I had considered reading and reviewing this book some time ago, but I couldn’t make up my mind whether to or not! Dad joke—well it is father’s day. Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work by Chip and Dan Heath offers helpful advice for improving our ability to make decisions. It describes how we can focus on what lies in front of us and ignore many of the background factors that may, in fact, be even more important to the choices. It takes us beyond trusting our gut, on the one hand, and careful analysis, on the other. It helps us to understand some of the hindrances that get in the way of good decision-making, so that we can overcome them and choose wisely.
Decisive identifies four ‘villains’ of decision-making:
The nature of each villain leads to suggesting a process that will overcome its impact. It’s described as the WRAP process, and is generally sequential. The four steps to better decision-making are:
Widen your options—helps avoid narrow framing.
Reality-test your assumptions—helps get information you can trust.
Attain distance before deciding—helps overcome short-term emotion.
Prepare to be wrong—helps avoid being suckered by overconfidence.
1. Widen your options
Avoid a narrow frame
It’s not uncommon for people and organisations to only consider one option. This is the whether or not alternative. Most often this frame is to narrow. Good decisions may require us to look at multiple options. One way to do this is to consider the ‘opportunity cost’—what would we miss out on if we make this decision? Another way is to run the ‘vanishing options’ test—assuming that our current options have vanished forces us to consider new alternatives, that may be better than what’s in front of us.
This option involves considering more than one option simultaneously. It’s about getting our minds out of set grooves and generating multiple options. There’s an inefficiency about it because it means people or teams working in parallel and ideas being wasted, but it frequently leads to better outcomes. It assists with finding options that minimise harm and maximise opportunities.
Find someone who’s solved your problem
Whatever decisions we’re facing, it’s almost certain that someone has faced them before. There may be someone close to us who has handled the decision well, or there may already be recognised wisdom on the matter. We should look around for ideas and be willing to learn from others—their mistakes and successes.
2. Reality-test your assumptions
Consider the opposite
It’s very easy to seek out information that confirms our biases and not to notice things that don’t. The Heaths recommend sparking constructive disagreement to unearth alternatives and see our options more clearly. This can lead to unwelcome conflict, so people should be encouraged towards a common commitment to discovering the best option for the organisation. They highlight a couple of questions that show how this can be done:
What would have to be true for this option to be the right answer? (p99)
What if our least favorite option was actually the best one? What data might convince us of that? (p100)
It’s also important to force ourselves to consider the opposite of our desires. We can be our own worst enemies by our failure to recognise that there are options before us if only we’d take off our blinkers.
Zoom out, zoom in
The outside view concerns the averages—how do things normally turn out in situations like these. The inside view concerns our evaluation—our impressions and gut instincts. The reality is that we tend toward the inside view when the outside tens to be more accurate. Trusting the law of averages leads towards humility, yet it’s so easy to think we can beat the odds; that we’re better than that. This is not to say we should always play it safe, but we should recognise that it might be considerably harder if we choose to buck the trend. Zooming out and then zooming in gives us a more realistic perspective on our choices.
Ooching involves running small experiments to test our theories. It provides a way to discover reality rather than trying to predict it. Entrepreneurs tend to ooch naturally. Instead of trying to forecast the future, they go out and try things. This approach has particular implications for hiring staff. We tend to try and predict how people will perform in a job from interviews. The reality is that interviews often give us little more information than how someone performs in an interview. The Heaths recommend we ooch instead—take people for a test-drive to see how they perform in areas relevant to the job they’re seeking.
3. Attain distance before deciding
Overcome short-term emotion
There are always emotions involved in decision-making, but they don’t always lead us to the best decisions. A short-term emotion can lead us to decisions that are bad in the long term. To over come this Decisive recommends adopting the approach of Suzy Welch in her book 10/10/10. This involves asking how this decision will impact us in ten minutes, ten months, and ten years. Conducting a 10/10/10 analysis doesn’t presuppose that the long-term perspective is the right one. It simply ensures that short-term emotion isn’t the only voice at the table. (p163) We can also attain distance by looking at the situation from an outside observer’s perspective or by asking ‘What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?’
Honour your core priorities
Difficult decisions can indicate a conflict among our priorities. Recognising and sticking to our values, beliefs, goals, aspirations and priorities make it easier to resolve dilemmas. This will often necessitate letting go of lesser priorities. We don’t have time to do everything, so we might need to develop a ‘Not to do’ list as well as a ‘to do’ list.
4. Prepare to be wrong
Bookend the future
We are advised to consider what the future may hold, considering both best and worst case scenarios. We can consider the worst case by doing a ‘premortem’ and asking how likely is it and what would the consequences be? This stops us from focusing on a single, and most likely optimistic, guess about what the future might be like. We recognise the impact of uncertainty and avoid overconfidence. We should also consider the best possible outcome and run a ‘preparade’. This gets us asking what we would need to be doing if our decision was a raving success. To prepare for what can’t be foreseen the authors recommend building in a ‘safety factor’. Anticipating problems will help us avoid them and cope with them, should they arise.
Set a tripwire
It’s so easy to live life on autopilot, doing the same things the same way we’ve always done them. For example, we always peel bananas from the top. But there is a YouTube video with millions of viewers that shows it’s easier to peel a banana from the bottom. Try it—I did and it’s right! We can drift along failing to see the opportunity or necessity of making new decisions. One solution is to create ‘tripwires’ that snap us awake and get us to reevaluate a decision or make a new one. They work like the low fuel warning light in a car— a signal that we need to do something. One of the most common tripwires is a deadline. Tripwires can also create a safe place for risk taking by capping the risk and quieting our minds until the wire is tripped.
And a few thoughts…
I’m looking forward to thinking more thoroughly through how I make my decisions. I can see a tendency in myself to view options as either/or than than one among many. It would help me to ask about my natural inclinations and bias as I look to decide what to do. This approach can also contribute to better outcomes in resolving conflict with others. There is often more than your way or my way—there are a multitude of ‘other’ ways.
I’ve had to make many decisions about staff roles and hiring people over the years, and the tendency has been to put a lot of store in interviews to gain information. I’ve recognised that interviews have only limited value. More significant are references and evidence of previous experience. Having read Decisive, I can also see the advantages of ooching. If we want someone to preach regularly, then give them a passage of the Bible or a topic and get them to do it. If we want them to counsel others, then create a role play and have them counsel. If we want them to manage our website, then get them to design a page or solve a problem. It might not be as efficient in the short-term, but it could save a lot of grief in the long-term.
Some time back I read Suzy Welch’s book 10/10/10 and found it helpful to look at the impact of decisions from a variety of reference points. However, I decided that the book didn’t go far enough. I recommended that it needed to be 10/10/10/10 and that we should consider the impact of our decisions well beyond ten years hence. What will be the significance of our choices in ten thousand years time? What are the eternal consequences of making these choices? This is what I need to consider to honour my core priorities.