Our Chief Editor Dr Katherine Firth offers a list of must-read books for better decision-making.

An open reading list, or open syllabus, is designed to offer an introduction to the ‘literature’ in a field. It’s a way for someone who is just getting started to identify the major works, the foundational texts, but also to develop a more rounded understanding of the issues through incorporating contrasting approaches and points of view. We suggest some of the expected classics of the business thinking literature, and some more diverse, provocative or experimental approaches. As an open list, the books and articles recommended are typically available at mass-market prices, from your local city library, or open-access online.

Decision-making in a complex, fast-paced and unprecedented time may be messy and imperfect. Many of the books here recognise that we make decisions in habitual, non-rational, emotional or speculative ways: some work to help us access our logical, calm and intentional decisions, others offer strategies to develop better habits, emotions and guesses. These are books I have read, enjoyed, and found made me think more deeply about how or why we make decisions. Some of these approaches I have found useful in teaching others to make decisions, some I have incorporated into my own practice, and some have just been interesting ways to unsettle my assumptions.

A semester is 12 weeks long, and a quarterly journal typically gives you about the same amount of time before the next issue arrives. However, an Open Syllabus differs from a university syllabus in that no-one will be checking on your progress, there will be no pop quizzes and no exams. A reading list is, by definition, only a first glance at a field, and so many excellent books have not been included. For each book, there is also a follow-up text, sometimes another book in a similar vein, sometimes some academic research. Each area is a full specialisation in itself, so perhaps you will pick a trajectory and pursue that more deeply. Choose your own adventure, and reflect on what it means to make decisions.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (2011)

The classic text about decision-making, based on half a century of research and by a Nobel Prize winning economist, Thinking Fast and Slow identifies the different modes of thinking which influence our decisions, which he defines as System 1, automatic and quick decisions that use intuition, heuristics, biases, and habits; and System 2, which are about intentional, logical decisions using attention and effort, and that can be disrupted by interruptions. Kahnemann argues that most of our decisions are made in System 1 mode, both the source of most of our errors and most of our good decisions too.

Part 4, ‘Choices’ is particularly relevant to decision-making, identifying that people often make decisions to avoid negative outcomes, to avoid risk, loss or regret. Organisations, however, with their slower and more explicit decision-making processes, have the chance to disrupt System 1 decisions, helping individuals to make better decisions.

Kahnemann was highly influenced by a trader, philosopher and mathematician Nicholas Taleb, in Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2nd edition, 2010), particularly in Part 2, ‘Overconfidence’.

Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (2010, new edition 2020)

Brown starts where Kahnemann’s ‘Choices’ left off. Sometimes individuals are focused on making the ‘right’ decision because they are afraid of failing, they want to avoid feelings of shame and embarrassment. However, making choices to avoid potential negative outcomes can get in the way of making good, brave or exciting decisions. Brown’s book encourages readers to be vulnerable as a way to be strong and make decisions led by their values and passions, not by fear of getting it wrong. Perfectionism is impossible and counter-productive in fast-moving and complex environments, so embracing effective imperfection may be a more productive model.

Emotions are often at the centre of the way we make decisions, as Kahnemann also reminded us, so this book is helpful to think about whether emotions are about wanting the best for the whole team, or about avoiding individual feelings of inadequacy.

Brown is a prolific author in this field, and Rising Strong (2015) is another relevant addition to the reading list, about what to do after people make a mistake or fail, since even if the decision ended up not succeeding, failure is not the end of the story.

Edward de Bono, Six Thinking Hats (1985, updated edition 1999)

Having more than one person contributing to a decision, and consciously slowing down the decision-making process, can enable better and more thoughtful decisions. One strategy to achieve that is offered by philosopher Edward de Bono, with his six different ‘thinking hats’. Each hat can be used to encourage a particular kind of thinking, to try out different approaches to a single issue, or to assign roles to team members to robustly stress-test a decision. Each different hat uses a different decision-making approach: facts, emotions, caution, optimism, creativity or metacognition.

In explicitly giving people a way to think about thinking, de Bono offers a simple schemata for practical use. The metaphor of coloured hats that can be tried on and then taken off, is playful. Increasingly, research shows that play is a highly effective way to explore and rehearse potential paths of action.

In a sense, the hats function as dress-ups, and encourage play-acting. ‘Serious play’ is a widely-used model for exploring and developing decision-making skills by researchers, for example in Rumeser, David, and Margaret Emsley. ‘Can Serious Games Improve Project Management Decision Making Under Complexity?’ Project Management Journal 50, no. 1 (February 2019): 23–39.https://doi.org/10.1177/8756972818808982.

Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It (2015)

McGonigal brings her psychologist perspective to the benefits of stress. As the founder of modern medical stress studies, Hans Seyle argued: there is both ‘distress’, the bad stress that makes us unhappy and sick; and ‘eustress’, the good stress that makes us energised and excited. Stress can improve memory and focus, and can improve the ability to deal with fast- moving or risky situations. Thus good stress can be a useful tool in decision-making.

McGonigal uses the work of Alia Crum to encourage a deliberate use of choice in deciding on a stress mindset: that is not assuming that stress is always toxic or always beneficial, but rather taking a flexible and deliberate approach. Crum has a TEDx talk on mindsets (https://www. youtube.com/watch?v=0tqq66zwa7g), but to really explore the benefit of mindsets, the next step is to read Carole Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006, updated edition 2016).

Thich Nat Hanh. The Miracle of Mindfulness (1975)

The Vietnamese monk, Zen master and peace activist Thích Nhāt Hanh is widely credited as bringing the Buddhist practice of mindfulness to the West. Where many of the other books in this reading list focus on the past (through stories and memory) or the future (through predictions), this book brings attention specifically to the present moment and the present action. Using everyday actions, like washing dishes, eating a section of tangerine or walking along a path, Thích Nhāt Hanh encourages people to learn to do the action in the present moment, with full attention. If people ‘wash the dishes to wash the dishes’, he suggests, they will be fully present in their actions, calmer and more deliberate, and less overwhelmed by outside forces.

While the past and the future are significant in the ways people think about making decisions, the only time a decision can be made is in the present moment. Moreover, of course, the only time people are actually alive is in the present, so Thích Nhāt Hanh says that being distracted from the present means we are not fully living. Thích Nhāt Hanh also provides a model of meditation that, rather than clearing the mind completely, fills the mind with breath, awareness of the body, and of the moment. This kind of meditation was important to his choices in being active in the world.

Increasing research is showing the effectiveness of mindfulness for effective decision-making. If this path is one you want to walk further down, Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You: A Guide To Fearlessness (2001) may be the next step.

Barbara Scher, Refuse to Choose: Use all of your Interests, Passions, and Hobbies to create the life and career of your Dreams (2006)

Chiefs of Staff are often generalists, shifting diagonally across their careers from one technical area to another, to management and strategy and across to operations. Scher identifies a ‘scanner’ type, someone always keeping their eye on the horizon rather than diving deep into a specialism, with lots of passions and interests, who struggles to commit to just one project. Scher argues that rather than reflecting the failure to make a choice, this can be a strength.

The book is designed as a workbook, and identifies both the ‘scanner’ type (in contrast to the deep ‘diver’) but also multiple sub-types. There is increasing scepticism about the utility of typographies in the literature, from Myers-Briggs to Learning Styles to astrology, particularly when the typographies are used to limit or fix identities. Where the typographies can be used to expand the narratives about what is possible or beneficial, however, they can be useful.

For a profile of a diagonal pathway, Chief of Staff at Google Libby Dabrowski was inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s advice from Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (2015) in The Chief of Staff journal, December 2021 issue.

Jeremy Dean, Making habits, breaking habits: how to make changes that stick (2013)

Dean argues that if a third of people’s working hours are running on autopilot, then it’s important to ensure that the autopilot hours are aligned with what you actually want to do, and that your habitual decision-making processes are fit for your current role. Habits are efficient, quick and boring, so building habitual practices will help you keep up the pace and down the stress at work.

Dean goes beyond the simplistic mantra that you only need to do something for 21 days (especially for complex new habits), without falling into the fallacy that habits are just how we are and we can never change.

If you enjoyed the The Upside of Stress, you might want to jump into another book by Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (2011) which looks at the motivation and consistency to break habits.

Sara Ahmed, Willful subjects (2014)

A decision is an act of having a will, and attempting to impose that will on the world. This book is some pretty dense philosophy, by one of the most disruptive thinkers working currently in the field. Ahmed both expansively surveys the history of ideas on the will, from Augustine, Rousseau to Hegel and Arendt, and locates her explorations in those people who are socially discouraged from expressing their will. The metacognition about will, willingness and willfulness, in human beings, but also specifically in relation to gender, sexuality and race, is intended to disrupt assumptions about who is encouraged to exercise free will, and who should accept another’s will being imposed upon them, towards greater inclusion and freedom.

Research shows that we instinctively feel comfortable in homogenous teams, but actually make better decisions in diverse teams. The call for disrupting the status quo thus becomes both moral and practical. Ahmed’s argument is moral, she is interested in justice and liberation, impacting the political, economic and social realms. Not an easy read, but one that will make you think hard.

