What was your last important decision? Was it a good one? How did you come to the decision? Will that same process work again? Will it work for an even more difficult decision?
These are the kinds of questions Chip and Dan Heath (Switch, Made to Stick) take on in their new book Decisive: How to Make Better Decisions in Life and Work. They expose what’s wrong with the decision-making process, reveal why our brains are hardwired to make "foolish" decisions and offer different tips and techniques for making better decisions.
Why Do We Make Bad Decisions?
The first problem when it comes to the decision-making process is that most of us who try to make careful decisions put all our efforts into analyzing the options, instead of improving how we arrive at decisions. The typical “pros vs. cons” approach, the “either or” approach and the “whether or not” approach distort the full range of options available and lead to poor decisions.
Another contributor to poor decision-making is that we base our decision on what we want to be true instead of what is true. We select evidence based on preexisting beliefs, and in doing so we miss many available options because we're only looking at the option right in front of us. All this, according to the authors, can lead us to make the wrong decision.
To help make their case about how and why so many decisions are 'bad," the authors share some rather entertaining data:
- Over 60,000 tattoos were reversed in the U.S. in 2009.
- Business and government leaders are less likely to consider multiple options than teenagers.
- Merger activity is heating up again, but 80 percent of mergers fail.
- 44 percent of lawyers wouldn’t recommend their career choice to a young person.
- Green Bay Quarterback Brett Favre retired, then unretired, then retired.
- A simple thought experiment helped Andy Grove decide that Intel should get out of the memory chip business and invest everything in microprocessors: “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” (A similar thought experiment makes many personal dilemmas suddenly transparent, because it removes the emotional element.)
- Former GM CEO Alfred Sloan disallowed any decision that was reached with 100 percent consensus.
The authors then go on to show how we can overcome our cognitive biases by using techniques mastered by the best decision makers, including judges, politicians, designers, branding experts and military and business leaders.
How to Make the Right Decision
To improve rational decision-making ability we need to do four things:
- Widen our options
- Reality-test our assumptions
- Attain some distance
- Prepare to be wrong
So, how do we go about applying these four elements into our decision making? In the book, the authors introduce a variety of decision-making strategies and techniques that can help. Here are a few worth trying:
- The Vanishing Options Test asks you to imagine that your current options have all disappeared, and answer the question: What else would you do?
- Multitracking is a technique where you consider more than one option simultaneously.
- A Premortem lets you consider how a decision might fail, and analyze what you would do now to minimize the harm.
- In the Tripwires method, you set a trigger in advance to jolt you out of your routine and alert you that it’s time to reconsider a decision or make a new one.
- With Zoom In, Zoom Out your goal is to gather the best information, and in doing so you get both a close-up and an outside view of the situation.
- With Laddering Up you find a novel alternative by scaling a ladder that takes you from local analogies (what’s working right now?) to distant (who else has solved our problem?).
- The Best Friend Test hinges on the fact that many people find it easier to make a choice when they imagine themselves advising their best friend who is in the same situation.
None of these tests and tips are new. Most of them are tried-and-true techniques used by strategy firms and design studios. That doesn't make them any less valuable and useful, and having them all in one place is rather handy.
In the end, Decisive makes decision-making simple—or at least simpler.
Read more articles on how to be productive.
Photo: Getty Images