Book Summary: Decisive by Dan and Chip Heath

What the book is about

There are moments in life when we have to decide between choices that we have. Moments like these are pivotal in determining which direction your life will take. From which school a child should go, to decisions on work, relationships and even retirement plans, there are decisions to be made. Very few of us actually give a conscious thought to our decision making process. In fact, there are places where we let our mind follow intuitively as if we were on autopilot mode. The brain is not even aware that there are choices to be made. Even those of us who are aware that a sound decision is to be made stick to a primitive method called moral algebra. This is a method where we divide a sheet of paper into two columns. On side, we write down the pros of a decision and on the other side we write the cons. We do this for every possible choice. Finally we pick the option where the pros outweigh the cons more than in any other choice.

In their book Decisive, Dan and Chip Heath, the authors of other books like Switch and Made to stick, argue that we cannot approach decision making as if it were an algebric problem. We must apply a conscious process that allows us to be certain that a choice is the best possible that we arrive at. Even after a choice is made, we should be able to prepare for mistakes.

What the book is not about

Dan and Chip Heath have written about a process that is steady and methodical. It may take a couple of days to weeks to arrive at a decision. Examples are decisions such as company mergers, a certain medical treatment for a rare ailment, deciding on a college and other processes that require us to marinate and turn over the choices in our brain for a significant period of time, while considering all the available options. Dan and Chip Heath do not claim to have a process for split second decisions made by army personnel during war time or during a time of emergency. They also actively discourage you from making hasty overnight decisions in corporate scenario and urge you to slow down and use a methodical process. So this is not the book if you think that you need to make a split-second decision or if you have only a few minutes or less than an hour to arrive at a final decision.

Decision making gotchas

Dan and Chip start the book by enlightening us that there are four events in a decision making process and that we are trapped in some common mistakes when we arrive at those events.

The first event is that we encounter choices. But instead of considering all possible choices, our mind is conditioned to narrow down to as few choices as possible. This may not be the best way to arrive at the best decision and we must consider widening our options.

The second event is when you analyse your options to choose the best one. More often than not, your mind has already leaned towards one of the decisions and you will often find reasons to support that choice while finding negative ones to eliminate other choices. In this case, it is necessary to reality test our assumptions.

The third event is when we actually make a choice. We may have analysed all our choices and arrived at a logically good one. But logic takes a backseat when we are overcome with emotions. Emotions will often make us take a wrong choice in the heat of the moment. Hence it is necessary to attain emotional distance from the choices.

The fourth is event is that you need to live with your decision once it is made. The problem is that we may not have made the best decision and may need to reconsider. But our ego often makes us overconfidently support the decision that we made and we may not reconsider. This can lead to heavy losses. Hence it is necessary to prepare to be wrong and take action to reverse our decision or take a new one that changes course.

The quartet of ‘Widen your options’, ‘Reality test your assumptions’, ‘Attain distance’ and ‘Prepare to be wrong’ are together abbreviated as the WRAP process and they form the foundation of the decision making process described in the book.

Widening options

Dan and Chip show us how to identify if we have been caught in a narrow frame of mind and that we must really widen our options. One of the biggest signals is a ‘whether or not’ question, e.g. whether I should buy this insurance policy or not. This is a really narrow question and it helps to ask wider questions such as ‘what other options are available if I don’t consider this option?”. They teach us the following methods to widen our options.

  • Rephrase your questions: Ask questions that give us more options than we have currently in our narrow frame of mind. E.g. instead of asking ‘should I enroll in this course to learn programming?’, you can ask where all can I learn programming? That would include Youtube, Coursera and Udemy in addition to physical classes.
  • Calculate the opportunity costs: You can calculate someting called the opportunity cost, i.e. what opportunities will you sacrifice if you pick one choice over the other.
  • Vanishing options test: Here you take away all the choices that you have identified so far and tell yourself that they are not valid anymore. You should ask yourself what you would do now. This leads to more brainstorming.
  • Multitracking: Try to seek help and follow two decisions simultaneously. Later on, chuck the one that doesn’t work for you. This option is often used by advertising companies as they try to work on multiple ideas and finalise on the one that works better that the others.
  • Preventive and promotive approaches: If you are able to identify two paths with complementary outcomes, that works wonders. For example, “what should I do to prevent the pain in my ankle when I run” along with “what exercises can I do to increase the strength of my ankle and run faster”.
  • Bright spots: Find a solution from your own past, your organisation’s past or from someone else about how they solve something similar.
  • Question playlist: Every successful experience at decision making should be documented for the future and to apply the learnings in the future, a list of questions should be compiled. These questions should lead to the best decision again.
  • Find analogies from other fields which had a similar problem and how they solved it. This is called laddering. This often inspires decision makers to find analogies from nature.

