Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath

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How many decisions do you make in a day? A lot! From minor choices about food to significant decisions about our spiritual, relational, and vocational life, our days are filled with making choices. And yet, how much have I considered how I make those choices and how I might make better choices?

Most of us make decisions with a method popularized over two hundred years ago by Benjamin Franklin: tally up the pros and cons and go with the winner.

This approach, according to Chip and Dan Heath, is flawed. In fact, cognitive research says that we are wired to make poor choices. Our tendency is to narrow in on the wrong set of information—what is referred to as the “spotlight effect.” “Kahneman says that we are quick to jump to conclusions because we give too much weight to the information that’s right in front of us, while failing to consider the information that’s just offstage.” As decision-makers, we need to actively move the spotlight to include the information we need.

The Heaths lay out what they call “the Four Villains of Decision Making”—and this is the first of those: framing your choice in too narrow terms. In addition, there lie the dangers of seeking out information that supports your biases, being influenced by short-term emotions, and being overconfident about the future.

In contrast, the Heaths recommend an approach that they dub “WRAP.” Widen your options. Reality-test your assumptions. Attain distance before deciding. Prepare to be wrong.

Here is some of their advice in each category.

Widen your options:

Expand what you think is possible. Don’t limit your options.

“Any time in life you’re tempted to think, ‘Should I do this OR that?’ instead, ask yourself, ‘Is there a way I can do this AND that?’ It’s surprisingly frequent that it’s feasible to do both things.”

 “In a study of top leadership teams in Silicon Valley, [Kathleen Eisenhardt] found that executives who weigh more options actually make faster decisions. It’s a counterintuitive finding, but Eisenhardt offers three explanations. First, comparing alternatives helps executives to understand the “landscape”: what’s possible and what’s not, what variables are involved. That understanding provides the confidence needed to make a quick decision. Second, considering multiple alternatives seems to undercut politics. With more options, people get less invested in any one of them, freeing them up to change positions as they learn…[M]ultitracking seems to help keep egos under control. Third, when leaders weigh multiple options, they’ve given themselves a built-in fallback plan.”

Reality-test your assumptions:

In this section, the Heaths recommend “ooching”—that is making incremental decisions before investing significant resources of time and money in a final decision. For instance, the experience of interning as a student is invaluable in career decisions. Likewise, running small scale experiments can help reveal flaws in systems before they are fully launched.

One place this plays out are job interviews, where we overvalue the interview and undervalue work samples. The Heaths share, “Research has found that interviews are less predictive of job performance than work samples, job-knowledge tests, and peer ratings of past job performance. Even a simple intelligence test is substantially more predictive than an interview.”

Attain distance before deciding:

The Heaths suggest that when we make choices, short-term emotions tend to guide our decision making and weight our decisions imperceptibly.

There are several ways we can help counteract this reality. The first is the simple test of asking yourself what advice you’d give to a friend in the same situation. Often there is clarity by giving yourself just that little bit of distance.

Another trick is called the 10/10/10 tool where you simply project yourself into the future 10 days, 10 months, and 10 years: would you regret the decision? What would you wish you did at each of those junctures?

The Heaths shared a story of a CEO achieving distance, just by asking the question what their successor would do in the situation. They share:

 “I looked out the window at the Ferris Wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance, then I turned back to Gordon and I asked, ‘If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?’ Gordon answered without hesitation, ‘He would get us out of memories.’ I stared at him, numb, then said, ‘Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back in, and do it ourselves?’ This was the moment of clarity. From the perspective of an outsider, someone not encumbered by the historical legacy and the political infighting, shutting down the memory business was the obvious thing to do. The switch in perspectives—‘What would our successors do?’—helped Moore and Grove see the big picture clearly.”

Prepare to be wrong:

Despite everything, we can still make poor decisions. The sobering reality is that we are far too confident in our decision-making ability. The Heaths report, “A study showed that when doctors reckoned themselves “completely certain” about a diagnosis, they were wrong 40% of the time. When a group of students made estimates that they believed had only a 1% chance of being wrong, they were actually wrong 27% of the time.”

How can we avoid as many bad decisions as possible? First, “avoid bad assumptions and confirmation bias in your analysis by seeking out more information, especially from those who have had that experience and who have an opposing perspective. Ask hard, specific questions to unearth issues. Do a "pre-mortem": assume the project ends up failing, and ask yourself what the causes must have been. Then address them in the present. Give weight to base rates more than blind optimism about your perspective. If you open a restaurant, for instance, chances are it'll fail. That's more relevant than the fact you're a great chef.”

Another way to help protect ourselves from poor decisions is to take seriously critiques and potential flaws in our decisions. Are you able to understand your critic’s sharpest disagreements with your plans? Do you understand their logic? The Heaths suggest, “We should make sure people are able to perceive that the process is just. High-stakes mediator Mnookin: ‘I state back the other side’s position better than they could state it.’ Entrepreneur Hitz: ‘Sometimes the best way to defend a decision is to point out its flaws.’”

Conclusion:

The Heath brothers have done us a great service challenging our understanding of how effective our decision-making is and then rebuilding what a more effective style of decision-making ought to be. Honestly, my only critique of the book is that I don’t think that acronyms are the most effective memory device. I’m not sure how long I will be able to recite back to you what WRAP stands for. But the nuggets of truth will certainly stick with me, and the reality is that the whole point of the book is that decision-making is more complicated than we intuit.

I encourage you to read this book, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

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