If you want to read the practical arguments for why diverse teams are more effective, see this overview by David Rock and Heidi Grant, ‘Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter’, in the Harvard Business Review (2016), https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-diverse-teams-are-smarter or go straight into the deep-dive research, for starters with Levine et al., ‘Ethnic diversity deflates price bubbles’, PNAS, (2014) https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1407301111 (open access)

Timothy D Wilson: Redirect: Changing the stories we live by (2011)

Writing as a psychologist, Wilson reminds us again that decision-making is not only about gathering data, analysing it and acting on it, but that people fit that data and decisions into bigger narratives about their lives and how the world works. Editing the story of our lives can help people to make more effective big-picture decisions, he argues, for example moving from ‘I made a mistake which proves I don’t belong in this position’ to ‘I made a mistake so I should take on feedback and next time I’ll do better’. As well as being shaped by reality, decisions in turn can create reality going forward.

Wilson’s book spends a lot of pages looking at how university student’s self-limiting beliefs impact their decisions about what careers and specialities to pursue. A common self-limiting belief is that some people are just no good at maths, and therefore must avoid any quantitative or technical fields of expertise. Barbara Oakley, in A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (2014), debunks this belief and demonstrates how anyone can learn to be good at numerical thinking.

Jennifer Ackerman, The Genius of Birds (2016)

Thinking about how animals make decisions—from creativity, tool use, awareness of other people and of the future—can also help us to reflect on how we make decisions. Animal brains are far more complex than we previously understood. ‘Bird brained’ is an insult that assumes that the smallness of avian brains was linked to simple intellectual abilities, however, we now know that birds have a different structure of the brain, densely packed with neurons. Birds are able to solve problems, using creativity, building tools and predicting others’ behaviour. They use curiosity, learned behaviour and instinctual reflexes in navigating the world.

If this line of reading takes you down a ‘rabbit-hole’ of animal cognition studies, you may also enjoy philosopher of science Peter Godfrey-Smith, in Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life (2018).

Vyāsa, ‘Bhagavad Gita’ in the Mahabharata (n.d.)

The ‘Bhagavad Gita’, a classic of Hindu philosophy, is a chapter in the epic Mahabharata where Arjuna is paralysed by doubt and feels unable to take the decision to fully defeat his cousins in the battle for the throne. By delaying, his charioteer avatar of the god Krishna reminds him, Arjuna is causing greater suffering for all. A reflection on duty, purpose, action and violence.

There are many translations of the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ into English. Gavin Flood and Charles Martin’s translation The Bhagavad Gita (2015) has good contextual material as Norton critical editions often do. If you want to read the Gita in the context of the sweeping Mahabharata, to fully understand the stakes, I recently enjoyed Carole Stayamurti’s translation of the Mahabharata (2020).

If you are inspired to unpack into other ancient reflections on decision-making, you might read next Marcus Aurelius Antonius (CE 121–180), Stoic philosophy and emperor of Rome on living according to your deepest principles and clearest attention during times of crisis and risk. Again, there are many translations, but Marcus Aurelius, Meditations: A New Translation, with an Introduction, by Gregory Hays (2003) is direct, immediate and powerful.

Jessica Dore Tarot for Change: Using the Cards for Self-care, Acceptance and Growth (2021)

For millennia, humans have used external tools of chance to help them make decisions: runes, dice, the entrails of animals, tea leaves, crystal balls, coins and cards. Such tools relieve the responsibility of choice making. Sometimes these tools are used to give a (random) answer, and sometimes they function as tools to provoke reflection. Dore is a licensed social worker with a background in psychology and behavioural science, and in this book she proposes a new way of looking at the tarot deck as a tool for reflection, as messages from ourselves rather than from some otherwise unknowable future. Dore also uses psychology, mythology and folklore.

In situations where the right choice is unknowable, or where humans are likely to make bad choices, a random throw of the dice or flip of a coin might be as good a tool as any. If you are interested in random decision-making, dive into the academic literature, starting with Biondo et al., ‘Are Random Trading Strategies More Successful than Technical Ones?’ PONE (2013) https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0068344 (open access).

What are you reading this quarter? We encourage you to share your own reading lists via LinkedIn (tag the Chief of Staff Association so we can read what you are reading!), or explore other ways of developing your knowledge is through our regular webinars, or even the Oxford Chief of Staff Executive Education Program.

Dr Katherine Firth is an author and academic, who publishes widely on productivity and writing skills. Her books include How to Fix your Academic Writing Trouble (2018), and Level Up your Essays (2021); Your PhD Survival Guide (2020). She is also the Chief Editor of The Chief of Staff.