Decisive, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, is an easy-to-read and enjoyable book on decision-making.
It teaches not only what hurts your decision-making, but also guides you on how to overcome those errors.
The four common errors that they mention are:
- We narrow our options (for example, this or that)
- We have confirmation bias (we seek out information that agrees with us and diminish information that disagrees)
- We are affected by short-term emotion
- We get overconfident in our decisions (we often think we know more about the future than we do)
So how do we overcome those errors? That’s what the book is about, and that’s what we will cover in this article.
Let’s get to it.
Table of Contents
To overcome these errors, they give an acronym called WRAP. WRAP stands for:
W – Widen your options
R – Reality-test your assumptions
A – Attain distance before deciding
P – Prepare to be wrong
Let’s dive deeper into each of these.
W – Widen your options
Widen your options is meant to help you overcome the first error – the fact that we often narrow our options too far.
How do we do that?
Avoid one or the other questions
How often have you heard this?
- “Should I break up with him or not?”
- “Should I buy this item or that item?”
- “Should I purchase this or not?”
- “I don’t know whether I should do X or not..”
Too often we limit our options because of the spotlight effect – we see what’s in front of us and, as Daniel Kahneman says in Thinking, Fast, and Slow, what’s in front of us is all there is.
It’s easy to get hung on those limiting questions and limiting choices – but that hurts our decision-making.
Here are some of the Heaths’ suggestions on how to overcome that.
Look for other options
Simply looking for better options can sometimes help us. Asking “Is there a better way?” or “What are my other options” can sometimes help us break the chain of one or the other thinking.
Reframe the question
Reframing the question can help as well. Instead of asking, “Should I do/buy this OR that”, you can ask “How can I do this AND that”.
Instead of asking, “Should I buy this or not”, ask “What’s the best use of my money” or “How else could I spend this money?”
Instead of “Should I break up with him or not”, ask “What step(s) should I take for our relationship?”
Consider opportunity cost
Anytime you spend money or time on something, you are not spending it on something else. That is opportunity cost.
Simply asking and looking at what you are giving up by purchasing or spending time on something or looking for alternatives on what you can spend it on can give you extra alternatives to consider.
Use the vanishing option test
One way to force yourself to come up with ideas is to make your current option(s) disappear – “If this wasn’t an option, no way I could do it, what then would I do?”
Multitrack your options
Instead of considering one option at a time, consider multiple at one time. When you do this, you see more of the shape and landscape of the problem versus only one angle.
It also keeps the ego in check. An example they gave is graphic design.
If you ask a designer to give you 5 different samples, when you pick and choose between them and compare, it doesn’t hurt as much or seem as critical of one’s work as when the designer designs and you critique one at a time (and seeing multiple lets you choose between the best of all options and make a better decision).
This doesn’t mean you overload yourself with options. If you’ve ever read The Paradox of Choice, you know too many choices hurt us.
However, having 1-2 extra options can increase our decision-making effectiveness dramatically.
Find people who’ve solved your problem
If you are facing a problem you need to make a decision on, find someone who’s already done it. Whether it’s an individual you ask or a business you can benchmark and look at, finding someone who’s done it before can help you see what works and doesn’t and make a better decision.
If you can’t find a direct example, “ladder-up”. Find something similar to the problem, and look for examples there. If nothing, find something less similar, and so on, until you find examples you can learn from.
It may not give you an exact solution, as the farther up the ladder you go, the less similar the problem will be, but it can give you good ideas and options to look at.
R – Reality-test your assumptions
When we have a belief or we like a certain option, it’s easy for us to seek out information that confirms our belief or that the option we like is the best.
But that’s dangerous. We could be wrong. We don’t get the full picture if all we look for is confirming information.
So how do we combat that? Here are some options:
Seek out dissent (and be open to it)
Whether as CEO or making a personal decision, seeking out contrary information can help us make better decisions.
If you are in business, you need to be open toward and seek out disagreement. If everyone always agrees with your ideas, you likely don’t have an environment open to disagreement and you likely are making poorer decisions.
You may need to get a “devil’s advocate” and have the person explain why the idea won’t work. Or you may work on it as a group.
One idea, especially with multiple options, is to ask “What would have to be true for this option to be the very best choice?”
Ask disconfirming questions
Sometimes when we ask questions, we are actually seeking support for our opinion. Ask factual, disconfirming questions.
“What problems does it have?”
“What was the turnover of employees under this manager?”
“Who are the last few people who left the job?”
“How can I contact them”?
Consider the opposite
For example, in marriage, when a spouse starts seeing the other person as selfish, then everything they do confirms that viewpoint and the things that go against it are rationalized or diminished out.
Instead, consider and assume the opposite. Try to look at it through a different lens. Assume good intent, for example, and not bad.
If a coworker is grumpy, instead of assuming they are just negative, assume the opposite – maybe they are just having a bad day.
Test assumptions by making deliberate mistakes
An example the authors gave is a company that never did RFPs (request for proposals) because they assumed it wasn’t worthwhile.
They tested that assumption by trying one – and gained a $1 million job.
Look at the inside and outside view (and be careful of skewing them)
The outside view is the base rate.
For example, for a review on a restaurant, you see that out of 400 people, it has a 4.3-star rating. That’s the base rate, the outside view.
