For nine months, I (Jake) had been planning my community’s largest annual outreach event for junior high students. Nearly 1,500 had already purchased tickets for an all-night lock-in consisting of all-you-can-eat pizza, non-stop games, and most importantly, no sleep. The event was a 25-year tradition and a rite of passage for many 11-14 year-olds.
But three days before the event, we hit a problem.
I was on the phone with the City Public Health Director. In less than a week, a serious virus had swept through twenty-five area junior high schools, and nearly twenty percent of the city’s students were home sick. On the phone, he said, “Let me get this straight… One out of every five students already has this virus. You want to gather 1,500 of them, stay up all night and weaken their immune systems, move them around in buses, and make them play games and interact in small indoor spaces? You’ll effectively transport this virus to every family in the community. I’m begging you to cancel this event!”
I really didn’t want to cancel.
Each year, hundreds of unchurched students got connected to churches through this event. Given the scale, it was impossible to reschedule. Plus it meant a lot of time, money, and excitement washed down the drain.
I had a difficult decision to make.
As leaders, we are faced with hundreds of decisions in our lives and ministries every single day. Some are important and life changing:
- Should I stay in my job or quit?
- Do I marry him (or her)?
- Do I confront my friend about that conflict, or just let it go?
Others are (arguably) less important:
- What should I have for breakfast?
- Tall, Grande, or Venti?
- The red shirt or that new green plaid one?
While we all know it’s important to make good choices, when was the last time you actually reflected on your decision-making process?
Perhaps you make a list of the pros and cons. Or you pray, and wait for God to reveal the right answer. What about the really big decisions that might affect dozens or, in the situation above, thousands of people? Do you use the same process or a different approach?
How do you decide?
Calling for Help from the Experts
In order to help people make better decisions, New York Times best-selling authors Chip and Dan Heath researched the best decision-making literature available. They share the findings in their new book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. The rest of this article lets you peek into the insights provided in Decisive, focusing on the principles and practices most relevant to youth workers and church leaders.
The Decision-Making Process
To begin, think about a decision you made in the last week. It might have been at work, with your family, or while you were getting ready this morning. As you made that decision, chances are you went through the following four steps: 1
- You encountered a choice.
- You analyzed your options.
- You made a choice.
- You lived with the decision you made.
Most of us wouldn’t argue deeply with that framework. But what really happened? We might not be aware of as much of that decision-making process as we think.
Villains of Decision-Making
The challenge, explain the authors, is that this process does not exist in isolation. There are villains that plague each of these steps: 2
- As you encountered a choice, narrow framing made you miss other options.
Narrow framing is the tendency to focus on one option and ignore the others. You may narrowly frame a decision as, “Should I quit my job or not?” instead of additional questions like, “What are the ways I could make my job better?”
- As you analyzed your options, confirmation bias led you to gather self-serving information.
“Confirmation bias” is the human habit of forming a quick belief about a situation and then looking for information that builds or affirms your belief. The authors share the example that when someone asks, “Do these jeans make me look fat?,” he or she is often seeking reassurance rather than the truth.
- When you made a choice, short-term emotions may have tempted you to make the wrong one.
Perhaps you’ve purchased a car (or cell phone, outfit, etc.) from an experienced sales person. The purchase may have felt so right when you were in the store, but once you were home, you immediately regretted it. Chances are your short-term emotions were responsible.
- As you live with the decision you’ve made, you’ll often be overconfident about how the future will unfold.
The challenge of confidence about the future is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Your church may have developed the best outreach strategy in the world, and as a result you’re confident hundreds of people will join your church. But what happens if the largest employer (or two) in your community shuts down and half the town moves away?
How to WRAP up those Villains
While understanding the decision-making process and villains is helpful, thankfully Chip and Dan don’t stop there. They also suggest strategies for defeating each of the villains, and in the long run, to make better decisions. They refer to this as the WRAP model: 3
Widen Your Options.
Reality-Test your Assumptions.
Attain Distance Before Deciding.
Prepare to Be Wrong.
Strategy One: Widen Your Options
The first villain of decision-making is that narrow framing makes you miss other options. To fight this, you can first widen your options by asking questions like: 4
- What am I giving up by making this choice? As you consider this question, new opportunities will likely emerge.
- If I couldn’t select any of the options I’m currently considering, what else could I do? As your current options vanish, you’ll likely discover new ones.
Second, you can multitrack, which means to consider more than one option simultaneously. If you find yourself stuck in planning a new program or ministry, it might be helpful to ask six different people to brainstorm ideas on their own. Then, bring them together and have everyone share what they came up with. You’ll probably see possibilities you didn’t consider before.
