Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Talk About Decision Making from Dan Heath Resonates with Many Booksellers.

In 2013, the Winter Institute had two plenary sessions with noted authors, Daniel Pink, and Malcolm Gladwell. I wound up reading both books, and then wound up hosting Gladwell as well. His talk turned out to be completely different from the one he gave in Kansas City, but judging from the crowd's reaction (and no complaints and all, this really floors me), he was triumphant.

So I approached my conference this year thinking that reading the book afterwards was likely to be a rewarding experience, especially when I saw that Dan Heath was the opener. They made it easy for me, as the second day was a panel of the Seattle7Writers, and it wasn't the kind of talk where you read the panelists' books afterwards. It did make me want to click through to every members' website and see who only links to Amazon, however.

While Dan Heath's book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work (Crown Business) written with his brother Chip, was not brand new, we are all aware that successful business books have relatively long shelf lives, and his talk could make a difference in our lives, our work, and the book's sale.

The premise that Dan Heath (photo from his website) makes is that most people are bad decision makers. Among other striking finds was that 83% of corporate mergers do not add value to companies. So apparently there are four villains of decision making, and four ways to address them, which form the handy acronym WRAP. Now one of my tests of an acronym is whether I can memorize what each letter stands for, like Hudson, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior. In this case W = widen your options, R = reality test your assumptions, A = attain distance and P = prepare to be wrong.  OK, I was slightly off; it was "attain distance before deciding."

Like many of these books, there are lots of real-world examples and studies and corporate missteps (like Quaker Oats buying Snapple) and agile change decisions (like Intel getting out of the memory business). What's good about Heath's book, is that his strategies work equally well for large corporations and small businesses. The other problem I note with some business books, and this is rarely why we do offsites for them, is that they are meant to help the business, not the individual, and that means the attendees expect the company to buy the book for them in bulk. I could see Decisive resonating with a business person as a way to attain his or her personal success in a company.

Amie, who attended the session with me, and I talked about the take-aways we got from the session. Try not to frame decisions as whether or not; add another option or two. Look to experts when possible; that's we are loyal contributors to the ABACUS survey, an annual report of bookseller success which looks at different variables and how they affect profitability. Amie was very hot on Heath's tripwire concept, where you use different variables to make or revisit decisions. That might mean testing an idea for three months, or making a decision to create a position when a certain segment of our business hit a percentage of sale.

So here are two things I've found myself doing after reading Decisive:
1. I really am trying to add at least one more option to every decision process, if not two or three
2. I've never tried to oversell the bookstore in employee interviews, but I find myself pointing out the store's flaws more aggressively than before, thinking about where folks come in with expectations that might not be met. Alas, I'm not planning to pay folks $4000 to drop out of the running, a la Zappos.

I'm hoping I will come up with more in time.

In the end, a small business in general, and bookselling in particular, is a crapshoot. We're really at the mercy of outside forces, and some changes we'll be able to make the right decisions on and will be able to roll with, and others, like if Amazon is able to destroy the process of distribution and sale of print books, will be harder to adapt to. Well, they will have their hands full building the new cloud for the CIA. Apparently they are still fighting with IBM over this.

While this is my first Heath Brothers title completely read, I think I still have a copy of Made to Stick somewhere on my shelves. I seem to remember they were one of the 800-CEO-Read success stories, and was definitely my former-sister-company-when-I-worked-at-Schwartz's business book of the year at heir awards. I'm pretty sure they just had their most recent awards, and wondered which title exactly won. The winner turned out to be Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success, by G. Richard Shell. It's a living workbook to develop and achieve your success values. Read more about it on their blog. Oops, I am off topic again.

Back to Dan Heath and Decisive. From what I heard, a lot of booksellers were grateful for your talk, and were planning to thoughtfully incorporate your ideas into their everyday work lives. And for those who are not fans of magic eight balls, here's the jacket image on UK and Australian editions that incorporates roshambo imagery. I think that's pretty clever, better than the campaign button and pocket pen that still shows up in searches. The old cover turns into the new cover; another magic trick! In any case, thank you, Mr. Heath, for attending.

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