Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work

Reviewed on , book by Chip Heath, Dan Heath

After reading this book, I feel embarrassed about the way I’ve made decisions in the past. Decisive is a phenomenal resource for a fantastic decision-making process whether you’re moving, considering a new job, making a technical decision, or just about anything else. I’m already endorsing this book left and right—if you make decisions, and you do, you need to read it. The techniques and mental models introduced are useful for anyone.

Decisive claims at no point to help you make perfect decisions. Exactly which option to choose comes down to domain expertise. However, what we do know, is that the overall decision-making process matters more than analysis of the individual decisions. Up to six times more, measured by one study. Often, we marry ourselves to the first option that appears, analyzing whether it’s feasible, and move on. This is an unfortunate process. You have not protected yourself adequately against confirmation bias, and you’d be an idiot to think it doesn’t apply to you. It’s unwise to think that pursuing the first and best is the right move. What’s uncomfortable is that spending more time generating options means more time in the unknown-unknown space, but often yield solutions that are more effective and faster to implement—making up for this up-front investment.

(1) The first part of the decision-making process is to widen your options. Good decision-makers spend as much time as they can afford generating options and getting information about the problem. They protect themselves against confirmation bias by multitracking through evaluating multiple options simultaneously, e.g., designers typically produce better final designs if they have multiple designs on the go to receive feedback on. It protects them against unreasonable attachment to their work, leaving them defensive against criticism. To come up with more options, you ask yourself questions like: “Who has solved this problem before, and what can I learn from them?” If you ever hear the phrase “whether or not to [..]”, it should instantly be a red flag. If you’re asking “whether or not to buy the more expensive video game console,” you may not have considered that the difference in money could be spent on games. Ask yourself: “If none of the current options are available, what would I do?“. Keep generating options; it won’t hurt. Like when buying a house, a good rule of thumb is that you have to “fall in love twice” before you’re ready to go with an option.

(2) step is to reality-test your assumptions. This is where you conduct experiments, what’s the cheapest and fastest way to test an assumption? You find the base rates of success, e.g., if you’re starting a restaurant and the base rate of success is 60%, maybe you should reconsider whether it’s the best investment for you. You’d be a fool to think that you’d differ much from the base rate. The most powerful question from this chapter is to ask yourself for each option: “What would it take for this option to be the best one?” Or a variant of this: “What would it take to change your mind?“. As you get more information implementing your solution (or prototype), you may find that you have to step back and go with a different option since an assumption didn’t pass the reality test.

(3) is to attain-distance from the decision. We’ve all heard that we should sleep on it, and this is true. I read in another book that “You can always tell the man off tomorrow if it is such a good idea.” Consider that it’s easier to give a friend advice than yourself, what would you tell a friend to do? If you were replaced, what would your successor do? For example, Intel was challenged by Japanese companies out of the memory business—core to them in the 80s. Grove, the CEO, finally asked himself: “What would my successor do?” and decided to drop the bread & butter memory business and focus on microprocessors. A bold, prudent move. Be conscious at this point of the status quo bias: whatever was already there, is going to seem more comfortable. Whatever is familiar, is much more likely to be chosen—but it doesn’t mean it’s the best decision. One of my favorite techniques from this chapter is the 10/10/10 question: How would you feel about this decision 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years from now? This can easily give fantastic perspective to a decision. The time-frames don’t matter much—the idea is to take a look at reality going back after a short period, medium, and long.

(4) is to prepare to fail. My favorite tools from the book come from this chapter. The premortem is a technique where you imagine yourself a year from now, and ask your team the question: “The project was a massive disaster, what happened?” This question triggers hindsight, and gives much better answers (and I’ve tried this myself, too) than “What are the biggest existential risks to this project?“. In the same vein, you can try a pre-parade: “The project was a massive success, are we ready?” Which can help you figure out whether you know how to get the most leverage out of a success as well as identify risks, such as supply-chain issues (“can we produce enough iPhones?”). The most powerful technique from this part of the book is “tripwires.” Decisions are often not re-evaluated when conditions change. For every major decision, you should be able to answer what would change your mind to re-evaluate in the future. For example, Kodak may have made the right call in the 80s to not get into digital photography, but by the late 90s, they should’ve pivoted. When the decision to not pursue digital was made, they should’ve set the tripwire: “When the market is 10% digital, we will reconsider our investment.”

I’ve already started using many of the ideas from this book and really enjoyed it. You should too!