Decisive by Chip And Dan Heath

Why is it that we can like or dislike people long before we know much about them? Why is it we distrust strangers without knowing why? Why on the other hand do 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? These are the problems that Chip and Dan Heath have set out to address in their book Decisive. How can we do better?

The Heath brothers believe we need a process to help us make decisions – to be more decisive. So join us for ten minutes or so to find out exactly what that process is and how it can help us make better choices in life and work.

Out with the Old

If we think about how we would formalize a decision, it’s likely we’d opt for a pros and cons list. This process has been used for many years. But the Heath Brothers believe it is flawed.

Flaw #1: Narrow framing.

We define our choices too narrowly, setting them in binary terms: YES/NO. WIN/LOSE. FOR / AGAINST. Why does every decision need to be a competition? What if we could have both options? Looking with a wider frame, ‘outside the spotlight’ as the brothers describe, there are many other options. Because pros and cons are generated in our heads, it’s easy for us to be biased. We think we are conducting a sober comparison but, in reality, our brains are following orders from our guts. Which brings us to the second flaw.

Flaw #2: Confirmation Bias. 

Our normal habit is to develop a quick belief about a situation and then seek out information that bolsters our belief. When we collect information to assess options, we are more likely to select information that supports our preexisting attitudes, beliefs, and actions. When we want something to be true, we spotlight the things that support it – leading to more pros than cons. >

Flaw #3: Short-term Emotion. When we’ve got a difficult decision to make, we can lose sleep over it. We replay the same arguments in our head. We agonize about our circumstances. What we need most is perspective. Looking at the pros and cons in isolation is inappropriate. Nothing – good or bad – stands alone. We need to look at the big picture, avoiding the fourth flaw.

Flaw #4: Overconfidence.

People, including us, think they know more than they do about how the future will unfold. We have too much confidence in our own predictions. When we make guesses about the future, we shine our spotlights on information that’s close at hand, and then we draw conclusions from that information. We need to bring in a bit of realism. We need a sound benchmark.

In With the New

So what’s the process the Heath brothers suggest will help us overcome these flaws and make better choices? Here’s what normally happens with decision making:

  • We encounter a choice. But narrow framing makes us miss options. So the Heath brothers suggest we Widen Our Options.
  • We analyze our options. But the confirmation bias leads us to gather self-serving info. So the Heath brothers tell us to Reality-Test Our Assumptions.
  • We make a choice. But short-term emotion tempts us to make the wrong one. So the Heath brothers tell us to Attain Distance Before Deciding.
  • Then we live with it. But we’ll often be overconfident about how the future will unfold. So the Heath brothers advise us to Prepare to Be Wrong.

That’s the process. That’s the WRAP. Let’s look at each step in slightly more detail.

Widen Our Options

Ever find yourself asking the following questions? “How can I make this work? How can I get my colleagues behind me?” Yes? Then why do we never ask these… “Is there a better way? What else could we do?” Finding answers to this second set is the key to, widening our options.

The first approach is to learn to distrust “whether or not” decisions. Focusing is great for analyzing alternatives but terrible for spotting them. The brothers suggest we should adapt our situation and temporarily assume we cannot choose any of the current options available. What else could we do? This often gives rise to new and innovative alternatives.

A second approach is to multi-track and consider several options simultaneously. Direct comparison helps us compare options fairly and equitably and as a consequence it feels right. To get the benefits of multi-tracking, we need to produce options that are meaningfully distinct. We must be careful, too, to avoid sham options, which exist only to make the “real” option look better.

Reality-Test Our Assumptions

We all have a common failing: a bias to favor our own beliefs. The confirmation bias leads us to hunt for information that flatters our assumptions. So how can we learn to overcome the confirmation bias and Reality-Test the Assumptions we’re making?

The first step is to consider the opposite of our initial instincts beginning with a willingness to spark constructive disagreement. In our individual decisions, how many of us have ever consciously sought out people we knew would disagree with us? A devil’s advocate? For high-stakes decisions, we owe ourselves a dose of skepticism. The Heath brothers point out that the Pentagon uses a ‘murder board’ staffed with experienced officers, to try to kill ill-conceived missions and suggest we do the same.

