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Which Door to Choose?

By making savvier choices, club operators can make the value of exercise 'stick,' says this IHRSA 2014 keynoter 

CBI: The title of your presentation, “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work,” is both compelling and comprehensive. A little preview, please.

DAN HEATH: Our businesses thrive—or struggle—based on the quality of the decisions we make. And, yet, we pay surprisingly little attention to improving our decision-making. A recent study asked more than 2,200 managers to evaluate the decisions made by their organizations, and 60% of them said that bad choices were made about as frequently as good ones. That’s a pretty lousy track record! In my presentation, I’ll discuss the most common decision-making traps that we fall into and offer some specific tips for avoiding them.

CBI: One of the more provocative ideas you’ve offered is that, basically, people are biologically hard-wired to act irrationally. Can you explain what you mean?

DH: People have been studying decisions for a very long time. But, traditionally, most of the emphasis has been on the problems involved in the decision-making process—the biases and irrationalities we’re all prone to. Our approach was to flip the equation, and ask not, “What are the problems?” but, rather, “What are the solutions here?” We already know that people tend to fall into certain traps. So how can they avoid them? How can we help them make better decisions?

CBI: One of the traps that you identify is “gut instinct.” Why should we be wary of that, particularly when making business decisions?

DH: The research is clear about this: We should only trust our “instinct” in situations where our “gut” has been properly trained. What that requires is a predictable environment—one that’s predicated on a history of lots of repetition and quick feedback on the choices made. So, if you’re an NFL quarterback choosing which receiver to hit with a pass, then, yes, trust your gut, because you’ve practiced this move thousands of times, and, in each case, you immediately knew whether you’d made a good decision. But, if you’re hiring a general manager for your club, you probably shouldn’t trust your gut. In all likelihood, you’ve hired dozens, not thousands, of people, and it could take months or years before you know whether you’ve made the right call.

CBI: Another trap you call attention to is the fact that our decisions are often colored by personal biases. What’s the solution for that problem?

DH: We tend, for instance, to be overconfident about our choices—to have too much faith that they’ll pan out the way we think, or hope, they will. That’s a bias that can lead to our being blindsided by unexpected events. One way to correct for that bias is to employ a clever technique created by the psychologist Gary Klein. He devised a process that he called the “premortem.” The premortem takes place right after you’ve made an important decision. You sit down with your team and say, “O.K., we’ve just made a decision. Let’s imagine that it’s a year from now, and our decision proved a total fiasco. What went wrong?” Everyone prepares lists of disaster scenarios and compares notes. Then, you say, “Given what we’ve foreseen, how can we avoid as many of those negative outcomes as possible?” In other words, a premortem forces us to be humble enough to ask, “If I’m wrong, what then?”

CBI: In one of your best-selling books, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, you suggest that making lasting changes in a company can be difficult because the rational mind often conflicts with the emotional mind.

DH: There are two sides to the way we human beings think about any given issue. There’s the rational, analytical, problem-solving side of our brain, which, for example, may think, “I need to eat less.” But then, there’s the emotional side of our brain, which is addicted to impulse or comfortable routines, and that side says, “I want a cookie.” At work, the rational side may be convinced that the club needs to move in a different direction. The emotional side, though, is comfortable with the old way of doing things, and may be anxious, concerned about whether the change will work or if it’s worth the effort.

My favorite metaphor for this dynamic comes from the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who describes a person riding an elephant. The rider, who represents our analytical side, decides, “I need to go somewhere. Here’s the direction I want to go.” And he sets off. But it’s the elephant, the emotional side, that’s providing the power. The rider can try to guide the elephant, but, in any direct contest of wills, the elephant, with its six-ton weight advantage, is going to be the winner.

So part of achieving change, in our lives and organizations, has to do with aligning both sides of the brain— indicating the direction for the rider, and providing the motivation to get the elephant to make the journey.

CBI: You’ve identified a number of obstacles to making intelligent, effective decisions. What, to your way of thinking, is the single most-critical impediment to successful change?

