Once upon a time, Alfred P. Sloan, the legendary leader of General Motors, asked in a meeting whether everyone was in agreement about a decision the committee members were discussing. When all heads nodded yes, Sloan did the unexpected: He suggested postponing further discussion to give time to “develop disagreement.”
This incident, one of many stories Chip and Dan Heath recount in their new book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, stands out because seeking dissent is so uncommon. Unlike good scientists, who test hypotheses to see if they’re right, most of us tend to look for evidence that simply confirms our preconceptions. Because this “confirmation bias” leads us back to where we started, rather than toward better choices, it’s an enemy of good decision making — one of several villains the Heath brothers arm readers to battle against. In general, “we’re really good at paying attention to things that are focal in our minds,” says Chip Heath, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford GSB. He and coauthor and brother Dan, a senior fellow at Duke University, call this tendency “the spotlight effect,” a metaphor that sums up dozens of mental foibles that decision researchers have identified over the years — and that hints at a set of solutions. “Better decision making is the process of moving your mental spotlight to shine light on things we wouldn’t otherwise look at,” Chip Heath says.
To that end, the authors devote a fourth of their book to the idea of widening your options, advice that may seem at odds with the very definition of decision making. If decision making is the process of zeroing in on the best choice, why would you widen your array of choices? The reason, Heath explains, is our tendency to get quickly locked in to one alternative. We ask ourselves, for example, whether we should fire an underperforming worker — as if to do or not to do is the only choice we have. But when you stop to think of other options — one of the authors’ many tips is to imagine that your current options are vanishing — you’ll often discover an answer that’s better than what you had been pondering. (Could you move your employee to a role he’s more suited for? Or give him a mentor to improve his performance?) Heath cites research showing that people who had considered even one additional alternative did six times better than those who had considered only a single option.
Although Heath may be best known for his first book, Made to Stick, about crafting memorable messages, or for Switch, a book about making effective change, he actually began his academic career by studying decision making. In fact, his dissertation advisor at Stanford was Amos Tversky, who, until his untimely death, was the long-time research partner of Daniel Kahneman, the first psychologist to win a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for contributions to economics. Kahneman’s and Tversky’s emphasis on the myriad ways we deviate from rational choice deeply influenced the social sciences, but it didn’t have as helpful an effect on the way business school classes on decision making are taught. “In a typical decision-making class you’re trained to teach 9 weeks of biases, and the 10th week you’re to shake people by the shoulders and tell them not to do any of this,” Heath says. Skeptical of how well this approach works, he focuses the book on practical ways to improve decision making.
Much of the authors’ advice about moving your mental spotlight requires gathering additional information — from devil’s advocates, from people who have solved similar problems, from relevant statistics, and, at times, from friends and family members who can keep us in check. Readers might balk, arguing that in today’s fast-paced world they can’t afford to take the time to do much of that. But Heath suggests that they can’t afford not to.
“For the most part, there’s an illusion that there’s a tradeoff between considering more information and making fast decisions,” he says, citing a study by Stanford engineering professor Kathleen Eisenhart, codirector of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. Eisenhart found that teams in Silicon Valley that made the fastest decisions were the ones that considered lots of information. “The things that slow us down,” Heath explains, “are having one option, so we waffle about that option, or we invest a lot of time and money on a project or a relationship and can’t bear to abandon it.” Besides, some of the tips in Decisive take almost no time at all. Long after readers have forgotten just about everything else the Heath brothers have to say, they are bound to remember, for example, this surprisingly powerful question to ask yourself when you feel stumped: “What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?”
Chip Heath is the Thrive Foundation for Youth Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford GSB. Dan Heath is a senior fellow at Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship.