On Decisive

I am a big fan of the Heath brothers, having read their previous bestsellers Switch and Made To Stick. I was excited to read their latest book Decisive, How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, not only because they had written it but because decision making itself was a subject area of particular interest to me. This book exceed my high expectations both in terms of content and delivery.

The Heath brothers begin by reminding us why decision making is difficult:

And that, in essence, is the core difficulty of decision making: What’s in the spotlight will rarely be everything we need to make a good decision, but we won’t always remember to shift the light. Sometimes, in fact, we’ll forget there’s a spotlight at all, dwelling so long in the tiny circle of light that we forget there’s a broader landscape beyond it.

And while we instinctively think that more analysis should lead to superior decision making, it is actually the process we use to come up with the decision that is more important:

When the researchers compared whether process or analysis was more important in producing good decisions—those that increased revenues, profits, and market share—they found that “process mattered more than analysis—by a factor of six.” Often a good process led to better analysis—for instance, by ferreting out faulty logic. But the reverse was not true: “Superb analysis is useless unless the decision process gives it a fair hearing.”

So why is decision making so difficult and what is the key to improving our capability? It is about understanding the underlying set of biases:

Research in psychology over the last 40 years has identified a set of biases in our thinking that doom the pros-and-cons model of decision making. If we aspire to make better choices, then we must learn how these biases work and how to fight them (with something more potent than a list of pros and cons).

How does the normal decision process flow, and what are the challenges within each step:

If you think about a normal decision process, it usually proceeds in four steps…And what we’ve seen is that there is a villain that afflicts each of these stages:

-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.

And while we can’t eliminate these biases, we can counteract them:

We can’t deactivate our biases, but these people show us that we can counteract them with the right discipline. The nature of each villain suggests a strategy for defeating it:

  1. You encounter a choice. But narrow framing makes you miss options So…Widen Your Options. How can you expand your set of choices?
  2. You analyze your options. But the confirmation bias leads you to gather self-sensing info So…Reality-Test Your Assumptions. How can you get outside your head and collect information that you can trust?..
  3. You make a choice. But short-term emotion will often tempt you to make the wrong one. So…Attain Distance Before Deciding. How can you overcome short-term emotion and conflicted feelings to make the best choice?…
  4. Then you live with it. But you’ll often be overconfident about how the future Will unfold So…Prepare to Be Wrong. How can we plan for an uncertain future so that we give our decisions the best chance to succeed?

This is the WRAP process for decision making which is at the heart of this book:

Our goal in this book is to teach this four-step process for making better choices. Note the mnemonic WRAP, which captures the four verbs. We like the notion of a process that “wraps” around your usual way of making decisions, helping to protect you from some of the biases we’ve identified. The four steps in the WRAP model are sequential; in general, you can follow them in order—but not rigidly so. Sometimes you’ll double back based on something you’ve learned.

Why is a process needed?

To get that kind of consistent improvement requires technique and practice. It requires a process. The value of the WRAP process is that it reliably focuses our attention on things we otherwise might have missed: options we might have overlooked, information we might have resisted, and preparations we might have neglected.

1- Widen Your Options

On avoiding a narrow frame:

Focusing is great for analyzing alternatives but terrible for spotting them. Think about the visual analogy—when we focus we sacrifice peripheral vision. And there’s no natural corrective for this; life won’t interrupt our focus to draw our attention to all of our options.

On multitracking:

In a study of top leadership teams in Silicon Valley, an environment that tends to place a premium on speed, she found that executives who weigh more options actually make faster decisions. It’s a counterintuitive finding, but Eisenhardt offers three explanations. First, comparing alternatives helps executives to understand the “landscape”: what’s possible and what’s not, what variables are involved. That understanding provides the confidence needed to make a quick decision. Second, considering multiple alternatives seems to undercut politics. With more options, people get less invested in any one of them, freeing them up to change positions as they learn. As with the banner-ad study, multitracking seems to help keep egos under control. Third, when leaders weigh multiple options, they’ve given themselves a built-in fallback plan.

