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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).
Since I'm not an executive, the business-related stuff was less helpful, and there are so many ideas in there that I'm not totally sure how best to apply them all, but it's an easy read with a lot of helpful ideas supposedly backed by research.
As a collector of resources that become permanent parts of a practical tool kit I think Decisive is a worthy addition. Let the buyer beware though, Decisive is a look at a much more complex process than either Made to Stick or Switch, at least in my view.
I'd recommend that interested buyers read the reviews here, especially the one and three star entries. I suppose we all knew that there would be readers who couldn't wait to provide a five star review; that would have been me until I got about a third of the way in and wasn't having as much fun as I did with the first two books. Then I realized that what the Heath's were guiding me towards was a rigorous process of subjecting my decisions to objective reviews. Yuck! Who wants to do that? If it sounds like I am saying that Decisive may be a bitter pill for some to swallow you'd be correct. It really does reveal that lack of rigor and critical thinking that many of us employ in our own personal quest to simply do what we want to do.
Decisive is not as entertaining as Made to Stick or Switch but it takes us into an area of life where the consequences are much weightier and maybe just harder to look at. I'd recommend it to students as a general reference source or especially to anyone considering making a decision that has considerable consequences to account for.
Using their typical best-selling style of combining instructional stories with solid, in-depth research, the Heath brothers have written a compelling guide to overcoming the typical roadblocks to good decision making: short-term thinking, overconfidence and supporting our decisions by any means possible.
Broken down into the four “villains” of decision making, they use chapters on widening your options, testing your assumptions, distancing yourself from decisions to get perspective and preparing to be wrong as the guideposts in a system that can improve anyone’s chances in making better choices.
Peppered throughout the book are the Heath's signature stories that serve to reinforce lessons learned and concepts covered.
For the average reader such as myself this is a valuable introduction to decision-making and how to do it better.