This technique was originally developed by
Chip & Dan Heath
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Vanishing Options Test

One of the biggest pitfalls in decision making is failing to explore enough options. Our cognitive biases lead us to rally around the first ideas we come up with, which lets us quickly dress up the (uncomfortable) uncertainty with a (comforting) illusion of certainty.

To broaden your options available, pause for a second, and pose this question to yourself: “I cannot choose any of the current options I'm considering. What else could I do?” This is called the Vanishing Options Test. It was popularized by Chip and Dan Heath in their book, “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work”.

"Imagine a genie makes your top option vanish," he said. "What else can you do? Even one more option greatly improves your chance of success. The trick is to force yourself to come up with a second alternative, which is generally not hard, once you discipline yourself."  - Chip Heath

The primary objective of the Vanishing Options Test is to promote divergent thinking, which refers to the ability to generate multiple solutions or approaches to a given problem. It sparks the individual's capacity to overcome cognitive rigidity and adapt to changing constraints. Divergent thinking requires an ability to think creatively, reframe problems, and identify unconventional alternatives when faced with limited options.

Heath goes on to explain, “When you don’t force yourself to do this, your mental spotlight keeps focusing on one option and whether or not you should do that one thing. When we do the vanishing options test with people, we find that about 80 per cent of the time, they come up with something much better than they had initially thought of within three minutes—even if they had been agonizing about the decision for weeks before they did the test.”

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, they cited the Vanishing Options Test and gave an example:

“This question will trigger an exploration of alternatives. You could use it to open up your thinking about expanding your furniture business to Brazil: 'What if we couldn’t invest in South America? What else could we do with our resources?' That might prompt you to consider investing in another region instead, making improvements in your current location, or giving the online store a major upgrade. If more than one idea looked promising, you might split the difference: for instance, test the waters in Brazil by leasing stores instead of building them, and use the surplus for improvements at home.”

To facilitate this approach with a decision group, wait until the group has generated a list of possible solutions. Then tell them they can’t select any of the solutions on their list! Challenge them to come up with additional options, and encourage each participant to provide their contributions individually, to minimize the groupthink. Have each person write down two additional ideas (after the others have vanished) then present them back to the group. Watch them start to dig beyond their first instinctive responses.

An alternative approach applies the technique to elicit a more thorough dialog around a set of existing options. For this approach, start by assembling a range of choices – four or more options will do. Then have participants vote and choose their desired option, delete the most popular, then have them vote again on the new slate of options. The idea is to drive the conversation deeper on the other choices that might have been steamrolled by the initial or top option. This can be repeated multiple times (if desired) to continue to focus the conversation on the “lesser” options. The intent is to expose the richest set of information for the decision maker.

Much like the classic advice for brainstorming that says “there’s no such thing as bad ideas”, the Vanishing Options Test almost demands some “bad ideas” by refusing to reward you for your initial “good” ideas. And, as you’ve probably seen in your own brainstorming sessions, sometimes those “bad ideas” - that arrive at the end - can emerge as the best choice.