An important element of multitracking is our mindset:

How you react to the position, in short, depends a great deal on your mindset at the time it’s offered. Psychologists have identified two contrasting mindsets that affect our motivation and our receptiveness to new opportunities: a “prevention focus,” which orients us toward avoiding negative outcomes, and a “promotion focus,” which orients us toward pursuing positive outcomes.

Another method of widening options, is finding someone else who’s solved your problem:

To break out of a narrow frame, we need options, and one of the most basic ways to generate new options is to find someone else who’s solved your problem…Notice the slow, brute-force approach that had to be used by the lab that didn’t use analogies. When you use analogies—when you find someone who has solved your problem—you can take your pick from the world’s buffet of solutions. But when you don’t bother to look, you’ve got to cook up the answer yourself every time. That may be possible, but it’s not wise, and it certainly ain’t speedy.

2- Reality-Test Your Assumption

On considering the opposite as a way to further test our assumption:

The most important lesson to learn about devil’s advocacy isn’t the need for a formal contrarian position; it’s the need to interpret criticism as a noble function. An effective promoter fidei is not a token argumentative smarty-pants; it’s someone who deeply respects the Catholic Church and is trying to defend the faith by surfacing contrary arguments in situations where skepticism is unlikely to surface naturally.

Questioning can be an effective tool to that effect:

Roger Martin Says “What would have to be true?” question has become the most important ingredient of his strategy work, and it’s not hard to see why. The search for disconfirming information might seem, on the surface, like a thoroughly negative process: We try to poke holes in our own arguments or the arguments of others. But Martin’s question adds something constructive: What if our least favorite option were actually the best one’ What data might convince us of that?

Other methods include:

1. Confirmation bias = hunting for information that confirms our initial assumptions (which are often self-serving).

2. We need to spark constructive disagreement within our organizations.

3. To gather more trustworthy information, we can ask disconfirming questions.

4. Caution: Probing questions can backfire in situations with a power dynamic.

5. Extreme disconfirmation: Can we force ourselves to consider the opposite of our instincts?

6. can even test our assumptions with a deliberate mistake.

7. Because we naturally seek self-confirming information, we need discipline to consider the opposite.

On Zooming in and out, and the importance of perspectives to further test assumptions:

Psychologists distinguish between the “inside view” and “outside view” of a situation. The inside view draws from information that is in our spotlight as we consider a decision—our own impressions and assessments of the situation we’re in. The outside view, by contrast, ignores the particulars and instead analyzes the larger class it’s part of…The outside view is more accurate—it’s a summary of real-world experiences, rather than a single person’s impressions—yet we’ll be drawn to the inside view.

The point is that the predictions of even a world-class expert need to be discounted in a way that their knowledge of base rates does not. In short. when you need trustworthy information, go find an expert—someone more experienced than you. Just keep them talking about the past and the present, not the future.

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 “color” that could inform our decision. Either strategy is helpful, and either one will add insight in a way that conference-room pontificating rarely will. When possible, we should do both. In interpreting the sentiments of Americans, FDR created statistical summaries and read a sample of real letters. In assessing the competitors’ products, Paul Smith’s colleagues relied on scientific data and personal experience. In making a high-stakes health decision, Brian Zikmund-Fisher trusted both the base rates and the stories of actual patients. Zooming out and zooming in gives us a more realistic perspective on our choices. We downplay the overly optimistic pictures we tend to paint inside our minds and instead redirect our attention to the outside world, viewing it in wide-angle and then in close-up.

On the importance of ooching/piloting:

The “ooching” terminology is our favorite, but we wanted to be clear that these groups are all basically saying the same thing: Dip a toe in before you plunge in headfirst. Given the popularity of this concept, and given the clear payoff involved—little bets that can improve large decisions—you might wonder why ooching isn’t more instinctive. The answer is that we tend to be awfully confident about our ability to predict the future.

Which also comes with a warning:

Ooching, in short, 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.

