Does your team have a “too hard pile?” Is there a list of issues that everyone knows need to be addressed for your business to evolve, but there is tactic agreement that they would be so uncomfortable, so messy to discuss that you just work around them? That’s what happened to a team of doctors I was working with.

This was a group specialists who worked together in a hospital and also ran multiple private clinics. They had been working together, in some cases, for decades; adding new members one at a time when the fit was right. The business was growing, but slowly. This modest growth was just fine with some of the partners, who were at an age and stage where lifestyle was as important as income. For the younger partners, it represented lost opportunity. And that’s where I came in.

The business was founded on the premise of 25 equal partners. Each partner would work the same number of shifts, be on call for the same amount of time, and do an equal share of the administration. That set up a really difficult problem…

In their specialty, like in every field of medicine, new techniques and advances had come along over the years. One diagnostic technique, in particular, was a bone of contention. At first, this technique was highly specialized and used in a small fraction of cases. At the time, the partnership decided to grandfather some of the more senior doctors so that they didn’t have to learn the extremely complicated procedure.

Fast forward 10 years later. Now this “high specialized technique” is the bread and butter of the business. The problem is that 5/20 of their doctors never learned how to do it. Now a partnership based on equality is no longer equal. The partners who can use the tool have to work more night shifts to ensure there’s always someone on call who can do the procedure.

The younger, enthusiastic doctors aren’t able to focus on growing the business because they’re so busy covering for the ones who never learned the technique. The resentment was palpable. But when I asked why they hadn’t reopened the discussion, one of the doctor’s said “oh, that’s on the ‘too hard’ pile.”

They had been silently agreeing to leave these issues to the side and try to grow the business AROUND them. Oh no, the grandfathering debacle wasn’t the only thing on the too hard pile. There was the question of whether to buy another practice, the decision about investing in expensive new equipment, and the risk appetite for adding new services.

With that many decisions that needed to be avoided, it was a wonder they were able to grow at all.

Do you have a “too hard pile” in your organization? What’s in there…?

How to Make a Hard Decision

Try these steps to start working through the backlog:

  1. Admit that there is a “too hard pile.” Discuss with your teammates what issues have become too uncomfortable to resolve—or even broach.
  2. Pick the least contentious issue and agree to start there.
  3. Before you start talking about which option is best, discuss how you’ll decide. Have a full discussion about the decision criteria without even mentioning the options. Talk about each of the criteria until everyone has a common understanding of what good (and bad) looks like. Now rank those criteria in order of importance. You’ll see that this step isn’t too onerous.
  4. Now discuss all the options. DO NOT stop to evaluate the options, simply list them all. Spend time clarifying exactly what would (and would not) be included in that option so everyone is on the same page. Remember, you’re not yet agreeing about the attractiveness of the option, only on what it is. This is also a relatively calm and cool conversation.
  5. Once you’ve agreed on the criteria and on the options, put them together. Create a chart with the criteria on the horizontal and the options in columns running vertically down the white board. Now talk through the rating of each option on each criterion. Warning: if you make the ratings too precise, you’ll get bogged down. Go with something simple like “best, moderate, worst,” or “high, medium, low.” The insights will emerge even with crude ratings. Ideally, color-code the ratings so the chart begins to tell the story even before anyone puts it into words. Again, pretty easy.
  6. Knock off the options that clearly score poorly. If there’s a clear winner, pop open the champagne and congratulate yourselves for proving that the too hard pile is no longer too hard. If there are still two or three options with pros and cons, one route is to repeat the process with new, more finely tuned criteria. Alternatively, change the weight of the criteria you already had. (It’s common that as you discuss the issue, it becomes clear that you need to over-index on one or two criteria.) I’ve watched a team wrestling with a staff layoff decide that they needed to make the decision based the impact on profitability and then implement the decision in a way that would maximize staff morale. That immediately cleared the impasse and allowed the people who were trying to avoid the downsizing because of its impact on culture to rest assured that it would be a major factor in how the difficult decision was implemented.
  7. Finally, before leaving the table, talk about when and how you’ll re-evaluate your decision. Agree in advance on what you’ll be looking for and how you’ll know whether things are working or not. Make sure you give the plan time to take hold, without waiting so long that you could get too far off track.


Having issues that your team is loath to discuss limits your options and stalls progress. Once you use this process, you’ll see that no one step is too hard for you to manage. Your confidence will grow and you’ll clear out that too hard pile gradually over time. You’ll be amazed what you can accomplish once no issue is too hard to address.

Further Reading

When Discussions Get Heated

Is Your Team Prepared For Conflict?

Four Secrets of Avoiding the Conflict Spiral


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