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Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work Hardcover – March 26, 2013
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Q&A with Chip Heath & Dan Heath
Q. People often feel overwhelmed by “Decisions, decisions, decisions …” What makes us so indecisive?
A. If you’re feeling indecisive, chances are you don’t have the right options yet. In the book we describe four key “villains” of decision-making—common traps and biases that psychologists have identified. One of them is called “narrow framing,” meaning that we tend to get stuck in one way of thinking about a dilemma, or we ignore alternatives that are available to us. With a little effort, we can break out of a narrow frame and widen our options. For instance, one expert we interviewed had a great quote: “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.”
Q. You show that the same decision process can be applied to many domains—health decisions, career decisions, business decisions—but doesn’t a decision “process” take way too much time?
A. Not necessarily. In this book, we’re not interested in complex decision models or elaborate decision trees. Often the best advice is the simplest, for instance, the suggestion to “sleep on it.” That’s great advice—it helps to quiet short-term emotion that can disrupt our choices. But it still takes 8 hours, and it doesn’t always resolve our dilemmas. Many other decision aids require only a simple shift in attention. Doctors leaning toward a diagnosis are taught to check themselves by asking, “What else could this be?” And colleagues making a difficult group decision can ask, “What would convince us, six months down the road, to change our minds about this?”
Q. Why did you call the book Decisive?
A. Being decisive isn’t about making the perfect decision every time. That isn’t possible. Rather, it’s about being confident that we’ve considered the right things, that we’ve used a smart process. The two of us have met a lot of people who tell us they agonize endlessly about their decisions. They get stuck in a cycle where they just keep spinning their wheels. To escape that cycle, we often need a shift in perspective. We describe a simple technique used by former Intel chief Andy Grove to resolve one of the toughest business decisions he ever faced, one that he and his colleagues had debated for over a year. And what was this profound technique? Nothing fancier than a single, provocative question! In the book we also highlight a second question, inspired by Grove’s technique, that can often resolve personal decisions quickly and easily.
Q. So how do I help my teenage son not to make a bad choice?
A. Unfortunately, no one has solved that problem. But we offer some simple tools that help people give better decision advice. (Often it’s easier to spot the flaws in other people’s thinking than in our own.) As an example, the phrase “whether or not” is often a warning flag that someone is trapped in a narrow frame. So if your son is debating “whether or not to go to the party tonight,” that’s your cue to widen the options he’s considering. (Horror movie? School basketball game? A head-start on trigonometry coursework?) For important decisions, even a little improvement can pay big dividends.
“A leader's most important job is to make good decisions, which—minus perfect knowledge of the future—is tough to do consistently…The Heath brothers explain how to navigate the land mines laid by our irrational brains and improve our chances of good outcomes.” -Inc.
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Science has shown that the formulas our brains use to decide simplify things, but the mental shortcuts often are not in our best interests. Cognizant of this, the questions then becomes: How do we overcome these innate predilections and decide better? Decisive illustrates four specific strategies.
The four strategies are W.R.A.P.: Widen Your Options, Reality Test Your Assumptions, Attain Distance Before Deciding and Prepare to Be Wrong. The book proceeds linearly through W.R.A.P. and each section goes into detail about how a specific strategy can help you to decide better. Furthermore, within each section, sub-strategies are detailed that explain the critical building blocks you will need when deciding.
Also located throughout Decisive are ‘clinics’ that pose a question and invite you to apply what you’ve learned to a case study. For those who just want to get straight to the point, each chapter ends with a one-page summary of bullet points.
The only negative comment I have about this book is that it is told through many, many stories. Decisive is a non-fiction book but at times it feels like you are reading a fiction novel about a series of characters who had to navigate through tough scenarios. It’s understandable why the authors did this (because stories are memorable, impart knowledge and inspire to act), but it felt as if they went overboard at times. The hardcover is 300 pages and I would presume over 100 of those pages consist of the stories alone.