Reality testing

To reality test your assumptions and to prevent bias to your own decisions, you must use the following methods.

  • Seek disagreement: You must actively seek your decision to be disagreed by someone. This gives you a counter point of view.
  • What would have to be true: For competing choices, you should answer the following question for each choice: What would have to be true for this choice to be the best decision?
  • You should ask firm, concrete questions that will evoke truthful questions: For instance, instead of asking does this company value work-life balance, you should ask if you should ask one of the employees, “when did you last go out for dinner with your family?”
  • Make a mistake test: You should do something that is completely against your assumption and watch the results. If that activity fails, you know that your assumption was correct. If the activity succeeds, then you can correct your assumption and enjoy a new success.
  • Seek the view of someone who has been close to the problem: E.g. patients who have gone through a certain treatment.
  • Seek experts’ data: Experts are good at giving you the base rates of the past records, but they are not good at predicting the outcome for your case. So don’t ask for their prediction.
  • Look through individual samples about a person’s experience.
  • If you can, derive the outcome of a question by testing, instead of assuming the answer.

Attain distance from emotion

Emotions can cloud you from making the right decisions or even from making a decision at all.

Sometimes you may prevent making a decision due to the embarassment it may bring you. In such cases, you should ask yourself the 10/10/10 question, i.e. how would you feel about a decision 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years from now. You will often conclude that you’d be okay in all three cases. In that case you should jump to action.

Other times, you may be in a dilemma because some emotional baggages are preventing you from taking a decision that is logically obvious. In this case, a simple question such as, “What would you tell your best friend who is stuck in this dilemma?”, may find you the answer in a flash.

Sometimes, two of your core values may clash with each other and this can lead to highly deadlocked dilemmas. E.g. should a company please their shareholders or their customers first? In this case, you need to make decisions on what matters more to your company culture and what is better in the long term. Ideally we should write policies and rules for decision making around core values at the outset, but we often take action and articulate those rules only when faced with dilemmas. We should at least frame those rules while solving the first dilemma, so that the dilemma doesn’t arise again.

If we make a stop-doing list, which is a list of activities that we ought not to do either at all or on a regular basis, then our chances to slipping away from our most productive activities is minimised.

Prepare to be wrong

Even after following the above steps, there is a chance that you may be wrong. The following activities help you minimise your chances of failure and recall your decision by cutting your losses.

You have to note that the future may not be a single point, but one of a range of outcomes. You should try to consider the range of outputs from extremely bad to extremely good and prepare for each such outcome. This method of considering the future as a range and preparing yourself is called ‘bookending’ the future.

To prepare for a loss, you should consider doing a pre-mortem, which is like a post-mortem in the future. You should consider that your decision was a big failure and that you are on the day that your failure happened and that you are doing a post-mortem analysis. This helps you identify possible failures along the path that can lead to a big flop.

On the other hand, you should consider doing a pre-parade, which is the simulation of your future where you have succeeded beyond your average expectations. This will help you prepare for situations that can happen due to your unexpected success and those situations may lead to future failures.

Sometimes, we may predict an outcome. But we are often bad at predictions. So we should add a buffer factor to our anticipated outcome, so that we are ready within that buffer.

Scripting a situation and doing a role play with others can help you prepare for situations. Likewise, a process may be unpleasant. So being upfront and setting the expectation for failures and unpleasant events prevents betrayal and shocks.

We may predict our decision to fail and prepare for the worst. But how do we know that the worst is about to happen? Dan and Heath discuss a process called setting ‘tripwires’. These are events that you must watch out for and take counter action when the events occur. E.g. if you burn $1000 every day for 3 days of running your sandwich business, but you have not sold sandwiches worth $100, your business may be doomed. These measurable numbers and the condition forms the tripwire. You know that when you hit those numbers in that condition, your business is not worth continuing.

Trust the process

Finally, when decisions are made, even with compromises, the points of some persons will be rejected. In such a case, they may not trust the WRAP process of decision-making. However, you can always make sure that they feel heard and that their points are considered for what they are. You should highlight the merits of the rejected points while listing some demerits of your final decision. You should re-assure them that the effects of your decisions are being watched closely with tripwires and that it is possible that their points may have to be considered under certain conditions. This will induce the confidence in them that they haven’t been snubbed and that the process is fair for everyone and that the best possible decision was made.

Quick details

Book title: Decisive
Authors: Dan Heath, Chip Heath
ISBN 10: 0307956393
ISBN 13: 978-0307956392
Buy it here


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Harikrishna Natrajan

Unleashing life's full potential

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2 thoughts on “Book Summary: Decisive by Dan and Chip Heath”

  1. Taking decisions decisively has been made a science here. Afterall as Charlie Munger says we need models for interpreting the world and taking action. This is a good set of models to add to your tool kit. Am going to grab the book !!

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