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Stuck on a Problem? Try Switching Up Your Approach


CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

At this stage in your career, whether you realize it or not, you probably lean on the same framework to make decisions. Call it a habit or a pattern, whether it’s unconscious or deliberate. Like it or not, you have developed your own tried and true decision-making style. But is it really the best way?

Often the model that you turn to to solve problems and make decisions is the one you’ve grown comfortable with, but it’s not necessarily the most effective one for that situation. Even the best leaders sometimes need a refresh, and that’s especially true when your default doesn’t seem to be working in a new scenario.

Our guest today studies the behaviors and psychology behind making decisions. In fact, she has identified five different archetypes. She says that the key to solving the latest challenge you face might be in understanding your own style and knowing when to switch up your approach.

Cheryl Strauss Einhorn is the founder and CEO of Decisive, a decision sciences consultancy. She also wrote the book Problem Solver and the HBR article “When Your Go-To Problem Solving Approach Fails.” Cheryl, thanks for joining.

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: Thank you so much for having me.

CURT NICKISCH: So we’re going to talk about the main kinds of decision makers that you’ve identified in a bit. But I want to start by asking, why do we tend to fall back on certain patterns or behaviors around decision making? Where does that come from?

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: Well, there’s really two reasons. First, we have comfortable ways of being. If you think about it, most of us are as people who are right-handed, more comfortable doing things with our right hand. Or if we’re left-handed, left-hand. And our dominant ways of being as decision-makers are similar. It’s a comfortable way that we work in the world. And then the second point is that the way that we present ourselves, those habits and patterns that are comfortable, they speak to an underlying set of values, and those are the values that underpin how we make our decisions.

CURT NICKISCH: And is this any different for business leaders that are thrust into new situations, it’s almost like maybe you’re forced to use your left hand, where normally you wouldn’t?

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: I think for somebody who’s very experienced, they have habits and patterns of behaving that have really worked well for them. And I think they then therefore may tend to have a stronger bias to do those things that have worked well. And so it is in really trying to pry open that cognitive space to allow for new information and new thinking that can really give them the opportunity therefore to do something different.

CURT NICKISCH: So it almost sounds like it might actually be harder for a business leader because they’re thinking of themselves, “The way I do things has been successful. It’s gotten me to this point, and because of that, you might have a little bit of a failure of imagination.

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: And also a real comfort that you have this data set behind you of success. And so I think that that’s right.

CURT NICKISCH: So before we get into trying to solve a problem when your standard approach just isn’t working, we should talk about the different kinds of problem solvers that you’ve identified through your work and research: these are adventurers, detectives, listeners, thinkers, and visionaries. Can you quickly run through each of those and just give us the main attributes?

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: So I gave them each fun names because we think in language. The adventurer is somebody who makes decisions easily, they tend to go with their gut, but therefore they may downplay the evidence and input from others, especially if it contradicts their gut reaction.

For detectives, and I’m a detective, we’re people who like to follow the data. A downside of that may be that we overvalue facts and we undervalue people.

Listeners are our most collaborative and cooperative decision makers. They generally want to solicit the input of others, but sometimes they have difficulty accessing their own inner voice.

Thinkers are people who have the action in between their ears. They want to understand the why. They thrive on identifying multiple pathways and outcome, but they can struggle to make decision in a timely manner as they tend to end up in a frame blindness looking at one option against the other, which may miss the bigger picture.

And then we have our visionaries. They pride themselves on seeing pathways that others don’t, but therefore they may have a scarcity bias or want to avoid the ordinary even when it can be effective. And so I hope what you can see here is that each of these approaches brings a different underlying value structure and therefore they’re optimizing for different things in the way that they solve problems.

CURT NICKISCH: I just thought to myself what style I probably am. And I bet a lot of listeners did the same thing. Let me give you an example of something you might have to do as a manager:  catering for a business meeting. You’ve got a bunch of people in, maybe people from different teams, not your normal meeting, and you have to decide how to feed everybody for lunch during this long meeting. How would each of those archetypes or personality styles choose that differently?

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: Well, I think that this is something that many people can relate to, right? So in the catering example, the adventurer might look at the menu of things that she could be offering and she’s going to immediately pick one and say, “That looks good.” Because she’s going to feel a natural instinct and she can get the decision over pretty quickly because she feels confident.

The detective is going to look at the different ingredients and think about what would be a really good option that everybody might be able to eat and she’s going to be anchored in that detail for instance, “Oh, I can see that this would be something that would be acceptable to a lot of people,” and she’ll make the choice based on those facts.

For the listener, she might really want to be taking into account the different eating needs that everybody has and how hot the room might be. And she might be thinking about what would be comfortable if it had to sit out, for example, and how to really make sure that everybody feels welcome in that moment because focused on the people.

CURT NICKISCH: Does she actually go out and ask people what they want or do a poll?

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: Absolutely. She might go out and ask people. She might say, “Hey, I’d like to ask everybody, ‘Are there any food allergies?’.” Because she absolutely is focused on making sure that the people feel included and that she’s doing this in a collaborative, cooperative way.

For the thinker, she may look at the different options and weigh one against another. “This meal might make everybody feel really full, but this meal might be more well-balanced and so on,” and really spend time thinking about how can she mitigate the downside because the thinker has a loss aversion. They would rather make sure that the decision doesn’t fail than optimize for the best possible outcome or the best outcome possible.

And then the visionary might look at the choices and say, “Well, I like this dish, but I like the sauce from something else,” and might ask if she can create something that’s not even exactly on the menu.

CURT NICKISCH: So that’s kind of fascinating, and I think that kind of helps each of us listening sort of even better identify what type we might have. When does this normally come up where you realize that your style doesn’t always work?

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: Well, there are times where we have something that I call situationality that can get in the way. Situationality is the culmination of many factors within context. It includes our location, our life stage, our decision ownership, and our team dynamics, and sometimes that can be a very good thing.

So if you’re an adventurer for example, and you normally have a gut inclination that tells you how you’d like to proceed, if you’re in a brand new environment, maybe you’re starting a new job, to show up as a listener and take time to hear maybe the pathway that this organization wants you to follow that can help you to build a relationship and to also take a temperature, “Was my gut inclination aligned with how this organization actually wants to make this decision?”

CURT NICKISCH: The key lesson there is that that style got you to get that job, but it doesn’t always mean that that style is going to be the most successful in that job.

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: Or it might not be successful right at the outset when you’re just initially meeting the people and learning about the job responsibilities itself for that particular organization. I think that’s exactly right. At other times situationality can get in our way. We might have a dominant way of being, and then something happens and all of a sudden we end up in a situation with a lot of friction.

And I’ll give you an example. I was working with a visionary CEO of a geospatial technology company. As a visionary, he really is focused on this big picture vision of the good that he can bring to the world with his new technology, and it gives him a lot of flexibility for how to get to that vision.

But at one point, when he was accepted into a prestigious National Science Foundation program, he ended up hearing information that really caused him concern. He acted as a detective, shrinking his worldview to really focus and zero in on these details that he didn’t like and got so stuck in the weeds that he had a lot of problems with the leadership of the program.

In working together, we were able to examine that all of a sudden the detective had intruded in this situation to override his visionary. Once we were able to look at that, he was able to realign that in being the visionary and holding onto this picture of the good that he could be bringing to the world, he was better able to lift himself out of those details to get back on board that the leadership of this program was actually trying to help him all along to bring his beautiful vision to the world, and that decreased the friction and enabled him to succeed.

CURT NICKISCH: I definitely see a strong case here for changing your style depending on the situation. What do you do first as you realize you’re hitting your head against the wall on a problem or something that you can’t seem to figure out? What’s the first question that you ask yourself in that situation?

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: I think the first thing you want to do is to define the problem. What’s the negative experience that you’re having in the workplace that requires a decision? And then ask yourself to assess the location and team dynamics. Where are you working? Are you in an office or remote? Are you part of a team? Are you independent? And so on.

And then from there, I think you can consider your own career stage. Are you starting? Are you at the peak? Might you be counting your days until retirement? And then you can think about the other people’s perspective that you’re working with. Who are those stakeholders? How are they trying to make the situation work or not work? And then you can look at your own level of decision ownership, right? Is it your decision to make or how much will you be impacted by the decision outcome?

