The AREA Method: What Usain Bolt Can Teach Us About Decision-Making
Could the secret to great performance lie in an uneven distribution of our time and effort?
Take the case of Usain Bolt, the fastest sprinter in history. Researchers just determined that he has an off-beat stride: his legs are different lengths so he strikes the pavement with different levels of force.
Scientists at Southern Methodist University, leading biometrics experts on sprinting, recently stumbled upon this unexpected finding after analyzing video of Bolt running. They determined that Bolt’s right leg pounds the pavement with 13 percent more peak force than his left leg. And with each stride, the left leg remains grounded about 14 percent longer than his right leg.
Bolt’s irregular stride runs counter to conventional wisdom which holds that an uneven stride slows a runner down. Researchers do report that most other elite runners have relatively even strides, and even for those whose stride isn’t smooth, Bolt’s degree of variability is unusual.
Bolt may not have known that he had an anatomical difference but he turned his disadvantage into an advantage. Similarly, most us, when making decisions, don’t recognize our own biases — our mental disadvantages — but we too can turn them into an asset. We can use the AREA Method to confront our weaknesses head-on.
The AREA Method addresses biases by incorporating stops and starts. It pushes you to be deliberate and organized in your research and your thinking.
Even though this idea of strategic stops may be new decision-making science, athletes are catching on. There is increasing evidence that, although almost any kind of exercise is good for you, the best way to boost fitness may be varied, short bursts of intense exercise with periods of rest. Cheetah Sheets work in a similar way because AREA recognizes that peak performance isn’t slow and steady to the finish line; it benefits from periods of acceleration and deceleration.
Like the way that short bursts of intense exercise boost your physical fitness, the AREA Method’s research strategies push you to use different mental muscles and thinking strategies. These may feel less natural, but they prevent your mind from getting too comfortable. The goal is to help you achieve a better outcome.
Why are the strategic stops called Cheetah Sheets? Cheetahs habitually run down their prey at speeds approaching 60 miles per hour but are able to cut their speed by nine miles per hour in a single stride. Like the cheetah, Cheetah Sheets enable us to make sharp turns, sideways jumps and direction changes that improve the research hunt.
As I explained recently at a talk I gave at a Goldman Sachs merchant banking gathering, the best way to use AREA’s Cheetah Sheets is to learn to optimize irregularity, like Bolt does. We’re very good at fooling ourselves into believing that we have avoided biases and thought about the perspectives of others. But we need to test ourselves and challenge familiar patterns of decision making. With AREA, we do that by changing our frame of reference and deliberately inhabiting different stakeholder perspectives so we can understand the behavior of others and examine our own.
Cheetah Sheets help us adhere to this perspective-taking method. They highlight where to look for good sources of information, provide key questions to ask of the data and offer interpretation and analysis guidelines. They also provide checklists and exercises.
In taking the Goldman Sachs bankers through how a team might evaluate an investment opportunity I explained the value of not clouding our judgment with all perspectives at the same time. I recommended, for example, starting with numerical data because it’s the least mediated information. Even if it’s shaped by management’s bias, it more easily allows a researcher to spot assumption and judgments.
Of course, each researcher or team can pick and choose which Cheetah Sheets they want to use based in part on what kind of due diligence they want to perform on a decision and how much time they have in which to meet their deadline. But following the AREA Method’s focus on perspective-taking is key. It holds you accountable not only for your assumptions but also forces you to confront the incentives and assumptions of others. You’ll reach the finish line with greater confidence.
So how central is Bolt’s uneven gait? Researchers say they can’t be sure, but we do know that he’s taken his flaw and turned it into an asset, one that’s made him the fastest human on earth. Bolt didn’t need to learn to run steadily; he succeeded by working with what he had. You can too.
To learn more about using AREA and helping your team make big decisions better, sign up for coaching, workshops or have Cheryl come speak to your organization by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. I can customize a workshop for your company, or I offer one-day or three-day in-person workshops and a month long, once a week webinar.