Most of us would admit that our work comprises a complex bundle of interconnected problems. Each day we attack the particular problems in front of us (or the problems that pop up or pop into our workspace). And each day, we’re aware that there are more problems than we can actually solve.
As Russell Ackoff describes it (and as I’ve quoted before):
Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes.
Amidst this muddle, it’s easy (and often necessary) to sort the problems by how visible, immediate, or persistent they are. Or to sort them through the lens of your particular skillset or role in the organization – if your job is to be the hammer, you may prioritize the nails.
Which is why it is so important to define a “dominant problem” in individual and collective work. The dominant problem is the primary purpose or challenge you seek to advance or address. It’s the problem you hope to look back upon in some distant future, and know that you’ve made good progress, and that you haven’t sacrificed its solution in the process of solving other problems.
This may sound like a mash-up of mission and values, but both of those can be framed vaguely and understood differently by members of your team. The dominant problem is the essential, actionable, discernable issue that trumps all others (even though its resolution is dependent upon many other problems) .
Imagine that your collective is committed to fostering new works of theater, for example. Your dominant problem is to get new works into the world. There are many problems that confound that dominant problem, but they are sub-dominant. For example, your marketing director may perceive audience development and earned income as a dominant problem. Your financial manager may prioritize compliance or net income. Your production team may obsess over build schedules and materials budgets.
All of these are essential problems that serve the dominant problem. And all of them are interconnected in ways that will drive you mad.
But if you and your team haven’t defined, out loud and often, your shared commitment to a dominant problem, you may find yourself distracted by the mess rather than delivering on the mission.