Prioritize Top Problems (And Eliminate Pain)

I shared previously about my worst season in business. One client defaulting on their payments and contracts costing hundreds of thoughts. That event was just the beginning.

Atop the financial pressure, we were pulling into a lawsuit. New problems were popping up everywhere. Plus, we still had to run a business. Past due invoices. Team member turnover. Dwindling sales pipeline.

My internal mantra was, “It could be worse”. In that season, worse always came.

Everything is burning. It all seems broken. Which fire do we put out first?

We have limited time and attention. Every choice leaves less energy for anything else.

  • How do we select the problems we solve?
  • Which problems are prioritized?
  • Which problems do we allow to fester?

Situations are too nuanced to prescribe each decision, but a framework for how to make decisions can me more universal. Imagine a calculation that factors in the key elements of a problem.

The Pain Score. For team members, it’s also a simple exercise to highlight the complexity of decisions and managing tradeoffs. The following elements put things in perspective:

  • Frequency
  • Intensity
  • Complexity
  • Volume
  • Accrual


How often does it occur? Most problems fall into a predictable rhythm:

  • Daily
  • Weekly
  • Monthly
  • Annually

No discernible pattern? That’s a helpful data point. Surprises, even if they happen far apart, can become massive disruptions. That can elevate their importance.


How bad or frustrating is the problem? Is it a paper cut or a gunshot? Will it eventually resolve itself or cripple the organization?


How difficult is a meaningful solution?

  • Is the solution obvious or obscured?
  • Would expertise or more experience improve the decision making?
  • Is it a people problem, a process problem, or a policy problem?
  • Are there second or third order consequences?

It can be difficult to understand how complex. Acknowledging the complexity is more important that trying to uncovers each piece.

People problems are among the most complicated.


How many people are impacted? Is the problem felt by:

  • an individual
  • a team
  • a community
  • everyone


Will it get worse over time? Does the pain diminish or increase linearly? Will it grow exponentially? Does it disappear at scale?

When the rook leak doesn’t get fixed, it only gets worse.
If your unit costs are too high, those tend to improve as volume increases.
A team member’s poor attitude might go unnoticed for a day but can pollute the culture over months.


Taxes are annoying. They impact almost everyone. However, it’s mostly an annual pain and it doesn’t create much trauma.

On the contrary, the spacebar on my keyboard is broken. My computer is almost useless, but it’s limited to me. High intensity, high frequency but low volume.

Within an organization, the best people should be focused on the biggest problems. As this organizations grows and evolves, it’s easy to fall out of this practice.

Here are a couple of resources on the topic:

PS. There is no right answers. And if you are leading an organization, don’t expect anyone else to come along and choose something for you.

Morgan J Lopes


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