Third, try to find someone who’s already solved your problem. While this may seem obvious, it’s amazing how often we fail to do so. You might be able to find another person or organization that has solved the same problem. You might also be able to look inside your self or organization to identify “bright spots.” 5 If you were trying to exercise regularly, a bright spot would be several times in the last month when you actually went to the gym.
Strategy Two: Reality-Test Your Assumptions
The second villain, confirmation bias, leads you to seek information that will confirm your original assumption. To fight this, try to consider the opposite of your instincts or ask questions that would disconfirm your assumption. 6
Next, try to zoom out (by looking at statistics or getting an outsider’s perspective of your situation) and zoom in (by getting close enough to the situation so you can trust your instincts). For example, users on a website like Yelp may give a restaurant low ratings overall (zooming out), but the text of the reviews might rave about the chips and salsa (zooming in), which is the one thing you really wanted! Finally, you can run smaller experiments that allow you to test your theories before making a final decision.
Strategy Three: Attain Distance Before Deciding
The third villain, short-term emotion, can lead you to make the wrong decision compulsively. It’s important to attain some emotional distance before taking a big leap. 7
- One idea is to think through how you might feel about your decision 10 minutes from now, 10 months from now, and 10 years from now.
- Another idea is to ask, “What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?" 8
- A third is to identify your core priorities, which are your emotional goals, aspirations, and values that are important to you long term. Clarity on these core priorities will allow you to be more consistent and accurate in your choices.
Strategy Four: Prepare to Be Wrong
The fourth and final villain is over-confidence about the future. One helpful approach for fighting this is bookending, which is to consider a range of possible outcomes, from the very good to very bad. 9 Think ahead to one year from now, and what would have to happen for your decision to be a big success, a big failure, or somewhere in between.
Applying Decisive to Youth Ministry and Church Leadership: Q & A with Chip Heath
Beyond being a best selling author and professor at Stanford University, Chip Heath is also a friend of the Fuller Youth Institute and a Sunday school teacher at his home church. Below, he’s answered several of our questions about how to apply his research to youth ministry and church leadership:
What is particularly challenging about the decision environment of ministry leaders?
Only a foolhardy Fortune 500 CEO would dare to trade decision environments with a minister—business is way easier. In business we air out the arguments and then the boss decides. The issues are typically fact-based. In contrast, ministry leaders must often shepherd groups through highly emotional decisions and in church settings, we’re often trying to reach consensus. That means that, as a ministry leader, your skills as a decision coach are particularly important.
How are teenagers unique in their decision making?
They’re not. A few years ago researchers were agonizing about teens framing their decisions too narrowly. 70% of the time when a teen was making a decision they were considering only one alternative. That was shocking! Then some different researchers looked at how many alternatives were being considered by adults who were making big decisions at their workplaces. Turns out the adults were considering only one alternative 71% of the time. In terms of biased decision-making, we share a lot in common with our teenage selves (albeit with less acne).
How does God’s will factor into the decision making process?
Agonizing decisions often become less agonizing when we think about our core priorities. Our priority as Christians is to respect God’s will, but often it’s hard to stay in touch with that when facing the emotions of a tough decision. That’s where something like 10/10/10 can help—the 10 month and 10 year time frames are more likely to prompt us to think about God’s intentions.
Why is thinking about what advice you’d give your best friend so effective?
Research has shown that when we give advice to someone else we focus on the most important dimension of a choice. We might get caught up in a spat over a small point of difference, but our friends can say, “Look, just concede the point; it’s minor compared to the value of your relationship.” When we imagine advising a friend who is in our situation, we turn that eye for the most important inward on ourselves.
How has studying decision-making changed the way you make decisions as a leader? How about as a parent?
As a leader it’s focused me more on process. Leaders can build routines that help repair biases of decision making. For example, groups consider a wider set of options when, just before a group discussion, everyone just takes a moment to write down their preferred alternative before the discussion starts. That prevents the group from getting on a roll with the first alternative that is thrown out and never considering others. That’s an example of the kinds of simple repairs you should look to implement as a leader.
As a parent I’ve gotten more interested in trying to teach my girls, ages 6 and 11, the value of thinking consciously about the decision process. I suspect my efforts will come back to haunt me when they reach the teen years: I imagine them saying, “Look, Dad, I think you may have a bit of a confirmation bias against this trip. Can we widen our options here?”
Resources to Go Deeper:
While this article provides a basic introduction to Decisive, we strongly recommend you read the book in order to discover many more stories, strategies, case studies, and answers to practical questions. You can also visit http://heathbrothers.com/resources/overview/ for more helpful leadership resources.