“Decisive” is the Right Choice for Making Business and Life Decisions

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decision makingDecisions, decisions, decisions.

No matter your role in business, your daily schedule can be filled with decisions faster than seats to a Justin Bieber concert.  But if you want to prevent yourself from becoming a zombie numbed by decision after decision, you should read Chip and Dan Heath’s new book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices In Life and Work.

The Heath brothers (@heathbrothers) contacted me when their follow-up to their last book Switch, which I also reviewed, was close to release. Decisive is certainly an easy read to make hard decisions easy.

Decisive explores the topic of decision making without deeply rehashing Switch’s thesis about change. In Switch, the Heath brothers share the elephant-and-rider metaphor for managing rational thought.  They use it to explain one instance of an emotional short-circuit – “Chances are you know the people with Rider problems … your colleague who can brainstorm for hours but can’t ever seem to make a decision.”

Decisive expands that vision by explaining a set of biases that hinder decision making.  These biases are:

  • Narrow framing your selection, eliminating other viable choices.
  • Confirmation bias: Seeking support for your own beliefs in a decision rather than question.
  • High level of emotional investment in the decision.
  • Overconfidence in the answer derived.

The book is divided into four overall segments, meant to explore the solutions to each decision bias. The solutions are, respectively:

  • Widen Your Options
  • Reality-Test Your Assumptions
  • Attain Distance Before Deciding
  • Prepare to Be Wrong

Like Switch, the psychology behind Decisive is understandable. Reference ranges from business narratives, like Andy Grove’s decision to change Intel’s memory chip strategy, to more pop-oriented factoids, such as how an Ultimate Red Velvet Cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory has more calories than 3 McDonald’s cheeseburgers and a pack of Skittles candy.

Fast food fights aside, the Heaths assert that “process matters more than analysis” and that “guts can have questionable advice.”  This neutrality towards analysis and guesstimating makes the book an accessible guide for business owners who need to make heavy decisions in life, let alone business.  If you are in business for yourself and striving for life balance, this book will guide without being so touchy-feely that examples won’t impact business decisions.

The introduction alone has conclusive support for why and how we make decisions.  That support carries through the segments, such as multi-tracking, the consideration of many options to prevent narrow framing:

Many executives are worried that exploring multiple options will take too long. It’s a reasonable fear, but researcher Kathleen Eisenhardt…found that executives who weigh more options actually make faster decisions.

Eisenhardt offers three explanations. First comparing alternatives help executives to understand the landscape: What’s possible and what’s not….Second, considering multiple alternatives seems to undercut politics… Third, when leaders weigh multiple options, they’ve given themselves a built-in fallback plan.

For those analytic practitioners concerned about managing analysis, the Heaths wisely footnote a resource that explores the balance between analysis paralysis and being narrowly focused.  (The Heaths have definitely “widened their options” in choosing how to present new ideas.)

Another strategy, called bookending, encourages the reader to imagine two scenarios – dire and rosy. To “spotlight” the scenarios helps to prevent overconfidence in a decision. I felt the approach helps small business owners understand what managing risk really means. An investment analyst’s view of Coinbox, the parent company of Redbox, illustrated how “the future is not a point; it is a range.”  More on that range comment:

In the absence of bookending, our spotlights will lock into out best guess for how the future will unfold…even if we have a good guess about the future, the research on overconfidence suggests that we’ll be wrong more often than we think.

The authors simplify examples, such as noting how pervasive safety factors are. Yet they don’t talk down to anyone or stick with a dictionary-dry explanation.

Decisive narratives are meant to translate suggestions into actionable ideas.  One example of an actionable suggestion is psychologist Gary Klein’s premortem strategy:

A post-mortem analysis begins after a death and asks, “What caused it?” A premortem, by contrast, imagines the future “death” of a project and asks, “What killed it?”…. Everyone on the team takes a few minutes to write down every conceivable reason for the projects failure. Then the leader goes around the table, asking each person to share a single reason, until all the ideas have been shared. Once the threats have been surfaced, the project team can prepare to be wrong by adapting its plans to forestall as many of the negative scenarios as possible. The premortem is a way of charting out the lower bookend of future possibilities and plotting ways to avoid ending up there.

At the end, you’ll find notes and references to a complementary website with exercises.  But even if you choose to read Decisive without the extra material, you’ll find that you’ve made a great reading choice to make your business great.

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Pierre DeBois Pierre Debois is Associate Book Editor for Small Business Trends. He is the Founder of Zimana, a consultancy providing strategic analysis to small and medium sized businesses that rely on web analytics data. A Gary, Indiana native, Pierre is currently based in Brooklyn. He blogs about marketing, finance, social media, and analytics at Zimana blog.