Get 'Decisive' With Dan Heath



  • To make better decisions, expand your options. Try to avoid "either/or" decisions.
  • Be wary of seeking advice only from people who will affirm your decision.
  • Set up small experiments to test your assumptions before you make a decision.

Remember those famously particular contract riders the band Van Halen used to have on their concert tours? The ones specifying that they would get a bowl of M&M’s backstage — with all of the brown ones removed?

It turns out the rockers knew a thing a thing or two about good decision-making. As lead singer David Lee Roth has said, the picky request wasn’t really about an aversion to brown M&M’s. But if they surfaced in the candy bowl, the band would know that venue staff hadn’t read the contract and might have also failed to follow the safety specifications spelled out there. The sight of a brown M&M meant an easy decision for the band: Order a full safety check. 

The Van Halen story was one way author and University of Texas at Austin alumnus Dan Heath brought to life the everyday science of decision-making during his talk and book-signing earlier this month at the Blanton Museum. With his brother, Chip, Heath is co-author of the new book “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.”

The brothers’ previous two books, “Switch” and “Made to Stick,” already have spots on many office bookshelves.

The Villains

The Heaths were inspired to write “Decisive” because, teachable moments from rock stars aside, we don’t get much training on how to make decisions. Our lack of decision savvy can be seen in everything from ill-chosen college majors to disastrous corporate mergers.

The brothers identified what they call the four villains of decision-making:

Narrow framing. This is when we unnecessarily limit our options in a decision. If you’re asking yourself simply whether or not you should take a certain action, that’s a red flag you’re engaged in narrow framing. 

Confirmation bias. We tend to pay more attention to information that supports our decision. For example, your boss only seeks counsel from colleagues she knows will tell her to go ahead with a merger. 

Short-term emotion. Our feelings in the moment can overshadow our big-picture goals. Maybe you know you’re qualified for an intriguing job opening, but your fear of rejection keeps you from applying.

Overconfidence. We think we know a lot more about the future than we actually do. We don’t consider enough scenarios for what might happen.

How to do better

Heath then discussed how you can battle these villains and make better decisions:

  • Expand your options. Try to make "this or that" situations into "this and that" ones.
  • Ask questions that encourage deeper feedback. “What possible flaws could you see in this plan?” “How could we do better?”
  • Try a small experiment to test your assumption. For example, before you go back to school for an accounting degree, spend an afternoon with working accountants to see if you could picture yourself in their role. 
  • Your gut isn’t the boss. “Listen to your gut” is advice we’ve all heard when making a decision, but Heath isn’t crazy about it. Instead, he recommends listening, but staying skeptical. Your gut instincts are only one source of information among many.
  • Get some perspective. There’s a surprisingly easy workaround to defuse the power of short-term emotions over your decisions. Ask yourself what you would tell your best friend to do in the same situation. This helps us see the big picture (for example, the professional growth a new job offers) without getting caught up in our own emotions, such as fear about trying something new.
  • Set a “tripwire.” Avoid inertia by leaving yourself cues that tell you when it’s time for a big decision. Put a note on your calendar to meet with a problem employee in a month if the situation doesn’t change. The Van Halen M&M’s trick is another example of a tripwire.

Decisions, decisions

We can’t decide for you which job candidate to hire or whether you should start your own business, but we can offer up some more reading on making good decisions.

  • The “Concepts Unwrapped” video series from Ethics Unwrapped expands on some of the ideas from Heath’s talk, with an emphasis on ethical decision-making.
  • Powerful people are more likely to focus on potential advantages and are less likely to consider negative consequences when they make decisions.
  • In shopping, comparative features are important, but mostly as justification after a buyer makes a decision based on emotional response.

About The Author

Sarah Beckham

Senior Editor, McCombs School of Business

As a senior editor for the McCombs communications department, Sarah Beckham oversees the Texas Enterprise and McCombs Today websites, as well as...

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