind spots. Here’s what to look out for.

Adventurers go with their gut, making quick decisions based on instinct. (This is my primary style.) You get to be a confident adventurer in part by nature; I’m an optimist who trusts her instincts. But you also become an adventurer by getting most decisions right (or right enough) over years of experience to make it a pattern. Strauss Einhorn says that slowing down my decision process might help me consider more option and find even better solutions.

She also says optimists tend to think tasks will take less time than they do, so they often struggle to get things done. She calls this planning bias. I don’t have a problem with time management, but her point is well taken. Research more, work on effective – and accurate – estimates of time and other resources.

Detectives tend to trust data more than their own instincts; they want to gather as much information as possible before making a decision. But Strauss Einhorn says that detective don’t always see the big picture and may spend too much time on a question or problem that might not be the essential one.

These are the people who delay decisions, hoping for 100% certainty, which is almost never possible. She says, “More information does not always make for a better decision; it may just put you further in the weeds. Detectives can also fall prey to confirmation bias, cherry-picking through reams of data to support a favored hypothesis.” Probably what  former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was thinking when he said: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. 

Strauss Einhorn says that Detectives can benefit from talking to other people (adopting the Listener’s tactics.) They may find fresh ways of framing the issue or benefit from someone’s previous experience with a similar problem.

Listeners seek out other opinions and weigh them alongside their own instincts and ideas. It can be easy for them to get bogged down by too many opinions, especially if they don’t point clearly toward a solution. They can also fall prey, Strauss Einhorn says, to authority bias, taking more seriously the ideas of those in authority (even if they’re not well-informed or positioned to be authoritative on this particular subject. The may also fall prey to liking bias, meaning they trust the ideas of people they like personally, regardless of their ability to think clearly or be especially insightful.

Strauss Einhorn encourages Listeners to be sure they’re clear on their own values and priorities before seeking out others; without knowing who you are and what’s important to you, you’ll have no way of evaluating the value of the advice you receive. If your friends are all telling you the same thing, she suggests you should seek out a devil’s advocate to get a second opinion that will make different assumptions and possibly offer new perspectives you might not have considered.

Thinkers tend to be risk-averse, which may make them take a long time to make any decision. They are more worried about making the wrong decision than making the right one. They can postpone decisions for a long time, telling themselves they’re still thinking things through when they’re actually procrastinating to avoid failure.

Strauss Einhorn recommends that Thinkers set a firm deadline for a decision and when stuck inside their own heads, find a trusted advisor with a different style who can help you come to a choice you can live with. In my experience, thinkers benefit from hearing from an Adventure. My process for them goes like this.

  • What’s the worst that can happen?
  • How likely is that to happen?
  • If it did happen, could you live with that?
  • If you can’t live with it, let’s move on to the other solution without regret.

The Visionary loves the idea of breaking new ground and trying things other people might not. Strauss Einhorn says these people can fall in love with the novelty or boldness of a solution, even though it may not be the best solution. Scarcity Bias means you tend to value rare ideas (or any resource) more than you do common ones.

She recommends that you kick your idea around with friends or colleagues who are practical and clear-sighted. Is your solution the most practical? The most useful? Is the payoff for doing the unexpected big enough to offset the risk of failure or complications? Sometimes, the thing most people would do makes the most sense – even for you.

If you and someone you work with (or someone you live with) are driving each other crazy when you have to make decisions, I hope these posts will be useful. Understanding your pattern is helpful and understanding where you might have blind spots is even more helpful.

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