Book Summary: Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath

Quick Summary: In their book Decisive, brothers Chip and Dan Heath explain why our decision-making isn’t always optimal. This includes thinking too narrowly, being guided by past decisions, personal values, and short-term emotions, and being overconfident in our decisions.

Using Kodak, once the dominant manufacturer of photographic film, as an example, they show how poorly (or not at all) decisions can turn out.

As early as 1981, Kodak foresaw that digital photography would eventually replace analog. However, their lack of determination prevented any real progress. When digital camera sales began to outpace analog camera sales in 2002, Kodak was quickly left behind.

You don’t have to read the whole book if you don’t have time. This summary will provide you with an overview of everything you can learn from this book.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

Lesson 1: When solving a problem, one shouldn’t pursue only one idea, but consider all possibilities

When faced with a problem, we usually opt for the solution that seems best at the moment. But if you try a few more, you can get much better results.

Multitracking, that’s, actively pursuing multiple options at once, can greatly improve the decision-making process.

Two teams of graphic designers were each given the task of designing an advertising banner for a digital publication. The first group each worked on a single ad and received feedback after each iteration.

The second group, on the other hand, started with three ads, received immediate feedback on each, and then decided on the final two. After the next round of feedback, they agreed on a final result.

Magazine editors, independent advertising professionals and field tests all rated the second group’s ads better.

And why?

The designers were able to combine the best parts of each idea that received positive feedback into a single ad design by working on multiple concepts simultaneously and then comparing the results.

Study after study shows that the decision-making process is accelerated when multiple options are considered simultaneously, and this can lead to better work as a side effect.

The more options you’ve, the less emotionally attached you’re to any one, which makes it easier to be open to new ideas and perspectives.

You can always have a backup plan ready in case one of your possible options doesn’t work out. If option A doesn’t work, option B is ready to step in.

However, it’s important not to let an abundance of options paralyze you. Researchers found that customers who could choose between six jams one day and twenty-four on another were ten times more likely to buy a jar.

Just add a few choices, not 24.

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Lesson 2: Find out what other people have done to solve the same problem

It seems that we’re the pioneers who face some problems.

Nevertheless, it’s possible that someone else has already found a solution to the problem you think you’ve. For them, the problem is a little different, so don’t really pay attention to it.

If you don’t know how to approach a particular problem, it can be helpful to see how others have dealt with it. For example, if you’re trying to solve a business problem, you can learn a lot by observing how other companies have handled the same problem.

Consider Walmart’s namesake, Sam Walton. In 1954, he introduced a new type of checkout line at Ben Franklin stores that took customers through a central line instead of directing them to separate counters for kitchen items, toiletries, groceries, etc. He rode the bus for 12 hours to experience this innovation.

After being so impressed, Walton quickly adopted this strategy for his own stores. In fact, Walton admitted that almost all of his accomplishments were direct copies of others’ and that he’d kept a close eye on his competitors’ work throughout his career.

Another method is to look for analogies that can help us look at problems from a broader perspective and ultimately find solutions.

Consider how the Speedo Fastskin swimsuit came to be.

Fiona Fairhurst, the designer of the suit, said she was inspired to create it by studying “anything that moves fast,” such as sharks, torpedoes, space shuttles, etc.

She studied the roughness of shark skin to reduce drag and the shape of torpedoes to develop a fabric that mimics the key features of both. This fabric better covers the swimmer’s skin and presses the body into a torpedo-like shape.

Instead of designing a fast swimsuit, she simply thought fast, resulting in a fabric that gave swimmers such an unfair advantage that it was banned in 2010.

As you can see, it pays to look into different areas to come up with solutions you probably wouldn’t think of on your own.

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Lesson 3: If you want to shake off any bias in your decisions, play devil’s advocate

Clearly, when faced with a choice between two alternatives, we choose the one that appeals to us the most. However, these choices aren’t always the wisest.

However, there are some ways to overcome the bias that our preferences can bring to our decision-making process.

Make it easy for someone to disagree with you. Consider under what conditions your least preferred choice, or even the other choices, would be the best.

In this way, rather than arguing for or against your personal preferences, analyze the logical constraints of the options and allow for disagreement without antagonism.

If you aren’t up to the task, have a friend or colleague play devil’s advocate and argue persuasively against the course of action that you and perhaps everyone else thinks is best.

Second, raise counterarguments by asking questions that seem to validate them.

Let’s say a large law firm has offered you a job. The pay is good, the staff seems happy, and the job is secure because it’s with a well-known firm.

When you first meet with lawyers at the firm, you should ask them not if they like their jobs or if they’ve a life outside of work, but how often they eat at home, when they eat, and if they work after dinner. To what extent have the firm’s attorneys grown in the last five years, and how many of them have remained employed? How many secretaries has the managing director replaced in the last few years?

Now that we’ve some tools to help us evaluate our own decisions, we can also consider the impact of our decisions on others.

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Lesson 4: Consider the outside view of your situation

We may think our situation is special, but it helps to see how others have dealt with similar difficulties. We have more in common with each other than we give ourselves credit for.

You can do this by researching how events of your kind typically unfold. Consider Jack, a talented Thai chef who is thinking about opening his own restaurant. On 4th Street, he thinks he’s found the ideal spot because there are lots of customers passing by and there are competing Thai restaurants nearby. How he sees it from the inside.

To look from the outside, statistics on how other people have dealt with similar challenges are interesting. Sixty percent of new restaurants close their doors within three years, so these numbers provide some insight into the outside world.

That does not mean Jack should not open a restaurant, but it’s something to think about.

It may be wise to seek advice from professionals, but you should only use their estimates as a starting point. After all, even they may lose sight of the prime rates in a particular case and focus instead on the details of the specifics.

Instead of asking them to make assumptions, you should ask them questions that will help you understand them better. For example, you might ask, “How many cases like mine were settled before the trial?” rather than, “Will this case be settled before the trial?”

Be careful, however, not to take anything at face value, even well-informed opinions. Instead, check things out thoroughly.

Let us take the hypothetical case of a connoisseur of Thai cuisine who goes online to find a top-notch restaurant, but finds nothing better than a 3.5-star restaurant (out of 5).

If you read the reviews on which this rating is based, you will find that many people think the prices are high, but the quality of the food is worth it.

Since cost is not an issue for you, the restaurant rating is not as helpful as it could have been.

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