Decisive

by Chip & Dan Heath

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: February 23, 2024
 19 min read
Decisive
Decisive

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What are the big ideas?

  1. Fix biases when choosing by looking at different ideas and choices to avoid just picking what feels right or easy.
  2. Don’t just stick to yes or no. Think about what you’re missing and look for more than one way to decide.
  3. Having a few different choices is good. It helps make better decisions without getting overwhelmed.
  4. Find people who have solved similar problems. Use their ideas and think about how they can work in your situation.
  5. Think about how a decision will feel in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years. Avoid choices that only feel good now but not later. Ask yourself, “What would I tell a friend to do?”

Summary

Chapter 1: The Four Villains of Decision Making

  • We often limit our choices and seek information that just supports our beliefs.
  • Emotions and overconfidence can lead us to make poor decisions.
  • Counter these biases by exploring more options, testing assumptions, delaying decisions for clarity, and preparing for unexpected outcomes.

Narrow framing, the first villain of decision making, refers to our tendency to define our choices too narrowly, to see them in binary terms.

We tend to develop a quick belief about a situation and then seek out information that bolsters our belief. This is called the “confirmation bias,” is the second villain of decision making.

“When people have the opportunity to collect information from the world, they are more likely to select information that supports their preexisting attitudes, beliefs, and actions.”

According to professor Dan Lovallo, “Confirmation bias is probably the single biggest problem in business because even the most sophisticated people get it wrong. People go out and they’re collecting the data, and they don’t realize they’re cooking the books.”

“When we want something to be true, we will spotlight the things that support it, and then, when we draw conclusions from those spotlighted scenes, we’ll congratulate ourselves on a reasoned decision.”

The third villain of decision making is short-term emotion.

The fourth villain of decision making is overconfidence. We think we know more than we 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.”

“The future has an uncanny ability to surprise. We can’t shine a spotlight on areas when we don’t know they exist.”

If you think about a normal decision process, it usually proceeds in four steps:

  1. You encounter a choice.
  2. You analyze your options.
  3. You make a choice.
  4. Then you live with it.

The problem, though, is there’s 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.

We can’t deactivate our biases, but we can counteract them with the right discipline.

The mnemonic WRAP captures the four actions needed to protect you from the above biases:

  1. Widen your options.
  2. Reality-test your assumptions.
  3. Attain distance before deciding.
  4. Prepare to be wrong.

“Sometimes the hardest part of making a good decision is knowing there’s one to be made.”

Chapter 2: Avoid a Narrow Frame

  • People often overlook the need for multiple options in decision-making.
  • Considering what you're missing out on (opportunity cost) can open up more choices.
  • Challenge "whether or not" decisions by exploring new alternatives.

When Fischhoff began to categorize teenagers’ decisions, he found that the most common type was one that lacked any choice at all. It was what he called a “statement of resolve.” An example would be “I’m going to stop blaming others.”

A 1993 study by Paul Nutt, which analyzed 168 decisions, found, of the teams he studied, only 29% considered more than one alternative.

“Nutt found that ‘whether or not’ decisions failed 52% of the time over the long term, versus only 32% of the decisions with two or more alternatives.”

“Why do ‘whether or not’ decisions fail more often? Nutt argues that when a manager pursues a single option, she spends most of her time asking: ‘How can I make this work? How can I get my colleagues behind me?’ Meanwhile, other vital questions get neglected: ‘Is there a better way? What else could we do?’”

To escape narrow frames, be aware of “whether or not” decisions.

“‘Opportunity cost’ is a term from economics that refers to what we give up when we make a decision. For instance, if you and your spouse spend $40 on a Mexican dinner one Friday night and then go to the movies ($20), your opportunity cost might be a $60 sushi dinner plus some television at home. The sushi-and-TV combo is the next-best thing you could have done with the same amount of time and money.”

Adding alternatives improves decision making. But you won’t brainstorm additional alternatives if you aren’t aware you’re neglecting them.

“Focusing is great for analyzing alternatives but terrible for spotting them.”

Our lack of attention to opportunity costs is so common that it can be shocking when someone acknowledges them.

A good quality question to ask is, “What am I giving up by making this choice?”

Another technique you can use to break out of a narrow frame is to run the Vanishing Options Test. This involves asking yourself, “You cannot choose any of the current options you’re considering. What else could you do?”

That phrase “whether or not” is a classic warning signal that you haven’t explored all your options.

“When people imagine that they cannot have an option, they are forced to move their mental spotlight elsewhere—really move it—often for the first time in a long while.”

