How to Make Better Decisions: Part I

How Two Psychological “Villains” Tempt Us
to Make Bad Decisions
Part I: Narrow Framing
By Chip Heath and Dan Heath, authors of Decisive

Steve Cole, the VP of Research and Development at HopeLab, a nonprofit that fights to improve kids’ health using technology, said, “Any time in life you’re tempted to think, ‘Should I do this OR that?’, instead, ask yourself, ‘Is there a way I can do this AND that?’ It’s surprisingly frequent that it’s feasible to do both things.”

For one major project, Cole and his team at HopeLab wanted to find a design partner, a firm that could help them design a portable device capable of measuring the amount of exercise that kids were getting. There were at least seven or eight design firms in the Bay Area that were capable of doing the work. In a typical contracting situation, HopeLab would have solicited a proposal from each firm and then given the winner a giant contract.

But instead of choosing a winner, Cole ran a “horse race.” That is, he shrunk down the scope of the work so that it covered only the first step of the project, and then he hired five different firms to work on the first step independently.

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With his horse race, Cole ensured that he’d have multiple design alternatives for the device. He could either pick his favorite or combine the best features of several. Then, in Round 2 of the design, he could weed out any vendors who were unresponsive or ineffective.

Cole is using a wise strategy to combat the first villain of decision-making, called “narrow framing,” which is the tendency to define our choices too narrowly, to see them in binary terms. We ask, “Should I break up with my partner or not?” instead of, “What are the ways I could make this relationship better?” We ask ourselves, “Should I hire this hotshot candidate who just re-entered the job market?” instead of, “Who’s the best person we could hire who would have the skills we need to vault us forward?”

Cole, with his “horse race,” is breaking out of the narrow framing trap. It wasn’t an obvious move; he had to fight for the concept internally. “At first, my colleagues thought I was insane . . . . But now everybody here does it. You get to meet lots of people. You get to know lots of different kinds of things about the industry. You get convergence on some issues, so you know they are right, and you also learn to appreciate what makes the firms different and special. None of this can you do if you’re just talking to one person.”

There’s a more subtle factor involved, too – Cole, in meeting with the teams, would have inevitably developed a favorite, a team he clicked with. And though intellectually he might realize that the people he likes personally aren’t necessarily the ones who are going to build the best products, he would be tempted to jigger his mental “Pros and Cons” list in their favor. Cole might not even be aware he wasn’t doing it, but it’s all too easy to let our analysis be shaped by our instincts.

This excerpt is based on Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s upcoming book, Decisive, available from Crown Business wherever books are sold on March 26th, 2013. To read more about making better decisions, you can visit the authors’ website, HeathBrothers.com.

Read Part II of How to Make Better Decisions and learn about the second “villain” of decision-making: the “Confirmation Bias.”

The Heath brothers are the bestselling authors of Made to Stick and Switch.  CHIP HEATH is a professor at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. He lives in Los Gatos, California. DAN HEATH is a senior fellow at Duke University's Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE). He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

About Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Chip and Dan Heath, author of Switch

The Heath brothers are the bestselling authors of Made to Stick and Switch.  CHIP HEATH is a professor at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. He lives in Los Gatos, California. DAN HEATH is a senior fellow at Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE). He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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