Chip Heath and Olivier Sibony on “Making great decisions”

Heath & Sibony (L)Here is an excerpt from the transcript of a conversation featured by The McKinsey Quarterly during which Stanford’s Chip Heath and McKinsey’s Olivier Sibony discuss new research, fresh frameworks, and practical tools for decision makers. To read the complete transcript, check out other resources, learn more about McKinsey & Company, and register for Quarterly email alerts, please click here.

Source: Strategy Practice

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Every few years, Stanford University professor Chip Heath and his brother, Dan, a senior fellow at Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE), distill decades of academic research into a tool kit for practitioners. The bicoastal brothers offered advice on effective communications in Made to Stick, on change management in Switch, and now, in their new book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, on making good decisions. It’s a topic that McKinsey’s Olivier Sibony has been exploring for years in his work with senior leaders of global companies and in a number of influential publications. 1

Chip and Olivier recently sat down to compare notes on what matters most for senior leaders who are trying to boost their decision-making effectiveness. Topics included Heath’s new book, research Sibony and University of Sydney professor Dan Lovallo have under way on the styles of different decision makers, and practical tips that they’ve found make a big difference. The discussion, moderated by McKinsey’s Allen Webb, represents a state-of-the-art tour for senior executives hoping to help their organizations, and themselves, become more effective by benefiting from the core insight of behavioral economics: systematic tendencies to deviate from rationality influence all of our decision making.

The Quarterly: What’s the current state of play in real-world efforts to improve decision processes through behavioral economics?

Olivier Sibony: The point we haven’t conveyed effectively enough is that however aware you are of biases, you won’t necessarily be immune. You should see yourself as the architect of the decision-making process, not as a great decision maker enhanced by the knowledge of your biases.

Chip Heath: The analogy I like is how we handle problems with memory. The solution isn’t to focus harder on remembering; it’s to use a system like a grocery-store list. We’re now in a position to think about the decision-making equivalent of the grocery-store list.

Olivier Sibony: We’re doing ourselves a disservice by calling it a decision-making process, because the word “process,” as you point out in your book —-

Chip Heath: —- It’s boring.

Olivier Sibony: It immediately conjures up images of bureaucracy and slowness and decisions by committee—all things associated with bad management.

Chip Heath: Early in the history of decision making, people were optimistic about a better process called decision analysis. But nobody ever used it, because very few people have the math chops to fold back probabilities in a three-layer decision tree. The process that we’re advocating runs away from decision analysis and bureaucracy. We wanted some tools that someone could use in five or ten minutes that may not make the decision perfect but will improve it substantially.

Olivier Sibony: There are individual solutions and organizational solutions. Perhaps because we’re a consulting firm, we tend to look for organizational solutions. In an article you wrote long ago, Chip, you quote somebody who asks something like, “If people are so bad at making decisions, how did we make it to the moon?” Your answer was that individuals didn’t make it to the moon; NASA did. 2 That insight has been translated into all sorts of operational decision making. It is the fundamental insight behind work in continuous improvement—for instance, when people are trained to go beyond the superficial, proximate cause of a problem by asking “five whys.”

But we don’t apply that insight when we move from shop floors to boardrooms. Partly, that’s because of a lack of awareness. Partly, it’s because the further up the hierarchy you go, the harder it becomes to say, “My judgment is fallible.” Corporate cultures and incentives reward the kind of decision making where you take risks and show confidence and decisiveness, even if sometimes it’s really overconfidence. Recognizing uncertainty and doubt—it’s not the style many executives have when they get to the top.

Chip Heath: Yes, but we’re never really sure when we’re being overconfident and when we’re being appropriately confident. That’s where we go back to processes.

Olivier Sibony: It’s a lot easier to say, “Let’s build a good process so your direct reports have better recommendations for you” than “Let’s come up with a process for you to be challenged by other people.”

Chip Heath: I love that emphasis: “We’re going to help others get you the right recommendations.” We all tend to believe “I’m not subject to biases.” But we can easily believe that others are. I’m curious about your batting average, Olivier. Suppose you walk into an executive group and start talking about the behavioral research and how they could change their processes to overcome biases. Are a third of the people interested? Five percent?

Olivier Simony: If we tell the story like that, it’s zero. But exactly as you just suggested, a lot of executives are open to discussing how their teams could help them make better decisions. So we will say, for example, “Let’s talk about what works and what doesn’t work in your strategic-planning process.” We don’t talk about biases, because no one wants to be told they’re biased; it’s a word with horrible, negative connotations. Instead, we observe that people typically make predictable mistakes in their planning process—for instance, getting anchored on last year’s numbers. That’s OK because we are identifying best practices. We end up embedding this thinking into processes that generate better strategic plans, R&D choices, or M&A decisions.

Chip Heath: The process changes don’t have to be very big. Ohio State University professor Paul Nutt spent a career studying strategic decisions in businesses and nonprofits and government organizations. The number of alternatives that leadership teams consider in 70 percent of all important strategic decisions is exactly one. Yet there’s evidence that if you get a second alternative, your decisions improve dramatically.

One study at a medium-size technology firm investigated a group of leaders who had made a set of decisions ten years prior. They were asked to assess how many of those decisions turned out really well, and the percentage of “hits” was six times higher when the team considered two alternatives rather than just one.


1 See, for example, Dan Lovallo and Olivier Sibony, “The case for behavioral strategy,”, March 2010; and Daniel Kahneman, Dan Lovallo, and Olivier Sibony, “Before you make that big decision,” Harvard Business Review, June 2011, Volume 89, Number 6, pp. 50–60.

2 See Chip Heath, Richard Larrick, and Joshua Klayman, “Cognitive repairs: How organizational practices can compensate for individual shortcomings,” Research in Organizational Behavior, 1998, Volume 20, pp. 1–37.

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To read the complete transcript of this conversation, please click here.

This discussion was moderated by Allen Webb, editor in chief of The McKinsey Quarterly, who is based in McKinsey’s Seattle office.

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