“Until we are forced to dig up a new option, we’re likely to stay fixated on the ones we already have.”

Removing options can do people a favor because it makes them notice that they’re stuck on one small patch of a wide landscape.

“When you hear the telltale signs of a narrow frame—people wondering ‘whether or not’ they should make a certain decision or rehashing arguments endlessly about the same limited set of choices—push them to widen their options.”

Chapter 3: Multitrack

  • Looking at multiple options at once leads to better decisions and less ego-involvement.
  • Don't get overwhelmed by too many choices; a few distinct options are often enough.
  • Combine different mindsets (prevention and promotion) for balanced decision-making.

“Multitracking” involves considering several options simultaneously.

“Multitracking has another advantage too, one that is more unexpected. It feels better.”

“Multitracking keeps egos in check.”

One rule of thumb when interviewing job candidates is to keep searching for options until you fall in love at least twice.

“There is research suggesting that extreme multitracking is detrimental.”

Adding one more alternative to your decision will substantially improve your decisions, and it stops well short of triggering decision paralysis.

Decision paralysis is not a big factor in most circumstances—you don’t need a plethora of choices to improve your decisions. You just need one extra choice, or two.

“To get the benefits of multitracking, we need to produce options that are meaningfully distinct.”

“To diagnose whether your colleagues have created real or sham options, poll them for their preferences.”

“Generating distinct options is even more difficult when our minds settle into certain well-worn grooves.”

Grooves are triggered when we think about avoiding bad things, and one is triggered when we think about pursuing good things.

“When we’re in one state, we tend to ignore the other.”

“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.”

“The wisest decisions may combine the caution of the prevention mindset with the enthusiasm of the promotion mindset.”

Push for “this AND that” rather than “this OR that.”

Chapter 4: Find Someone Who’s Solved Your Problem

  • Look for people who have already solved your problem for new ideas.
  • Use creative thinking tools like analogies and 'laddering up' to explore solutions.
  • Consider both similar and different situations for inspiration.

Ask yourself, “Who else is struggling with a similar problem, and what can I learn from them?”

“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.”

“Sometimes the people who have solved our problems are our own colleagues.”

Bright spots are native to your situation. It’s your own success you’re seeking to reproduce. (Note: for more on bright spots, read Switch.)

A playlist comprises questions to ask, principles to consult, and ideas to consider.

For example, if you were planning a marketing campaign, you might ask:

  • What kind of iconography within the brand is useful and what could we build around it?
  • Is there a key color for the brand?
  • What is the enemy of this product?
  • What would the brand be like if it was the market share leader?
  • What if it was an upstart?
  • Can you personify the product?

Playlists spur us to multitrack.

“One of the reliable but unrecognized pillars of scientific thinking is the analogy.”

“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.”

“When you’re stuck, you can use a process of ‘laddering up’ to get inspiration. The lower rungs on the ladder offer a view of situations very similar to yours; any visible solutions will offer a high probability of success since the conditions are so similar. As you scale the ladder, you’ll see more and more options from other domains, but those options will require leaps of imagination.”

Chapter 5: Consider the Opposite

  • Confront confirmation bias by actively seeking different perspectives.
  • Question your choices by considering opposite scenarios.
  • Foster positive assumptions in work relationships to reduce negativity.

“To make good decisions, CEOs need the courage to seek out disagreement.”

One meta-study found that the confirmation bias was stronger in emotion-laden domains such as religion or politics and also when people had a strong underlying motive to believe one way or the other.

Confirmation bias increases when people have previously invested a lot of time or effort in a given issue.

The first step is to realty-testing the assumptions you’re making is to develop the discipline to consider the opposite of our initial instincts. That discipline begins with a willingness to spark constructive disagreement.

We want to avoid the momentary discomfort of being challenged, but it’s preferable to the pain of walking blindly into a bad decision.

When considering options, ask yourself, “What would have to be true for this option to be the right answer? What if our least favorite option were actually the best one? What data might convince us of that?”

“Sometimes we think we’re gathering information when we’re actually fishing for support.”

“How do you know whether to ask probing questions or open-ended ones? A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, ‘What’s the most likely way I could fail to get the right information in this situation?’”

“Confirmation bias doesn’t just affect what information people go looking for; it even affects what they notice in the first place.”

Our relationships at work are sometimes corrupted by negative assumptions that snowball over time.

To avoid negativity with coworkers, some organizational leaders urge their employees to “assume positive intent,” that is, to imagine that the behavior or words of your colleagues are motivated by good intentions, even when their actions seem objectionable at first glance.

