Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work

Chip Heath and Dan Heath

When about to deliver a particularly good sermon or speech, the nineteenth century Scottish pastor and statesman Alexander Whyte would announce, “Here is a sweetie. You can suck on it for a while.” The Heath brothers’ latest book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work (Crown Business, 2013, $14.00), is certainly a “sweetie” and one that can, will, and should occupy our minds and actions for a good while.

Made to Stick and Switch were the two prior books bringing acclaim to Chip Heath of Stanford University and Dan Heath of Duke University. In my opinion, Decisive is the best of the three. The book not only assists in quality decision-making, it presents a better goal and is, therefore, a more important read.

The Heaths begin by showing the extensive damage that bad decisions cause and the processes by which they occur. They highlight four villains of decision-making. The first is narrow framing, the habit of limiting our viewpoint to the binary question of “whether or not.” Confirmation bias or seeking information to support our quick judgments is the second villain. Our short-term emotions produce the third villain, causing us to relieve the immediate pressure instead of working toward the big picture goals. The fourth villain is overconfidence. We think we know more about the future than we actually do.

To counter the four villains, the authors propose a set of actions identified by the acrostic WRAP:

1) Widen your options

2) Reality-test your assumptions

3) Attain distance before deciding

4) Prepare to be wrong.

The rest of the book explains these counter actions and encourages readers to apply “Widen your options” against narrow framing, “Reality-test your options” against confirmation bias, “Attain distance before deciding” against short-term emotions, and “Prepare to be wrong” against overconfidence.

This application is laid out in four sections that address each WRAP stepwith chapters explaining how to carry out the suggested process. The Heaths recommend that we “Widen our options” by:

· Avoiding a narrow frame

· Learning to multitrack or uncover new options at the same time

· Seeking out someone who has already solved the problem.

Then, they encourage us to “Reality-test our assumptions” by:

· Considering the opposite

· Zooming out and zooming in as a way of seeing the situation from those outside of ourselves rather than from inside our thoughts

· Ooching, the process of conducting small experiments to test a hypothesis and learn more.

Next, we are instructed to “Attain distance before deciding” by:

· Overcoming our short-term emotions

· Honoring our core priorities.

And finally, we are advised to “Prepare to be wrong” by:

· Bookending the future, so we can look for both good and bad outcomes

· Setting a tripwire to signal us at the right moments.

In addition to its clear internal logic, Decisive is highly readable because of the authors’ effective use of story. For example, they relate how in every contract for new venues, David Lee Roth of Van Halen would require that a bowl of M&Ms be backstage with all the brown ones removed. Roth was not being a diva; he merely wanted to be sure that all of the details were carried out in the setting up of the stage (pp. 26-28). Another story describes how during the second week in Zappos’ orientation for new hires, employees are offered $1,000 to quit if they don’t like the company. Only about two percent of those in training actually take the money (pp. 218-220). (You’ll have to read the book to find out why they do this.) Other stories include Andy Grove’s decision to think like he was the new CEO hired to replace him, a graduate student’s stereo buying endeavor, former President Eisenhower’s understanding of opportunity costs, and many more that illustrate concepts in action, make good points and help readers grasp the elements of decision-making.

My suggestion–after buying Decisive–would be fourfold. First, read the book through quickly to pick up its direction and feel. Then read it through slowly with pen and paper nearby to record your observations as you digest it for yourself. Third, take those notes and make yourself a one-page sheet for quick reference as you make decisions. Fourth, refer to your sheet often. You can download a one-page reference sheet from the Heath brothers’ Web site, but that would not be as personalized as the one you build yourself.

Happy decision-making.

Jim Mullins, D.Min.

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