And then you can connect this situationality back to your problem solver profile. And you can look at whether or not you’re showing up in one of the other profiles, and then you can return to look at your own problem solver profile because it’s usually returning back to what that dominant profile is that you can lean into the strengths of that approach to help you right the ship and make more effective decisions with others.

CURT NICKISCH: So what else can you do to try to overcome the blind spots or the patterns behavior that you typically fall back on?

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: I think the first thing is to gain awareness. So for instance, for an adventurer, she has an optimism bias. She knows that if she makes a decision and it goes awry, guess what? The next decision is always ahead. And so she might tend to gloss over facts or important details. And so recognizing that there is that optimism bias can really be very useful to help you check and challenge it.

Similarly, for the detective who likes evidence, she’s often somebody who feels very comfortable doing research, and therefore she can have an underlying confirmation bias where she can go and identify how a specific piece of information favors the hypothesis that she has, but that’s not as good or as rigorous as looking for disconfirming data. And so again, knowing your problem solver profile, the strengths and the related cognitive biases is the first step to being able to really build your awareness so that you can have an opportunity to check and challenge what you normally do.

CURT NICKISCH: I thought it was interesting what you said earlier about somebody close to retirement, how that might change the decision they make or how they approach it. How else can this change depending on the stage of your career?

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: Well, I think in this stage of your career, we were talking about before that you might have somebody who’s very experienced, so they have a way of thinking about how a decision should be made that provides them knowledge, but it also may mean that they have more biases associated with the way that it’s been done. If you’re a seasoned professional, you may be able to speak to a problem that you’ve solved before with expertise, and that might make it more difficult to reconsider how you approach the problem. That’s not always true, but certainly the experience content to narrow what we think the actual answer should be instead of expanding it.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, I wonder if sometimes you realize that the decision that you’re struggling with is actually not your decision, or maybe you have claimed too much of it, then you realize? How much does decision ownership play into this process?

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: I think decision ownership is something that’s underappreciated, right? Thinking about, is it your decision to make? How much will you or your organization be impacted? And how important is the decision to you or your organization? Impact and importance are obviously not the same thing, because impact is the effect on someone or something and importance is the significance or the value. So you can have a decision that can have a significant impact, but be of little importance and vice versa.

So thinking about whether or not it’s your decision to actually make and how much it requires input and sign off from others can really help you to see whether or not you have worked well enough to include the voices of the other stakeholders. Because holistic problem solving occurs when you are actively including the other people who are going to be impacted by the decision that’s being made.

CURT NICKISCH: Is somebody who is a listener, are they just by default more successful in these situations? Is it basically just trying to change your style so that you are more of a listener? Or is decision ownership more than that?

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: That’s a very interesting point you’re making, because for a listener, they would actively want to be including people to make a decision. For a detective, they may or may not include other people because they naturally want to go and find the data. For an adventurer, they’d want to make the decision pretty quickly because they have a pretty strong instinct on what that decision should be and so on. So each of the different problem solver profiles might view decision ownership differently?

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. A listener could make the mistake of listening to the wrong people.

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: Well, a listener usually has a trusted group of advisors, and therefore they can have an underlying liking bias where they overweight information that comes from people that they have an affinity for. That may make it more difficult for them to bring in outside voices beyond that. And it also may make it difficult at times for them to really identify their own inner voice.

CURT NICKISCH: Once you’ve learned your style, understand its shortcomings and have gotten better about switching up your approach to fit the scenario that you’re in, does this become a new habit or do you really have to keep working on it deliberately all the time as you go along?

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: I think the problem solver profiles give you a beautiful opportunity to be a more active listener. If you recognize, for example, that your problem solver profile is one that may have friction with another problem solver profile, really listening for clues as to how somebody else is approaching the decision can help you use the skills of the other problem solver to work better together. And at the same time, once you really have this opportunity to learn all the profiles, you can actively try them on. If you are a detective, you could go to the supermarket as a visionary. Or you might take a vacation as an adventurer and so on. And so by using the different profiles that are not yours, you can have an opportunity to see where the discomfort is and then to try to work through that discomfort so that you can become more dynamic. And over time, it will become easier as you begin to lean into trying on the different profiles for yourself, in decisions where you feel comfortable stepping out of that natural habit and pattern of making decisions.