3- Attain Distance Before Deciding

On overcoming short-term emotions, use the technique of giving advice to a friend:

The researchers have found, in essence, that our advice to others tends to hinge on the single most important factor, while our own thinking flits among many variables. When we think of our friends, we see the forest. When we think of ourselves, we get stuck in the trees. There’s another advantage of the advice we give others. We tend to be wise about counseling people to overlook short-term emotions.

On the importance of honoring your core priorities:

The goal of the WRAP process is not to neutralize emotion. Quite the contrary. When you strip away all the rational mechanics of decision making—the generation of options, the weighing of information—what’s left at the core is emotion. What drives you? What kind of person do you aspire to be? What do you believe is best for your family in the long run? (Business leaders ask: What kind of organization do you aspire to run? What’s best for your team in the long run?) Those are emotional questions—speaking to passions and values and beliefs—and when you answer them, there’s no “rational machine” underneath that is generating your perspective. It’s just who you are and what you want. The buck stops with emotion…All we can aspire to do with the WRAP process is help you make decisions that are good for you.

Maybe this advice sounds too commonsensical: Define and enshrine your core priorities. It is not exactly a radical stance. But there are two reasons why it’s uncommon to find people who have actually acted on this seemingly basic advice. First, people rarely establish their priorities until they’re forced to…Second, establishing priorities is not the same thing as binding yourself to them.

4- Prepare To Be Wrong

On bookend-ing the future:

Overconfidence about the future disrupts our decisions. It make us lackadaisical about preparing for problems. It tempts us to ignore early signs of failure. It leaves us unprepared for pleasant surprises. Fighting overconfidence means we’ve got to treat the future as a spectrum, not a point…To bookend the future means that we must sweep our spotlights from side to side, charting out the full territory of possibilities. Then we can stack the deck in our favor by preparing for both bad situations (via a premortem) and good (via a preparade).

On the importance of setting up tripwires to trigger decisions based on gradual changes:

Because day-to-day change is gradual, even imperceptible, it’s hard to know when to jump. Tripwires tell you when to jump. Setting tripwires would not have guaranteed that Kodak’s leaders made the right decisions. Sometimes even a clear alarm is willfully ignored. (We’ve probably all ignored a fire alarm, trusting that it is false.) 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.

On the importance of trusting the decision making process

The WRAP process, if used routinely, will contribute to that sense of fairness, because it allows people to understand how the decision is being made, and it gives them comfort that decisions will be made in a consistent manner. Beyond WRAP, there are a few additional ideas to consider as you navigate group decisions.


On a concluding note:

What a process provides, though, is more inspiring: confidence. Not cocky overconfidence that comes from collecting biased information and ignoring uncertainties, but the real confidence that comes from knowing you’ve made the best decision that you could. Using a process for decision making doesn’t mean that your choices will always be easy, or that they will always turn out brilliantly, but it does mean you can quiet your mind. You can quit asking, “What am I missing?” You can stop the cycle of agonizing.

Just as important, trusting the process can give you the confidence to take risks. A process can be the equivalent of a mountain climber’s harness and rope, allowing you the freedom to explore without constant worry. A process, far from being a drag or a constraint, can it actually give you the comfort to be bolder.

And bolder is often the right direction. Short-run emotion, as we’ve seen, makes the status quo seductive. But when researchers ask the elderly what they regret about their lives, they don’t often regret something they did, they regret things they didn’t do. They regret not seizing opportunities. They regret hesitating. They regret being indecisive.

Being decisive is itself a choice. Decisiveness is a way of behaving, not an inherited trait. It allows us to make brave and confident choices, not because we know we’ll be right but because it’s better to try and fail than to delay and regret.

Our decisions will never be perfect, but they can be better. Bolder. Wiser. The right process can steer us toward the right choice. And the right choice, at the right moment, can make all the difference.

A highly recommended read in the area of decision making. If you are interested in further readings in this topic, I would suggest an earlier post, On Left Brain Right Stuff.


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