The inside view would be reading the individual reviews to see what they liked and didn’t like about the restaurant.
We tend to use base rates for things like restaurants but ignore them in our everyday life. We will sample a restaurant review, but take a new job without sampling from others who have worked there.
It happens for many entrepreneurs – the base rate of success is very low – but many entrepreneurs think they are the exception and ignore the base rate.
We need both.
We need an outside view and an inside view. We need to know the base rate and the reasons behind them. Doing so can help us make better decisions and increase our chances of success.
Ooching is running small experiments to test our theories.
We think this will be a great idea for a restaurant, so instead of opening the restaurant first, we get people to try the food or set up a booth at a fair and see how people like it.
Instead of developing the entire software package, we test the idea or a piece of it with potential customers to get their opinions.
We as humans are bad about predicting the future (even experts!). Following base rates is much more reliable.
Ooching helps with that, experimenting with what works and what doesn’t.
However, the authors did give a caveat: ooching is counterproductive for situations that require a commitment.
It’s one thing to volunteer at a vet clinic to see if you will like it, and another for those who know they need to go back to college, for example, but are afraid to do it.
A – Attain Distance Before Deciding
Emotions are an important part of decision-making (we can’t make good decisions without them), but short-term emotions can also hurt us.
Sometimes our feelings about something or someone can affect our decisions. Maybe we have a history with something, and it’s hard to let go.
We, as humans, have an aversion to loss, and we often like to stick to the status quo, so overcoming those can sometimes be hard as well.
Whatever the reason, here are steps you can take to overcome short-term emotions and make better decisions:
An example the authors gave was a guy who didn’t go to car lots to buy a car. The salesmen can sometimes be pushy and pressure you into buying. He avoided it to avoid short-term pressure and emotions.
Sometimes getting away from the scene to a place with less pressure can help you make a better decision. Waiting an extra day can help at times as well (though the authors say sleeping on it is not always enough, you often need a strategy with it).
Ask yourself, “if I do this (or that), how will I feel about it in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years?”
Asking this question can often put the decision and its consequences in perspective.
Look at the decision from an observers position
An example given was Andy Grove from Intel. They were deciding what they should do about a product they had produced and sold for a long time (memory) that wasn’t doing so well anymore. They struggled with what to do about it.
They then asked, “What would our successors do?” and immediately knew they would get out of the memory business.
So that’s what they did. Seeing it from an outside perspective helped them get clarity.
Think about it from a third-party’s view. How would they see the situation?
Ask what you would tell your best friend
One great step is to think about what advice you would give a friend. If your friend was in the same situation, what would you tell him/her to do?
Know and focus on your core priorities
One reason we have conflict and agonize about decisions is that there is a conflict among our core priorities.
You need to make sure you know what your core priorities are. Doing so can help you make better decisions because you will be honoring your most important priorities.
P – Prepare to be wrong
We can’t predict the future – in fact, we as humans are bad at it.
The future is not a single point that we can predict – it is a range of possibilities.
As Annie Duke says in Thinking in Bets, decisions are like poker, not chess. It’s all probability.
So how can we deal with this? How can we prepare to be wrong?
Here are some steps:
Do a premortem
A premortem is like a postmortem – except you do it at the beginning instead of the end.
You ask, “It’s a year (or such) from now. Our plan failed. Why?”
Then you examine why it (could have) failed. Then you prepare for those possibilities.
Do a preparade
A preparade is the opposite of the premortem.
This time you ask “It’s a year from now and everything is going amazing. Will we be ready for success? What kind of success do we have? What do we need to do to prepare for that success?”
Asking these questions lets you see the range of possibilities and make preventions and preparations for possible success and failure.
Use a safety factor
Add a safety factor to your decisions. An example is an elevator cable – it’s 11x stronger than needed.
Another example is for estimating project time and costs – add a buffer for safety.
Similar to premortem, anticipating problems that may come up can help you prepare for them and cope with them.
An example given is when job descriptions are blunt about the work environment and how tough the work will be, employees knew what was coming so that we’re more satisfied with the job.
Use a tripwire
We can often go on autopilot with our decisions never being examined.
That’s where tripwires come in handy – they snap us into attention to reexamine a decision.
An example is a deadline. It reminds us that something is coming up, and we have to do it.
It can be a financial point – we are pursuing this project, but once we spend X dollars without Y happening, we stop (or reexamine).
Putting money into different accounts or envelopes acts like a tripwire because we have to pull from somewhere else.
Having a tray of cookies with each individually wrapped makes people think about whether they want that extra cookie or on.
Tripwires also encourage experimentation, because you set a point where you stop or reexamine.
The power of process
The Heaths ended with an extra chapter on the trusting process.
Following a process may not always seem glamorous, but it provides confidence. When decisions are made by groups – they must be seen as fair, and the process provides that.
It also allows us to take bigger risks and make bolder choices. It can help you navigate thorny issues.
Following a process helps everyone work together, and, even if the outcome is not what they want, it can help them feel better about the decision.
There are common errors that we all face when making decisions – and tools we can use to overcome them.
- Widen your options
- Reality-test your assumptions
- Attain distance before deciding, and
- Prepare to be wrong
If you enjoyed the concepts in this summary, I encourage you to read the entire book. It’s a fun read full of stories.
Now to you: What is your biggest struggle when it comes to making decisions?