Monday, August 28, 2017

Book Review: 'Decisive' by Chip Heath

"But with righteousness He shall judge the poor,
And decide with equity for the meek of the earth;" -- Isaiah 11:4 (NKJV)

I didn't run into the decision literature until the end of law school. My reaction was to think that this was the first time I'd learned anything practical since elementary school. I still feel that way.

Much of what has been written about making decisions is hard to follow, has too many graphs, employs too many unusual methods, and requires too much math. The Heath brothers break through those limitations to spell out the key lessons in simple language, explain what they mean with easy-to-understand examples, and provide things to avoid and do that are easy to implement correctly. If you get a little lost, the excellent one-page summaries at the end of each chapter will soon set you right.

I've decided to use this book in the future as the starting point for teaching my business students how to make better decisions. This book will bless them. I started applying the book with one student this last week, and I was delighted to see how much he gained from beginning to apply the directions.

The book is built around four typical problems with the way most people make decisions:

1. The first choice encountered is studied in terms of do or not do, rather than looking around for what better alternatives might exist. Instead, force yourself to widen your choices (with many suggestions for how to do so), study a variety of options at the same time to get a better feel for the issue, find successful examples and people who have already succeeded in finding and choosing a good option and learn from them.

2. Whatever is considered is colored by looking for evidence that confirms a "gut" feeling about what to do, rather than looking objectively. The Heath brothers suggest you apply reality tests by considering the opposite of what you first liked, be sure to understand what typical results are with different choices, and use small experiments to test your conclusions before deciding.

3. Strong emotions you happen to be feeling at the time sway you away from a better choice. Decisive recommends a number of techniques for creating more emotion-free space. One of the most interesting methods is simply to imagine what you would recommend that a friend do: We are more objective that way than in considering what's best for ourselves. In all circumstances, test the possible choices in terms of what you personal values and priorities are.

4. Having made a decision, we march forward as though it will be perfect. Wrong! The Heath brothers suggest you consider in advance what a mistake (missing an opportunity or taking on a new problem) can cost you (and let that influence your choice), prepare for the biggest risks, and set some rules for under what circumstances the choice will need to be abandoned or modified.

In doing all of this, we will be more successful by focusing on the process rather than the initial question.

Having given all that praise, let me add a few cautions.

First, this is an elementary book. Its advice for finding better alternatives is at the simplest end of how to go about doing so. Consequently, you probably won't find the best choices by using what's described here. You'll need to master some other skills and processes that uncover great choices that no one has done before.

Second, Decisive is a short and concentrated book. If you don't "get" an example, you may miss an important point. I know quite a lot about decision-making, and the material on bookending seemed overly dense to me, for instance. I suspect most people will be quite confused in that area.

Third, math can help. Like most popular books, Decisive avoids math ... probably more than is good for the reader. Decision-making involves more than just dealing with the psychological issues that are the book's focus.

Is there a better beginner book? I don't think so.

Nice work!

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Donald Mitchell. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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