Chapter 6: Zoom Out, Zoom In

  • Use both general trends (outside view) and specific details (inside view) for well-rounded decisions.
  • Consult experts for insights but focus on their experiences, not predictions.
  • Visit the action places (genba) for a real sense of the situation.

“The outside view doesn’t require defeatism, but it does require respect for the likely outcomes.”

“Sometimes people can have access to the perfect set of data—and still manage to ignore it.”

When you’re trying to gather good information and reality-test your ideas, go talk to an expert.

An expert is simply someone who has more experience than you.

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.

Base rates are good at establishing norms: Here are the outcomes we can expect if we make this decision. Close-ups, though, create intuition, which can be just as important.

Another variety of close-up involves going to the genba, a Japanese term meaning “the real place” or, more loosely, the place where the action happens.

The inside view = our evaluation of our specific situation. The outside view = how things generally unfold in situations like ours. The outside view is more accurate, but most people gravitate toward the inside view.

A “close-up” can add texture that’s missing from the outside view.

To gather the best information, we should zoom out and zoom in. (Outside view + close-up.)

Chapter 7: Ooch

  • Conduct small tests (ooching) to validate ideas before full commitment.
  • Use ooching for gathering information, not delaying decisive action.
  • Replace predictive methods like interviews with practical experiments.

To ooch is to construct small experiments to test one’s hypothesis.

Rather than choose “all” or “nothing,” chose “a little something.” That strategy—finding a way to ooch before we leap—is another way we can reality-test our assumptions. When we ooch, we bring real-world experience into our decision.

Ooching is lousy for situations that require commitment, but best for situations where we genuinely need more information.

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.

We try to predict success via interviews. We should ooch instead.

Chapter 8: Overcome Short-Term Emotion

  • Use the 10/10/10 rule to evaluate decisions based on immediate, short-term, and long-term impacts.
  • Recognize biases like familiarity preference and loss aversion that affect decision-making.
  • Consider what advice you'd give to a friend in your situation for clearer perspective.

We need to downplay short-term emotion in favor of long-term values and passions.

To do a 10/10/10 analysis, think about a decision on three different time frames: How will you feel about it 10 minutes from now? How about 10 months from now? How about 10 years from now?

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.

For decades, psychologists have been studying a phenomenon, called the “mere exposure” principle, which says that people develop a preference for things that are more familiar (i.e., merely being exposed to something makes us view it more positively).

When Robert Zajonc exposed people to various stimuli—nonsense words, Chinese-type characters, photographs of faces—he found that the more they saw the stimuli, the more positive they felt about them.

The mere-exposure principle represents a subtler form of short-term emotion.

Compounding this preference for the status quo is another bias called loss aversion, which says that we find losses more painful than gains are pleasant.

“Research suggests that we set ourselves up for loss aversion almost instantly.”

When you put these two forces together—the mere-exposure principle and loss aversion—what you get is a powerful bias for the way things work today.

A relatively new area of research in psychology, called construal-level theory, shows that with more distance we can see more clearly the most important dimensions of the issue we’re facing.

There’s another advantage of the advice we give others. We tend to be wise about counseling people to overlook short-term emotions.

The advice we give others has two big advantages: It naturally prioritizes the most important factors in the decision, and it downplays short-term emotions.

In helping us to make a decision, the single most effective question may be: What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?

Fleeting emotions tempt us to make decisions that are bad in the long term.

To overcome distracting short-term emotions, we need to attain some distance.

The 10/10/10 analysis provides distance by forcing us to consider future emotions as much as present ones.

“Our decisions are often altered by two subtle short-term emotions: (1) mere exposure: we like what’s familiar to us; and (2) loss aversion: losses are more painful than gains are pleasant.”

“Loss aversion + mere exposure = status-quo bias.”

“We can attain distance by looking at our situation from an observer’s perspective.”

Perhaps the most powerful question for resolving personal decisions is “What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?”

Chapter 9: Honor Your Core Priorities

  • Identify your long-term emotional goals and aspirations to guide decisions.
  • Regularly check your actions against your core priorities.
  • Use tools like hourly reminders to stay focused on what's important.

“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.”

“When we identify and enshrine our priorities, our decisions are more consistent and less agonizing.”

“People rarely establish their priorities until they’re forced to.”

“Establishing priorities is not the same thing as binding yourself to them.”

“Look back over your schedule for the past week and ask yourself, What, specifically, would I have given up to carve out the extra three or four or five hours that I’ll need?”

Peter Bregman advises people to set a timer that goes off once every hour, and when it beeps, we should ask ourselves, “Am I doing what I most need to be doing right now?”

Core priorities are long-term emotional values, goals, aspirations.

“By identifying and enshrining your core priorities, you make it easier to resolve present and future dilemmas.”

“To carve out space to pursue our core priorities, we must go on the offense against lesser priorities.”

Chapter 10: Bookend the Future

  • Use prospective hindsight to imagine success and failure scenarios.
  • Prioritize issues using methods like Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA).
  • Prepare for both success (preparade) and failure (premortem) in decision-making.

“When people adopt the second style of thinking—using ‘prospective hindsight’ to work backward from a certain future—they are better at generating explanations for why the event might happen.”

In an FMEA, team members identify what could go wrong at every step of their plans, and for each potential failure they ask two questions: “How likely is it?” and “How severe would the consequences be?” After assigning a score from 1 to 10 for each variable, they multiply the two numbers to get a total. The highest totals—the most severe potential failures—get the most attention.

“A preparade asks us to consider success: Let’s say it’s a year from now and our decision has been a wild success. It’s so great that there’s going to be a parade in our honor. Given that future, how do we ensure that we’re ready for it?”

“The future is not a “point”—a single scenario that we must predict. It is a range. We should bookend the future, considering a range of outcomes from very bad to very good.”

To prepare for the lower bookend, we need a premortem. ‘It’s a year from now. Our decision has failed utterly. Why?’ To be ready for the upper bookend, we need a preparade. ‘It’s a year from now. We’re heroes. Will we be ready for success?’ To prepare for what can’t be foreseen, we can use a ‘safety factor.’”

“Anticipating problems helps us cope with them.”

“By bookending—anticipating and preparing for both adversity and success—we stack the deck in favor of our decisions.”

Chapter 11: Set a Tripwire

  • Use tripwires to break routine and reevaluate ongoing decisions.
  • Recognize when persistence turns into denial of reality.
  • Tripwires help cap risks and create a safe space for taking chances.

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.

“At some point, the virtue of being persistent turns into the vice of denying reality.”

“Pilots are taught to pay careful attention to what are called ‘leemers’: the vague feeling that something isn’t right, even if it’s not clear why.”

“Having a label for those feelings legitimizes them and makes pilots less likely to dismiss them. The flash of recognition—Oh, this is a leemer— causes a quick shift from autopilot to manual control, from unconscious to conscious behavior.”

“In life, we naturally slip into autopilot, leaving past decisions unquestioned.”

“A tripwire can snap us awake and make us realize we have a choice.”

“Tripwires can be especially useful when change is gradual.”

“For people stuck on autopilot, consider deadlines or partitions.”

“We tend to escalate our investment in poor decisions; partitions can help rein that in.”

“Tripwires can actually create a safe space for risk-taking. They: (1) cap risk; and (2) quiet your mind until the trigger is hit.”

“Many powerful tripwires are triggered by patterns rather than dates/metrics/budgets.”

“Tripwires can provide a precious realization: We have a choice to make.”

Chapter 12: Trusting the Process

  • Ensuring a fair decision-making process is key to people's satisfaction with outcomes.
  • A good process allows for taking bigger risks and making bold choices.
  • Trust in a solid process can lead to fewer regrets and better decisions.

“Procedural justice is critical in determining how people feel about a decision.”

“We should make sure people are able to perceive that the process is just.”

“A trustworthy process can help us navigate even the thorniest decisions.”

“‘Process’ isn’t glamorous. But the confidence it can provide is precious. Trusting a process can permit us to take bigger risks, to make bolder choices. Studies of the elderly show that people regret not what they did but what they didn’t do.”

Questions

  1. How can I identify and avoid narrow framing in my decision-making process?
  2. What steps can I take to counteract confirmation bias when collecting and interpreting information?
  3. In what ways can I prepare for unexpected outcomes in my decisions?
  4. How can I ensure I'm not overlooking important alternatives when faced with a decision?
  5. What are some methods I can use to break out of a "whether or not" decision-making pattern?
  6. How can I effectively use multitracking to improve my decision-making?
  7. In what situations should I consider finding someone who has already solved a similar problem to mine?
  8. How can I actively challenge my initial assumptions to make better decisions?
  9. What strategies can I use to balance short-term emotions with long-term goals in my decision-making?
  10. How can establishing and honoring my core priorities guide my decision-making process?

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