Decisive is the third book (Switch and Made to Stick) from Chip and Dan Heath that I have read and the sole reason why I bought Decisive is because of the others. All three books are insightful, practical, and have significant overlap, so whether you are a business leader, a chef, a or a Sunday school teacher, there will be something for you to learn and apply.
Essentially, reading all three will show you how to develop a lasting idea that people will believe in, care for, and take action on (Made to Stick); how to materialize that idea into transformative change (Switch); and how to navigate along the path you have chosen in your personal life and job (Decisive).
* You encounter a choice. But narrow framing makes you miss options.
* You analyze your options. But the confirmation bias leads you to gather self-serving information.
* You make a choice. But short-term emotion will often tempt you to make the wrong one.
* Then you live with it. But you'll often be overconfident about how the future will unfold
They spend the remainder of the book detailing a process to make better decisions - the WRAP process:
* Widen your options
* Reality Test Your Assumptions
* Attain Some Distance
* Prepare to Be Wrong
Each part of the process has several powerful ideas that are worth chewing on and implementing in the context of one's life. I have chosen a few of the ideas to give you a flavor of what is in store:
For widening your options, it is important to avoid a narrow frame. In order to make sure you challenge yourself to do this, they propose an idea called the Vanishing Options Test - what would you do if the current alternatives disappeared? Here is a key quote: "When people imagine that they cannot have an option, they are forced to move their mental spotlight elsewhere - really move it - often for the first time in a long while."
For Reality testing your assumptions. They have a chapter on "consider the opposite" - and there is an approach from Roger Martin that recommends for each option you are looking at, ask yourself "What would have to be true for this option to be the right answer?" This is an especially powerful concept in a business context where sides may be talking past each other - this helps reset the context to analyzing the options rather than arguing past each other.
In attaining some distance, they cover a simple but powerful question that is really helpful for a personal decision (though it applies in business contexts as well). The question is: "What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?"
For preparing to be wrong, they cover the idea of a tripwire - something to make us come back and revisit the decision. This helps in making sure that past decisions get revisited periodically. This is especially important in reminding us that we have a choice in our actions and we are free to revisit those decisions we made in the past to make sure they are still meeting our needs. I find this important for reminding myself to remain actively engaged rather than passively falling into the status quo.
There are many other powerful techniques and ideas spread throughout the book. Some of my favorites are: prevention versus promotion focus, zoom out/zoom in, ooching, and pre-mortems. I highly recommend purchasing the book and integrating its concepts into your life in order to make better decisions.
Here are a few related thoughts and items that others may find interesting:
For reality testing your assumptions, see Richard Feynman's "Cargo Cult Science" article (freely available on the internet)
I have found the book Making Great Decisions in Business and Life by David Henderson and Charles L Hooper to be helpful as well. An interesting course on decision making is also made available by the Teaching Company (the course is taught by Michael Roberto who is mentioned in the book in the section on Recommendations for Further Reading)
For a powerful article on choices and values, see David Kelley's article "I Don't Have To" (also available freely on the internet)
The March 2013 Harvard Business Review has an article by Heidi Grant Halvorson and E. Tory Higgins related to prevention and promotion mindsets
Please note that this review is based on an advance copy (Uncorrected Proof) of the book that the authors made available via their website (a "secret" buried in a David Lee Roth story about tripwires). I enjoyed the book so much that I pre-ordered the hardcover right after finishing the advanced copy
Readability: No one writes non-fiction business books like these guys. In parts, Decisive is hard to put down. If you've read Made to Stick, you'll see the authors practicing what they preach by applying their SUCCES principles to the format of this book (if you haven't read it, then get it).
Gives You Language: Three of us in our department at work got a copy of Decisive and it comes up in conversation everyday. The Heath brothers have given us language like: "ooching", "setting tripwires", "widen our options,"narrow framing, and "What would have to be true for this to be the best option?" This is kind of language has the power to shape the culture of an organization.
Researched: I love the footnotes! Decisive is full of credible examples, and you can tell that the authors and their research team put in hundreds of hours exploring the topic of decision making. The result is a litany of real-life examples and the results of research studies put into layman's terms.