The brothers suggest we take each option, one at a time, and ask ourselves: What would have to be true for this option to be the right answer? If someone asks us to figure out what would have to be true for an approach to work, our frame of thinking changes, giving us a chance to back away from our beliefs and learn something new. It allows people to disagree without becoming disagreeable.

A second approach is to Zoom Out and Zoom In. When we zoom out, we take the outside view, learning from the experiences of others who have made choices like the one we’re facing. When we zoom in, we take a close-up of the situation, looking for specific facts that could inform our decision. Either strategy is helpful, and when possible, we should do both.

According to the brothers, zooming out and zooming in gives us a more realistic perspective on our choices. We downplay the optimistic pictures we paint inside our minds and instead redirect our attention to the outside world, viewing it in wide-angle and then in close-up.

A third option is to dip a toe in the water before we dive in or as the Heath brothers call it, to ‘Ooch’. To ooch is to construct small experiments to test our hypothesis.

Ooching is best for situations where we need more information. Ooching should be used as a way to speed up the collection of trustworthy information, not as a way to slow down a decision that deserves our full commitment. To ooch is to ask, Why predict something we can test? Why guess when we can know?

Attain Distance Before Deciding

Sometimes we’ll encounter a truly tough choice, and that’s when we’ve got to attain distance. As the brothers say, it’s easy to lose perspective when we’re facing a thorny dilemma. But we are not slaves to our emotions. Visceral emotion fades. As Meat Loaf says, we should sleep on it. It’s sound advice, and we should take it to heart. For many decisions, though, sleep isn’t enough. We need strategy.

The Heath brothers suggest we use 10/10/10. How will we feel about it 10 minutes from now? How about 10 months from now? How about 10 years from now? It helps us get some distance on our decisions. 10/10/10 forces us to shift our spotlights, asking us to imagine a moment 10 months from now to understand whether we’ll feel the same way. That way, our short-term emotions can be kept in perspective.

Why does “distance” help so much? It de-personalises the situation. It’s easy to give advice to friends – it doesn’t really affect us, more hard to think out our own dilemmas. As the brothers quite succinctly put it, “when we think of our friends, we see the forest. When we think of ourselves, we get stuck in the trees”.

Prepare to Be Wrong

The final stage is to prepare to be wrong. We need to realistically consider what the future might bring, both good and bad. When we think about the extremes, we stretch our sense of what’s possible, and that expanded range better reflects reality. One method is to conduct a pre-mortem.

Everyone on the team takes a few minutes to write down every conceivable reason for the project’s failure. Once all the threats have been surfaced, the project team can adapt its plans to mitigate as many of the negative scenarios as possible. The pre-mortem is, in essence, a way of charting out future possibilities and plotting ways to avoid ending up there.

On the flip side we can consider a “pre-parade.” A pre-parade envisages complete success: Our decision has been a wild success and there’s going to be a parade in our honor. Given that future, how do we ensure that we’re ready for it?

Both of these techniques allow us to visualise and prepare for the future. But what about awareness setting in anticipation of events? The suggestion is to set a tripwire.

The goal of a tripwire is to jolt us out of our unconscious routines and make us aware that we have a choice to make. The brothers share the tripwire of David Lee Roth, of Van Halen – a brown M&M in the bowl backstage at the band’s concerts. In his rider he wanted bowls of M&M’s – but no browns – back stage. Brown M&M’s present suggested to him that the contracts hadn’t been properly read and warned him to pay careful attention to the complex staging where injury may occur if similar neglect had occurred.

Tripwires tell you when to jump. Setting tripwires don’t guarantee the the right decisions. But tripwires at least ensure that we are aware it’s time to make a decision, that we don’t miss our chance to choose because we’ve been lulled into autopilot.

So there you have it, a handy guide to making the decisions that will affect every part of your future success.