My good friend Hal and his wife have been married for 50 years.  He told me the secret to their marriage is that early on they agreed: She would be in charge of all the small decisions in their life, and he would handle all the big decisions.  In 50 years of marriage, they just haven’t had any big decisions yet!  He is anxiously awaiting the opportunity to demonstrate his decision-making prowess after all these years…!  Put me in coach – he says – I’m ready.

In this world of ever increasing noise, complexity and uncertainty, I often see organizations get lost in all of the decisions they are confronted with every day.  Particularly, I see teams struggling to differentiate between big decisions and small decisions.  High risk versus low risk.

What usually happens is that teams and leaders spend far too much time debating and re-hashing relatively small, low risk, ultimately insignificant issues, and never leave enough time, space, or brain trust for the big, complicated, truly important decisions.

Looking at this another way – what problems are worth solving in the first place?  There are two kinds we should think about that are the centre of many debates – infrequent problems that have huge consequences, and frequently occurring small problems.  The car seat was invented as a response to the first kind – car accidents hurting kids happen relatively infrequently, but they are catastrophic when they do.  The beer cozy was invented in response to the second kind – how often has your beer gone warm on a cold day?  Both of these problems are worth solving – and consumers will support both.

Organizations are pretty good at solving the catastrophic problems that occur frequently (or they would be out of business).  They still fall victim to solving problems that maybe shouldn’t be tackled in the first place.  And they struggle to prioritize which of their problems should be solved in what order of priority.

Do you have a way to make decisions about making decisions?  It might be the best decision you make this year.

This can be a simple process.  For example, I recently witnessed a group of leaders eliminate a handful of projects in their pipeline once they realized these were put there by a ‘squeaky wheel’ – one customer who complained loudly, but who wasn’t necessarily representative of others.  So instead, they decided to see how frequently this problem occurred.  The decision – if n=1, we do nothing.  Awesome.

Or take it to the next level: Innovation Engineering offers a great solve for this – a problem survey.  This tool helps you assess what problems happen frequently, and what problems have really negative impacts when they happen.  The tool plots the problems out to help you prioritize.  Maybe even more important, it helps you weed out ideas that happen so infrequently or are so inconsequential that you probably should not bother in the first place.

Find a system that helps you leave more room for those big, high risk decisions that deserve all your energy, focus and collective brain trust.

Innovation is about making choices.  Even when they are hard.  Especially when they are hard.  Make sure you save enough bench strength for the biggies.