90% of the Decisions You Make Don’t Matter

In my post The 5 Ps: Achieving Focus in Any Endeavor I noted that “90% of the decisions you make don’t matter; real success comes in being able to identify the 10% that do and focus on those.”

The best, most effective, leaders are able to free their teams up to get stuff done by making lots of decisions quickly and enabling those decisions to stick. We all regularly hear criticisms of ineffective leadership voiced as “Decisions take forever” or “No decisions are ever made” or “We’re always flip-flopping; decisions never stick”.

Effective decision making starts with an understanding that, in the long term, very, very few things actually matter. The vast majority (90%!) of the issues we face in a team, day to day, are EITHER meaningless minutia OR easy to deal with.

However, a small number of things (about 1 in 10) matter a lot (in the long term) and are worthy of serious pondering, discussion, investigation, investment, and decision making.

How can you identify the 10% that matter?  Step one is to keep an inventory of your issues and problems. I always used to have an Excel spreadsheet that simply lists “issues & problems to solve” (I now use Trello for this).   I will run brainstorming sessions with my team to flush out early every possible problem we may have to address or every issue we will face. Then I encourage the team to regularly communicate new problems they imagine or encounter. These all get put into the list.

Hard Problems Meetings – It can sometimes be effective to have a running (say twice a month) meeting where key team members get together to discuss new and existing “hard problems”. Not to solve them, but to ensure they are exposed and key team members are aware of them and that there are plans to address them.  But be careful: Hard problems meetings can get depressing. When we were building ActiveX for Internet Explorer 3.0 we had a Hard Problems Meeting that sucked the life out of all of us… the problems were just SO hard.  We got through it, but it was painful.

Like all lists, the list is ordered with higher priority things at the top (see the 5 Ps post for thoughts on how to set priorities and use those in conjunction with your group’s stated principles as a framework for prioritizing things).

The next step is to quickly narrow the list down to a core set. In my experience if we created a list of 100 problems we could quickly get rid of 30-40% using the following tool I learned from coaching soccer:

When selecting a team of 18 players when 30 have shown up for a 2 hour try-out session coaches have to decide quickly.  I use the following model:

  1. Start with a quick warm up exercise to let the kids get settled. No more than 15 minutes.
  2. Get several small sided games going where all 30 kids are playing. Let them play for 15 minutes. You and your assistants will immediately be able to identify 3 groups of players:
    1. The questionable
    2. The Obviously Very Good
    3. The Obviously Very Bad
  3. Meet with your assistants for 5 minutes and list all players in group A.  Instruct your assistants to focus ONLY on the players in group A the rest of the session.

Typically for 30 players, the sum of players in group B & C is 15-20. This means you and your assistants only have to watch 10-15 kids during the remaining 75 or so minutes.

I’ve used this same technique in helping to identify the top 10% of issues to focus on. I’ve used the following buckets to quickly segment them:

    1. Those that me and my team are clueless about.
    2. Those problems I know my team can solve.
    3. Those that are either already solved or are obviously minutia.

By doing this you’ve radically reduced the number of problems you need to focus on from 100% to some much smaller percentage (getting close to 10%).

Attention Units – A metaphor I picked up from my best Microsoft manager (Chris Phillips). As leaders, we only have a certain number of Attention Units. Let’s say over the course of a month, you, as a typical workaholic manager, have a 1000 Attention Units you can spend giving your attention to work. It’s a zero sum game. Every activity you engage in uses attention units. Spend yours wisely.

Once you have gotten to the point where you have these buckets, immediately and forcefully, avoid spending any of your leadership attention units on issues in buckets B or C!  Tell your team: “See this list of issues? Do not bother me with them. YOU figure it out. Together we have decided they are already solved, are minutia, or the team knows how to solve. So Go!”

Of course if your team believes you will second guess the work they do, this will never work. Someday I’ll attempt to write down all my thoughts on how to ensure your teams buy-in to decisions and enable them to stick. But for now I’ll just point out that, as a leader, you have to consciously work on trusting your team.  When you say “YOU figure it out” you have to MEAN IT and you have to be OK with the fact that what they come up with might not be to your liking.

Think about it for a minute: We’re talking about issues that you and the team decided were NOT in the 10% bucket. You already decided that HOW the problem eventually gets solved DOES NOT MATTER. So get over it and move on.

As your team brings you new issues, or you take existing issues off the “A” list to work on, ask the question “Will what I decide really have a material impact in 2 years?” If your experience, your gut, says “YES!” then it’s probably a 10% issue.  Otherwise, it’s probably not.

At this point two things happen:

  • Issue #42 is on the cusp. I can’t tell if it is in the 10% bucket or not! What do I do?
  • Issue #11 is clearly a 10% issue. I have no idea how to decide?!?!?

In both cases: This is what you are paid the big bucks for. Figure it out. But at least you’ve radically reduced the noise you and your team have to deal with.

I wish I were smart enough to have come up with the “90% of the decisions you make don’t matter” truism myself. But the reality is I learned this from Chris Jones (who runs Windows Live at Microsoft) and all I’ve done is try to apply it.  Hopefully it will help you too.

Related posts on focus and decision making:

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  1. Great advice! I have learned this in the couple of management classes I have taken. Definitely good advice and actually works in the real world on a daily basis.

  2. Charlie – very interesting approach, thanks for sharing. Sounds very similar to the SCRUM model where every morning, each team member goes over what they did yesterday, what they plan to do today, and what issues they are currently facing. As the leader – your job is simple – eliminate the issues…

  3. Of all the articles I’ve read on productivity, this is definitely one of the best. As a volunteer soccer coach myself, your analogy was very helpful. Thanks for sharing these great tips.

  4. As I am in the process of building my business, this advice is priceless and dead on.
    Thanks for the good read. Now put it to practice, right?

  5. As a sole proprietor of a small business, with no employees, I have only myself, and a few key contacts that I chat with regularly, to solve problems. The proposed sorting system is a great way to make the best use of my “attention units” — and those of my team.

  6. This immediately brings to mind situations where there’s a simple decision, but because it affects several groups, I’m required to get buy-in having a meeting.  I don’t know how many times I’ve said, let’s just make a decision and be done or drop it entirely. It’s a drain on my attention units and those of everyone else the non-decision touches.

  7. Pingback: Mashed Paretos | AlignSales