Book reviews

Don’t let your passion for social change stop you from making good decisions

Photo credit: Peshkova, Shutterstock

Photo credit: Peshkova, Shutterstock

Brothers Chip and Dan Heath have made it very easy not to read their book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, cover to cover.

The book has been thoughtfully annotated, indexed, bulleted, “acronymed” and catch-phrased into bite-sized pieces that make it easy to sample. You could pick it up, read one chapter, put it down, and have learned a lot. But you’d be making a mistake, especially if you’re in the business of social change, a community that falls victim to many of the pitfalls Decisive cautions us to avoid. Chief among them may be the spotlight effect: our tendency to “give too much weight to the information that’s right in front of us while failing to consider the information that’s just offstage.”

Maybe we are so driven by a cause that we remain in a job that’s taking a heavy a toll on our own wellbeing. Or it could be that our organizations minimize critical feedback and overlook the lay of the land when launching a new program just because funders are watching. At times we might focus only on data that reinforces our approach to a problem instead of seeing the whole picture.

The spotlight we shine on doing good can leave opportunities to do even better in the shadows. To make good decisions –whether for ourselves or in our work– the book argues, we need to push that spotlight around and illuminate dark corners.

Switching our spotlight involves a process for decision-making termed WRAP.

  • Widen your options
  • Reality-test your assumptions
  • Attain distance before deciding, and
  • Prepare to be wrong

It may not be as memorable as the classic “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” but WRAP is an essential tool for sidestepping what the Heaths identify as the four villains of decision-making: narrow framing, confirmation bias, short-term emotion, and overconfidence in the future.

Through the WRAP framework, Decisive explores the types of decisions we regularly need to make: those that come as the result of a choice we’re faced with (what’s for lunch?), and those that come as the result of routine or complacency — the “un-decision” each day to do pretty much the same thing we did yesterday. Though not fully acknowledged by the authors until late in the book, these “autopilot” decisions are subject to the same WRAP process as any other.

Nonprofit professionals, for example, wary of the reactions they may get by reversing course on a well-funded project may just wait and see what happens rather than turning off the autopilot and taking a risk. Likewise, in our careers or in our personal lives, we may stay in a job or a relationship indefinitely, hoping it will work out, knowing it probably won’t, and still not proactively seeking out alternatives. Just because there is no other better option in our immediate spotlight doesn’t mean that no other option exists or that there isn’t a reason to change. Indeed, the most meaningful lesson you may glean from this book is that doing nothing is really a choice, too.

This and other insights are laced throughout Decisive, but if you’re still tempted to skim, flip to the following chapters:

Chapter 6, “Zoom Out, Zoom In”

This chapter challenges us to consider both the inside and outside view when weighing options. An inside view includes only our own evaluation of our situation (I’m a great actress, I should move to Los Angeles), while outside views consider parallels to others in similar situations (Los Angeles is home to a lot of actresses, many of them struggling). If you’re passionate about a cause it can be especially hard to consider outside perspectives. We’re hesitant to trust statistics that contradict what we see on the ground, and we let our commitment to the work we do cloud our judgment.

In the end, however, not zooming out does a disservice to the issues we hope to address and the people we want to help (our core priorities – see chapter 9) by obscuring new approaches that might have strengthened our work in the long run.

Chapter 9, “Honor Your Core Priorities”

In this chapter, the authors focus on Interplast, a nonprofit organization once struggling to balance the expectations of various stakeholders that eventually reaches a solution by taking time to redefine and reassert its mission. By honoring its core priorities, the organization was back on track. In contrast, a nonprofit executive that chooses to bend to the will of a key donor at the expense of the mission has failed to honor core priorities and, in doing so, is likely to have made the wrong decision.

These examples teach us to treat our core priorities as references in any decision-making or problem-solving process, helping us to avoid mission drift or choose between two competing job offers in our professional lives.

Chapter 10, “Bookend the Future”

The concept of prospective hindsight is explored in Chapter 10, and while it isn’t prescribed specifically for social sector organizations here, it provides an interesting spin on scenario planning that can supplement the standard nonprofit strategic thinking tools. Instead of determining a goal, crafting various strategies to reach that goal, and, as an afterthought, making a list of what might go wrong, begin by imagining a scenario in which something did, in fact, already go wrong.

Instead of asking “how might we fail”, you now ask yourself, theoretically, “why did we fail?”. This slight shift in focus lets your imagination reveal weaknesses or strengths in a decision that weren’t in the spotlight before.

These are just a few of the devices and strategies shared in Decisive, whose countless real world examples from the spheres of science, business, and relationships underscore the universality of WRAP. Rarely do anecdotes about Viagra, Angelina Jolie’s bankability, and school lunch lines appear together in print, but Chip and Dan Heath seem to draw these parallels with ease and wit. Any book so painstakingly researched, creatively plotted out, and full of insight deserves praise; the fact that it was done successfully by siblings (and for their third title together, no less) makes it all the more impressive.

Pick up the book today and access more resources here.

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About Kari Mirkin

Kari's underlying philosophy of work in the nonprofit sector is that we need to ensure equal and easy access to the things that make us who we are: the arts, culture, and lifelong learning. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, she received her Master’s of Nonprofit Organizations from Case Western Reserve University and is one of the co-founders of YNPN Cleveland. You can find her on Facebook,Twitter and LinkedIn, and access a report she helped research and write here.

1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed reading this review. Decisive seems like it will be a witty and engaging book to check out. I appreciate the WRAP concept and take these step this naturally. I am a big fan of considering opposing viewpoints and posing what if scenarios under the premise of “expecting the best and preparing for the worse.” Thanks for your insight Kari.

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