Six Ques­tions That Yield Bet­ter De­ci­sions

Rotman Management Magazine - - NEWS - by Chip and Dan Heath

If you’re strug­gling with a de­ci­sion, the fol­low­ing six ques­tions can pro­vide a use­ful jolt to your think­ing. All of them rely on a sud­den im­pact — a quick shift in per­spec­tive or a forced re-fram­ing of a dilemma.

1. Imag­ine that the op­tion you are cur­rently lean­ing to­wards sim­ply van­ished as a fea­si­ble al­ter­na­tive. What else could you do?

WHY THIS QUES­TION WORKS: A very com­mon de­ci­sion-mak­ing trap is “nar­row fram­ing”, which means we get stuck in one way of think­ing about our dilemma, or that we fail to con­sider other op­tions that are avail­able to us. By forc­ing our­selves to gen­er­ate a sec­ond al­ter­na­tive, we can of­ten sur­face a new in­sight.

2. Imag­ine that the al­ter­na­tive you are cur­rently con­sid­er­ing will ac­tu­ally turn out to be a ter­ri­ble de­ci­sion. Where could you go look­ing for proof of that right­now?

WHY THIS QUES­TION WORKS: Prob­a­bly the most per­ni­cious en­emy of good de­ci­sion-mak­ing is ‘con­fir­ma­tion bias’, which is our ten­dency to seek out in­for­ma­tion that sup­ports what we want to be true, while fail­ing to be as ea­ger in hunt­ing for con­tra­dic­tory in­for­ma­tion. This ques­tion com­pels you to search for dis­con­firm­ing in­for­ma­tion.

3. How can I dip a toe in this de­ci­sion with­out div­ing in head­first?

WHY THIS QUES­TION WORKS: When de­cid­ing what will be good for them­selves, peo­ple typ­i­cally make a guess. Think of the un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dent who en­rols in law school, think­ing she’ll love the life of a lawyer, or the in­for­ma­tion worker who quits his job to get a grad­u­ate de­gree in So­cial Work, con­vinced it will al­low him to live a more mean­ing­ful life. But there is no rea­son to guess when you can know. The first stu­dent can spend three months in­tern­ing in a law firm (or bet­ter yet, one month each in three dif­fer­ent firms), and the in­for­ma­tion worker can shadow a real so­cial worker on week­ends or even­ings. We call this an ‘ooch’ — an ex­per­i­ment that arms you with real-world in­for­ma­tion about your op­tions.

4. What would you tell your best friend to do, if he/she was in the same sit­u­a­tion?

WHY THIS QUES­TION WORKS: This may be the sin­gle-most pow­er­ful ques­tion we dis­cov­ered for re­solv­ing per­sonal de­ci­sions. It sounds de­cep­tively sim­ple, but we’ve wit­nessed first-hand the power of this ques­tion: We’ve con­sulted with peo­ple who were ag­o­niz­ing about a de­ci­sion for months, and when we ask them this ques­tion,

an answer pops out of their mouth in 10 sec­onds, of­ten sur­pris­ing them.

5. If you were re­placed to­mor­row, what would your suc­ces­sor do about your dilemma?

WHY THIS QUES­TION WORKS: This is the pro­fes­sional ver­sion of the ‘best friend’ ques­tion. Like that ques­tion, it re­lies on a sim­ple shift in per­spec­tive to help you de­tach from short-term emo­tion and see the big­ger pic­ture more clearly. In his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Andy Grove, the former CEO of In­tel, tells a great story about us­ing this ques­tion to re­solve one of the most dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions of his ca­reer.

6. Six months from now, what ev­i­dence would make me re­treat from this de­ci­sion? What would make me dou­ble-down?

One cu­ri­ous thing about our de­ci­sion-mak­ing is that we treat our choices as per­ma­nent when, in vir­tu­ally all cases, they’re pro­vi­sional. For ex­am­ple: We think (but don’t know) that a cer­tain em­ployee is the right fit for an open po­si­tion; we think (but don’t know) that we’d en­joy start­ing our own busi­ness; we think (but don’t know) that John’s so­cial me­dia plan will be ef­fec­tive. So, given that our de­ci­sions are sim­ply our ‘best guesses’ at a par­tic­u­lar point in time, shouldn’t we pay more at­ten­tion to the cir­cum­stances that would make us re­con­sider?

And lastly, a bonus RED FLAG: Be­ware of ‘whether or not’ de­ci­sions. If a friend or col­league comes to you with a ‘whether or not’ de­ci­sion — ‘I’m de­bat­ing whether or not to quit my job’, ‘I’m de­cid­ing whether or not to buy a new ipad’ — that’s a sign that they may be caught in a nar­row frame (they’re only con­sid­er­ing one op­tion when, chances are, they have many).

Try prod­ding them with ques­tion #1.

Chip Heath is the Thrive Foun­da­tion for Youth Pro­fes­sor of Or­ga­ni­za­tional Be­hav­iour at Stan­ford’s Grad­u­ate School of Busi­ness. Dan Heath is a Se­nior Fel­low at Duke Univer­sity’s CASE cen­ter, which sup­ports so­cial en­trepreneurs. The broth­ers are the co-au­thors of three New York Times best­sellers: De­ci­sive, Switch and Made to Stick.

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