Decisions, Decisions…

UPDATED: December 17, 2013
PUBLISHED: December 17, 2013

During his career as head coach of the New York Giants and Jets, New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys football teams, Bill Parcells established himself as a remarkable pundit, just as Vince Lombardi had during his tenure as the championship-winning coach of the Green Bay Packers a generation earlier. A New Jersey smart aleck and an intimidator (compared to Lombardi’s inspirational slant), Parcells was at heart a pragmatist. One of his most lasting lessons sounds like a comment on the stock market, but has almost endless applications:

“Some say it’s going up. Some say it’s going down. Whatever you do is wrong. Act immediately.”

The same idea is at the core of the most recent book from Chip and Dan Heath, DECISIVE: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. The Heaths found a number of barriers that people set in their decision-making process will ultimately lead to poor, slow choices. It’s not possible to make the optimal decision in every situation, they say. The key is to properly evaluate each option, as well as others that might not be so natural to consider.

Chip, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Dan, a senior fellow at Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship, had two previous best-sellers together. First came 2007’s Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, followed in 2010 by Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.

To stop spinning your wheels when searching for the right answer, the Heaths say in their latest guidebook for organizational leaders, the key may be to change your perspective. And sometimes, as shown in this excerpt they wrote for SUCCESS, the right answer to an agonizing question may be more obvious than you think.

The Narrow Frame Problem

From DECISIVE: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, by Chip and Dan Heath

Steve Cole, the vice president of research and development at HopeLab, a Silicon Valley-based 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? Surprisingly often, it’s feasible to do both things.”

For one major project, Cole and his team at HopeLab wanted to find a partner, a firm that could help them design a device to measure the amount of exercise kids were getting.

There were at least seven or eight 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.” He shrank 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. (To be clear, he wasn’t quintupling his budget—as a nonprofit, HopeLab didn’t have unlimited resources. Cole knew that what he’d learn from the first round would make the later rounds more efficient.)

With his horse race, Cole ensured 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’s strategy is a smart way to combat “narrow framing,” a common decision-making trap. We tend 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 buy a new car or not? instead of, What’s the best way I could spend some money to make my family happier?

Cole, with his “horse race,” broke out of that trap by considering multiple options simultaneously. This wasn’t a popular idea at first; he had to fight for the concept internally. “At first my colleagues thought I was insane. At the beginning it costs some money and takes some time. 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. And when all of those five firms know that there are four other shops involved, they bring their best game.”

One way to fight narrow framing, then, is to “think AND not OR.” Rather than choosing one vendor, Cole chose five, which dramatically expanded the knowledge and experience he could draw on for future decisions.

Another way to break out of a narrow frame involves eliminating, rather than expanding, your set of options. We’ll call it the “Vanishing Options Test.” Imagine that Aladdin’s Genie has an eccentric older brother who, instead of granting three wishes to a person, arbitrarily takes options away.

Ask yourself the following question:

You cannot choose any of the current options you’re considering. What else could you do?

To see how the Vanishing Options Test can help you evade a narrow frame, consider a conversation we had with Margaret Sanders, the director of career services for a graduate school of government. (Names in this case study are disguised to prevent embarrassment.)

Sanders was struggling with a tough decision: Should she tolerate a marginally performing employee or, as she put it, “begin the ridiculously long and tedious process for documentation of poor performance that can eventually lead to termination”?

The employee in question was her administrative assistant, Anna, who had two primary responsibilities. First, she handled administrative tasks, such as tracking expenses and managing the group’s database, and second, she served as the “front door”—the face of the office, the first point of contact for students seeking jobs or for recruiters seeking students. While Anna was good with the first set of tasks, she struggled with the social aspect of her job. She was much more introverted than Sanders realized when she interviewed Anna for the job. “I think it hurts for her to talk to people,” said Sanders. Unfortunately, the social side of the job was critical, and Anna’s shyness made the center less effective.

But firing Anna was not an easy answer. The university had strict protocols for handling terminations. It would be many months, Sanders knew, before Anna would be gone—if she was gone at all—and in the meantime, it would be incredibly awkward to work with her in an intimate office of five people.

Dan had the chance to speak with Sanders as she was agonizing about whether or not to fire Anna.

To interrupt the story for a moment, that phrase “whether or not” is a classic warning signal that the decision-maker may be caught in a narrow frame. It means that she is considering only a single option, and the “decision” boils down to a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

So, in keeping with that idea, Dan tried pushing Sanders with the Vanishing Options Test:

Dan Heath: Imagine that I told you you’re stuck with Anna indefinitely, AND you can’t rely on her to be the “front door.” She cannot be the face of the office anymore. What would you do?

Margaret Sanders: Hmmm.… We could move her out of the front door and try to staff the front door differently. Maybe the professional staff could take an hour each, and we could get some work-study students to fill in the rest of the time.

Dan Heath: Is that a viable option? Could you afford to hire work-study students?

Margaret Sanders: They are super-cheap. We pay only about 25 percent of their hourly rate, which comes out to about $2.50  per hour.

Notice how easy it was for Sanders to break out of her narrow frame with a bit of prodding. It took less than a minute for her to generate another reasonable option—to hire work-study students to serve as the “front door,” with Anna shifting to full-time administrative duties. It was an option that would fix the problem and cost only $20 per day. (Not to mention the benefit from the extra time Anna could spend on database or accounting work.)

The breakthrough that Margaret Sanders experienced is not unusual. When people imagine that they cannot have an option, they are forced to expand their thinking, shifting their focus for the first time in a long while.

The old quote “Necessity is the mother of invention” seems to apply here. Until we are forced to dig up a new option, we’re likely to stay fixated on the ones we already have. So our eccentric genie, who seems on first glance to be cruel—he’s taking away our options!—may actually be kind-hearted.

Removing options can actually do people a favor, because it makes them notice that they’re stuck on one small patch of a wide landscape.

Reprinted from the book DECISIVE: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Copyright © 2013 by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Co.

David Bach is a 10-times New York Times best-selling author. His most recent book is The Latte Factor, a little story you can read in less than a few hours to help you live your richest life. Join David on Instagram @davidlbach and his website,