CURT NICKISCH: The other thing I’m kind of realizing is that part of the situationality is the organization that you’re in. We talk about organizations as being very data-driven or analytical, right? And it may actually favor certain kinds of decision making and undervalue other kinds. And so, seeing how you fit in that organization can really make a big difference.

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: That can definitely make a big difference. I’ve been doing a program lately with the federal government. Each of these organizations, whether it’s the Treasury or the IRS and so on, they each have a real process for how things take place. So in one of our recent workshops, we had a discussion about where’s the place for the adventurer? How does this person actually fit into an organization like this? One of the things that we talked about is that the adventurer is such a nice person to have at the table because they really can help the trains to move on time and build a momentum.

The other thing that they can do, for example, in an organization that seems maybe slower, more aligned with thinkers and detectives, is that they also don’t get anchored on a particular pathway forward. They have a beautiful flexibility to be able to hear a lot of ideas, instinctively be able to switch between them and to identify why it is that they feel like a specific pathway forward might be the best way to go.

And so recognizing that the organization can seem to favor certain types of profiles and then recognizing how the intellectual diversity can still work to augment how the organization works, I think, is something that is really beautiful.

CURT NICKISCH: How does this factor when you’re working in a team? You have your own decision-making style, but if you’re working on a team that’s putting different styles together and has a different dynamic and I’m just curious how that plays out.

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: So if you have a team that’s been together for a long time and you have a variety of profiles, let’s say that your CEO is an adventurer, but you have a team that’s on that senior leadership group that’s primarily thinkers, detectives, listeners, these have very different speeds of decision-making. So with a group like that, you may as the CEO, want to send out, “Gee, in advance, here’s an email framing the situation, the goal that we’re working on.” And it gives people a little bit of time to go at their own speed to do their own investigative process, the thinker to look at the options, the listener to make sure that they’ve canvassed, the stakeholders, the detectives, to gather their evidence.

So by the time they’re gathered around that conference room table, everybody’s actually ready for the decision-making instead of having to sit in the problem-solving. If you have a team that’s never worked together, you’re coming in the room, you don’t really know who people are in terms of their problem-solver profile, you might be able to ask people, “What is it that you need in order to make a decision?” And then you can hear, do they talk about facts? Do they talk about including stakeholders? Do they talk about understanding the options at the table?

Again, that active listening can help you then go into a situation with somebody who you’ve never worked with before, being able to better sync up on how your different problem-solver profiles can work well together.

CURT NICKISCH: Cheryl, you coach individuals, you also work in organizations. I’m just curious what the biggest misunderstanding is that people have about making decisions that you think can be corrected or cleared up?

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: I think one of the biggest things is people don’t understand why there’s friction between people when solving problems, and they sort of throw their hands up initially and they can think about, “I’m uncomfortable with this personality.”

Well, decision-making is actually a part of personality that by knowing the problem-solver profiles can help you unblock your relationships to make better decisions together. As soon as people recognize themselves in the profiles, they have this light bulb go on, “This is why I’m behaving this way. This is what I value in my decisions.”

And it’s not personal that in understanding that your way is just one of five ways, it gives you an opening for how to understand what is somebody else’s incentive structure, what is their motivation for why they’re approaching the decision the way that they are. And that gives you a way to find this intersection of how to work well with them so that you can strengthen that relationship and make better decisions together.

CURT NICKISCH: Well, Cheryl, I think you’ve given listeners a little better sense of who they are and why they approach decisions and problems the way they do. Thanks for coming on the show to talk about it.

CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN: Thank you so much for having me today.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, founder and CEO of Decisive. She wrote the book Problem Solver and the HBR article When Your Go-To Problem Solving Approach Fails.

And we have nearly 1,000 episodes, plus more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career, find them at HBR.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Thanks to our team, Senior Producer Mary Dooe, Associate Producer Hannah Bates, Audio Product Manager Ian Fox, and Senior Production Specialist Rob Eckhardt. Thank you for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.



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