The Secrets of Great Decision Makers

According to Decisive coauthor and ASAE 2013 Closing General Session speaker Dan Heath, a smart process can result in organizations that make better decisions.

Peter Drucker. Jim Collins. Jack Welch. To this list of storied and brilliant business minds, add one more name: David Lee Roth.

During the Closing General Session of the ASAE 2013 Annual Meeting & Expo, Decisive coauthor Dan Heath laid out a persuasive case for why the Van Halen frontman (and erstwhile talk-radio host and EMT) qualifies as a brilliant decision maker. The band’s infamous tour-rider edict that its dressing room have a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown ones removed, Heath explained, wasn’t a way to arrogantly generate make-work for some poor roadie. It was a clever method for the band to ensure that the particulars of the rest of the contract weren’t ignored. A bowl of M&Ms with the brown ones present was a “tripwire” to signal that something wasn’t being paid attention to.

It’s an idea Heath suggested leaders can apply in their own organizations when they want to try new ideas but also want to make sure they don’t throw the organization off course.

Adding even one more option can boost your odds of success.

According to one study cited by Heath, 60 percent of executives said poor decisions were made in their organizations as often as good ones. But he laid out four tips for how organizations can develop better decision-making habits and insulate themselves from the worst-case scenarios that can stem from bad decisions.

1. Widen your options. Leaders often make the mistake of thinking that they are faced with a binary choice, when in fact they may have a wider array of options. Heath encouraged attendees to take a close look at cases like hiring to make sure that they keep digging for find more candidates to choose from. “Adding even one more option can boost your odds of success,” he said.

  1. Reality-test your assumptions. Leaders can often suffer from a bad case of confirmation bias—an eagerness to hear information that supports our assumptions, while tuning out the information that might contradict it. To counteract that flaw, Heath recommended doing something he calls “ooching”—crafting a small experiment to test out whether an assumption is true. Think a potential new hire will be a great fit for your organization? Give him or her a real-world job task in addition to an interview. And ask the people in your office with new ideas to devise ways to legitimately test them before giving a final sign-off.

3. Attain some distance before deciding. If somebody says they trust their gut, watch out. “Our guts are good witnesses, but they are not to be the judge,” Heath says. The way to avoid rash, emotional decisions is not necessarily to give a decision more time, but more distance. Heath recommended asking yourself: “What would you tell your best friend to do in this situation?” That shift in perspective can suggest a better option and prevent your own fears from clouding your thinking.

4. Prepare to be wrong. That is, cultivate your inner Diamond Dave: When you’re making a big new move, find ways to signal when something isn’t working and specify how you’ll adjust. If you have an idea for an ambitious new membership campaign, go for it, but make a plan for cutting it off if the percentages aren’t high enough. Decide to make no changes to your succession plan, but make certain to reconvene if a senior VP leaves.

All of which won’t prevent every bad decision, Heath said, but it can help us avoid what people say they most often regret toward the end of their lives: not making bolder decisions. “We will never be perfect,” Heath said. “But we can be better.”

In his presentation, Heath laid out a convincing argument about Van Halen singer David Lee Roth's decision-making skills. (photo by Joe Bielawa/Flickr)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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