The 20% That Matters

July 2013, by Merlin Kwan

The Pareto Principle says that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. The other 80% of causes are trivial. In Pareto’s case, he found that roughly 20% of the people in his country, Italy, owned 80% of the land. You can apply the 80/20 Rule to almost anything, from the science of management to your personal life.

How can the Pareto Principle help us
? The value of the Pareto Principle in management is in reminding us to stay focused on the “20% that matters.” Of all of the tasks performed throughout the day, one could say that only 20% really matters. Those tasks in the 20% very likely will produce 80% of our results.  Therefore, it is critical that we identify and focus on those things. When all of the little stressful tasks before a pitch presentation surrounding the “Big Day” begin to eat up precious time, remind yourself of the critical 20% that you need to focus on. If anything in the list of preparation and action items has to be compromised—left undone—be sure it isn’t listed in that critical 20%.

This is related to the law of diminishing results: each additional hour of effort, each extra detail added is adding less “bang” to the final result. By the end, you are spending lots of time on the minor, less significant details.

Now, let’s say that you are a designer and asked to create a futuristic car design for a client.

Given five minutes of time, you could present: 1) a single car at top quality or 2) five cars at a wireframe level. A very detailed car is of course much better than a wireframe. But most likely, your client at this stage of the development has not decided what he needs. So at this stage, the time is better invested in producing five wireframes in order to have a discussion with the client rather than a very detailed design that might just be wrong and leave you with no other options.

The point is to put in the amount of effort needed to get the most bang for your buck — it’s usually in the first 20%. In the planning stage, it may be better to get five fast prototypes rather than one polished product.

Understanding this principle will likely address a very common problem in today’s work environment, which has to do with fear—the kind of fear that comes along when big projects or task that are unfamiliar are at hand. So what do employees do when facing such fears? Projects can be delayed or certain tasks can be avoided.

How do you start achieving more? Start by seeing what activities generate the most results and focus on them. An experiential understanding that with input of 20% effort, you will see already the first 80% of results, and this will inspire you and your staff to be more confident and bold, to try more, to create more, and subsequently, to achieve more.