DH: It’s our misplaced focus. Psychology tells us that people are wired to look for, and to focus on, the negative. We tend to analyze things that aren’t working and, then, try to fix them. But, let’s face it, in times of change, there are frequently a lot of things that aren’t working. To think about fixing them all is overwhelming. So don’t!

Instead, ask yourself a question: What’s working well today, and how can we do more of it? That’s a philosophy we call “finding the bright spots.”

If you’re a club owner struggling with change—find your bright spots. Who are your best employees, and what do they have to impart? What sort of background did they have? How did you recruit them? Are they behaving in ways that other employees could learn from? Conversely, if you’ve got an employee who’s giving you trouble, switch your focus and ask, “When was the last time they did a good job with something?”

If you can figure out when that person succeeds, you can, potentially, replicate that situation. And what about your customers? What do you know about the last 20 people who joined your club? Where did they come from? How did they find out about you?

The point is: There always are lessons to be learned from success—even limited success.

CBI: One of your other ground-breaking books, Made to Stick, makes another important point—about the difference between “sticky” ideas that are “truthful” and work, or ideas that are “false” and don’t work. How do you distinguish between them?

DH: Consider JFK’s speech from 1961. In it, he challenged the nation to put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by 1970. That’s a sticky idea that captured the imagination and motivated millions of Americans for the better part of a decade. The “man-on- the-moon” idea perfectly captures the six principles that the best sticky ideas tend to share. It’s a message that’s simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and a little story. Think about the concreteness, in particular. Was there a single person on the planet who didn’t understand exactly what success would look like?

That’s remarkable! A lot of organizations—and individuals—could learn from that example of clarity.

If JFK had been a modern-day politician or CEO, he’d probably have said, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry, using our capacity for technological innovation to build a bridge towards humanity’s future.” That would have set a moonwalk back 15 years.

CBI: How would you suggest club owners make the idea that regular exercise is one of the keys to a healthier and happier life—how can they make that stick? How can they make it credible to a larger percentage of the population?

DH: Trust me, if I had a slam-dunk answer to that question, I’d have been trying to “make it stick” for years myself. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. But, generally speaking, there are two strategies for making an idea credible. You can rely on “external credibility”—by, for instance, getting celebrities or health experts to vouch for it. You get Oprah to endorse your diet, or the Surgeon General to approve of your exercise plan.

The other strategy is to employ “internal credibility”—that is, to make your idea inherently believable and fully able to stand on its own. So you could say something like, “Think about the last time you went for a jog or took a long walk. How did you feel afterwards? Pretty good, right? Don’t you want to feel that way more often?”

Notice how that approach makes the audience the boss. They get to judge for themselves whether your idea is credible. There’s a downside, of course. If people feel that exercising is horrible, then they’d find your proposition noncredible. But I suspect that there aren’t too many people who feel that way. So what I’d challenge club owners to think about is this: Rather than “pushing” exercise on people, can you “pull it” from within them? Can you draw on their common sense and their own life experiences to make your industry’s defining message credible?  




Dan Heath will speak on the topic of “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work,” 9:30–11 a.m., on Thursday, March 13, during IHRSA’s 33rd Annual International Convention & Trade Show in San Diego, California. His presentation is generously sponsored by Technogym. Heath’s best-selling book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard can be purchased from the IHRSA Store at To register for the convention, log on to


Dan Heath earned a BA from the University of Texas at Austin and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Currently, Heath is a senior fellow at Duke University’s CASE center, which supports social entrepreneurship. He and his brother, Chip, are the coauthors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007); Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (2010); and Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work (2013). Made to Stick was named the Best Business Book of the Year in 2007 and spent 24 months on the BusinessWeek bestseller list.’s editors named Switch one of the Best Nonfiction Books of the Year for 2010, and it spent 47 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Both books have been translated into over 25 languages. Decisive, which was released in March 2013, debuted at No. 1 on the Wall Street Journal business bestseller list.

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