Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.

Author:Sweeney, Paul
Position:Book review

By Chip Health and Dan Heath Crown Business, 216 pages, $26.00

For 400 years, the Catholic Church maintained an office of devil's advocate. Known officially as the promotor fidei, "promoter of the faith," it was his role to argue against a candidate for sainthood by surfacing contrary arguments in situations where skepticism is unlikely to surface naturally.

The U.S. Department of Defense has used a "murder board" staffed with experienced officers to try to kill ill-conceived missions. At one point, the senior leadership at The Walt Disney Co. used a Gong Show format to evaluate ideas pitches for movies or theme park rides.

So should U.S. corporations begin staffing a formal office of naysayers? Not necessarily, note authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath in Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. "The most important lesson to learn about devil's advocacy," the authors write, is "the need to interpret criticism as a noble function." In other words, say the Heath brothers in this deftly written book, both of whom are top business school professors (Chip at Stanford University; Dan at Duke University), it's always a good idea to widen your options.

Consider the case of William Smithburg. In 1983, as CEO of Quaker Oats Co., he made the bold decision to acquire the parent company of Gatorade for $220 million. "Smithburg made the Gatorade purchase impulsively, basing the acquisition on his taste buds; he tried the product and he liked it." When the value of the Gatorade purchase grew to $3 billion, he was hailed as a genius.

Flash forward a decade. Smithburg steered Quaker Oats into purchasing another beverage company, Snapple, for $1.8 billion. Unfortunately, "it was a fiasco." Snapple, maker of teas and juices, lost its image as well as money under Quaker Oats' ownership. Drowning in debt, Quaker Oats dumped Snapple for a fraction of the purchase price. Smithburg too was soon sent packing.


What went wrong? Not only did the CEO base the deal on "gut instinct" but he never consulted a naysayer. This, despite a bevy...

To continue reading