Summit keynote Chip Heath talks ‘Decisive’ lessons, misleading gut instincts

Less than a month from now, bestselling author Chip Heath is heading to Ohio State University to deliver the featured keynote address as part of the Center for Operational Excellence’s Leading Through Excellence summit April 9-11. To shed some light on Decisive, the latest book he wrote with his brother, Dan, here’s a recent Q&A the Heath brothers participated in, posted here with the permission of BrightSight Group. Here, the Heath brothers explain why we still make decisions like teenagers, why the “gut instinct” isn’t always to be trusted, and why your ‘Devil’s Advocate’ is probably entirely too angelic.

Chip Heath

Why did you think the arena of decision-making was worth another look beyond the current literature?

People have been studying decisions for a very long time. But most of the emphasis, traditionally, has been on the problems with people’s decision-making: the biases and irrationalities that we’re all prone to. So our approach was to flip that and ask: What are the solutions here? We know people tend to fall into certain traps, so how can they avoid them? How can they make better decisions?

Why aren’t we, as leaders, specifically taught good decision-making habits?

In corporate America, we’ve got this mythology of “the gut.” Great leaders should trust their gut! Rely on their instincts! We all seem to like this kind of swashbuckling image of an executive who can make a multimillion-dollar bet just because it feels right.

Unfortunately, there is very little reason to believe that we should be trusting our guts. We need to put our trust in a good process, not a smart “gut.” I’d draw an analogy to health care – great surgeons have phenomenal instincts, but they are also surrounded by systems and processes that bring out the best in them and minimize the chance of error. Those guardrails are what we need in decision-making, too.

Does time taken to reach a decision add to its quality?

Not necessarily. Often the best advice is the simplest, for instance, the suggestion to “sleep on it.” That’s great advice—it helps to quiet short-term emotion that can disrupt our choices. But it still takes 8 hours, and it doesn’t always resolve our dilemmas. Many other powerful decision aids require only a simple shift in attention.  Doctors leaning toward a diagnosis are taught to check themselves by asking, “What else could this be?” And colleagues making a difficult group decision can ask, “What would convince us, six months down the road, to change our minds about this?” Those are great tools, and they take minutes rather than months.

You write that “organizations often make decisions like teenagers.” How so?

A defining trait of teenagers is that they tend to make decisions without a thorough weighing of the consequences. That’s what makes them teenagers. But organizations often do the same thing. In our experience, leaders often spend a lot of time assessing a decision but very little time preparing for the possible outcomes of that decision. One smart technique we cite was created by the psychologist Gary Klein. He created a process called the premortem, where you say, “OK, team. We just made a decision. Let’s imagine that it’s a year from now, and it was a disaster. What went wrong?” Everyone assembles lists of fiasco scenarios and compares notes. Then you say, “Given what we’ve foreseen, how can we forestall as many of those outcomes as possible?” A premortem makes you humble enough to think, If I’m wrong, what then?

The ‘Devil’s Advocate’ approach seems too often delivered with a smile – not with the authenticity, relish and depth needed to ensure a profound consideration. What should this genuinely look like?

Here’s a real tough dilemma: We know that decisions are better when multiple points of view are aired out. Sometimes that means surfacing new perspectives, and sometimes that means disagreement. But of course there is an array of factors that tend to suppress those alternate points of view: politics, politeness, timidity, and so on. So one of the most important duties of a leader is to build a culture that allows people to raise objections or concerns or to flat-out disagree. There’s a great quote from Alfred Sloan, who was CEO of General Motors decades ago. He interrupted a committee meeting with a question: “Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here?” All the committee members nodded. “Then,” Sloan said, “I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what this decision is about.” That’s the right spirit.

You recommend a “playlist” in the chapter “Find someone Who’s Solved Your Problem.” Do we struggle with this one because it’s hard for leaders to publicly acknowledge we have a problem that can’t be solved right away?

We came up with this term “playlist” to describe a concept that’s so simple that we can’t believe it’s not used by every organization in the world. The idea is no more profound than this: Leaders repeatedly make the same types of decisions, so shouldn’t they learn from the strategies used by previous leaders who faced those same situations? For instance, every manager will struggle at some point with an underperforming employee. How do you handle it? Wouldn’t it be great to have a “playlist” with a dozen reliable strategies for handling that situation? That way, as you build up the playlist over time, you’ve got concrete proof that your organization is getting more diligent about decision-making.

Where there any surprises in your research?

One of our biggest surprises was the research on narrow framing. Some Carnegie Mellon researchers published a study showing that when teens make decisions, only 30% of the time do they consider more than one alternative. They’re making “whether or not” decisions. I.e., I’m deciding whether or not to go to the party tonight. And that’s a real trap—it makes them overlook other options that are available to them. But here’s the twist: Organizations do the same thing! In a study of decisions authored by Paul Nutt, he discovered that only 29% of organizations considered more than one alternative. They were making decisions like teenagers! And of course all of us do the same thing in our personal lives. We get stuck thinking “whether or not” and ignoring the spectrum of options that are available to us.

Want to hear more from Chip Heath? Join us for our April 9-11 summit!

This article appears in the March 2014 edition of COE’s Current State e-newsletter. Have a colleague who should be receiving this e-newsletter? Contact Matt at

Originally conducted for the American Society of Association Executives

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