Decisive – How to make better choices in life and work

by Chip Heath & Dan Heath


Review by Doug Hensch

I have been fascinated by decision-making for some time. Mostly, because I have made my share of bad decisions. The good news, however, is that I’m not alone. Consider the following statistics regarding the choices we make:

  • 44% of current lawyers would recommend against being a lawyer to young people
  • More than 50% of teachers quit teaching within four years of starting their careers
  • A survey of 20,000 executive coaches found that 40% of senior level new hires had left their respective employers within 18 months of being hired
  • In Philadelphia, PA, a teacher is almost twice as likely to “drop out” than a student
  • 88% of New Year’s resolutions are broken – 68% of which are to “enjoy life more!”

decisive-author-chip-heath-dan-heathAccording to Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Decisive – How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, there are four “villains” that distract us from making the best decisions possible. Each has its own way of making us think we’re right while we wander down a path that is not in our best interests. The four are:

  1. Narrow Framing – In many cases, we ‘create’ a binary choice and frame the decision as “either this or that.”
  2. Confirmation Bias – We often only see and consider the information that bolsters our current beliefs.
  3. Short Term Emotion – Our current emotions can cloud out other perspectives.
  4. Overconfidence – Having a high degree of certainty with a decision can be a recipe for being wrong.

So, how do we stop these villains from robbing us of good decisions? In true Heath Brother fashion, the authors developed an acronym (“WRAP”) along with some incredibly simple, practical tools to help improve your decision-making.

Widen Your Options

Imagine that your boss approaches you and asks your opinion for an upcoming decision regarding a critical piece of software. She asks, “Should we go with company X or company Y?” You consider the pros and cons of each. You might even create a spreadsheet that compares the two products and the opinions of others on your team. After careful deliberation, you recommend…

“Stop!” say the authors. When a decision is framed as “either/or,” recognize that there are almost always other options. To do this, they recommend a few interesting techniques. For instance, remove both of the options before you and force yourself to come up with more options. Consider “multi-tracking” where you direct several teams to work independently to make the decision. Finally, look for other organizations that have faced the same or a similar decision as you are facing.

According to the authors, companies that multi-track consistently outperform single-track companies. For instance, faced with a looming recession, a multi-track company may decide to hire more people AND cut low-performing products from the pipeline.

Reality Test Your Assumptionsdecide

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was wary of the “confirmation bias” when he was President of the United States. He knew that being President subjected him to the opinions of a very small circle of trusted advisors. To stifle this villain, he read a sampling of letters from constituents AND looked over the statistics on surveys. This “zooming in and out” is one technique the authors recommend as a way to look at the situation from multiple views.

If you want an accurate base rate, ask an expert. If you want a prediction about the future, don’t ask an expert. “Ooching,” or testing reality by trying something in small increments allows us to experience what the future might be like without going all in at once. Sixty percent of the CEOs in one survey admitted that they did NOT write a business plan for their successful business. They simply tried multiple strategies and “ooched” their way to success. This technique is successful because we tend to discover reality versus predicting it.

Attain Distance Before Deciding

Much has been written about the role of emotions in decision-making. In short, if you remove the ability to feel emotions, you also destroy the ability to make very simple decisions. In Decisive, the authors simply want you to consider the idea that your current emotional state may weigh too heavily in the decision process. Gaining some distance from the decision can help you make decisions that align with your most coveted values.

One of my favorite techniques for attaining distance is the “10/10/10” technique developed by Suzy Welch. Ask yourself, “If I make this choice, how will I feel about it in 10 minutes? …in 10 months? …in 10 years?” Creating these multiple time perspectives doesn’t eliminate your current emotional state. It simply downplays how you are feeling, right now.

Andy Grove, former CEO and COO, of Intel was faced with a difficult decision years ago. Should they continue to focus their time and capital on memory even though the market was rapidly becoming commoditized, or should they consider putting more behind processors? Memory was a cash cow and would be for some time. His leadership team could not come to consensus on the decision before them. Grove then asked himself, “What would my successor do?” He quickly gained emotional distance and decided to go after processors. The rest is history.

Prepare to Be Wrong

When job candidates are given a realistic view of the job and told about the long hours, difficult managers and tough decisions, they tend to experience higher job satisfaction and lower turnover, according to one study. Too much positive thinking tends to make us content and less likely to be prepared for things going terribly wrong. With a realistic preview, we’re more prepared for the difficult circumstances when they arise.

Our imagination is the key tool, in this case. The authors recommend several interesting (and fun) techniques to compensate for over-confidence. The first is called “prospective hindsight” where you imagine it is a year from now and everything worked out as you had hoped. Ask yourself, “What made it so? Why did this happen?” A close cousin to this is the “pre-parade” where you imagine that you have been wildly successful and you ask yourself, “How do I/we ensure this will happen?”

The flip side of this is the “pre-mortem.” Imagine it is a year from now and your decision did not work out as planned. Ask yourself, “What happened? Why did it fail?” Daniel Kahneman advocates strongly for this technique in his excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow and says that many a CEO have told him that this was one of the most important techniques they ever learned.

One last tool is referred to as a “trip wire.” A trip wire minimizes risk by setting deadlines or using other metrics to make sure that a decision is proceeding as planned. If not, the trip is set off and you can correct your course. One famous example is how Zappos gives its newly-hired customer service reps $1,000 to quit if the new reps don’t think the company is a good fit for them. Zappos would much rather pay $1,000 than have a disengaged rep talking to customers.

In the end, Decisive won’t make you a perfect decision-maker. It won’t always make decisions easier. It will, however, inspire confidence – a confidence that comes from “knowing you made the best decision that you could.”

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