Taking Advantage of the 80/20 Rule

In a recent meeting with a client, the head of finance said that he wants his people to spend 80% of their time analyzing and 20% of their time preparing data and reports. This is an interesting twist on the 80/20 rule which suggests that 80% of the output of your effort will be the result of 20% of your input. 

There are many labels to this law of efficiency, perhaps originally accredited to Pareto. If necessity is the mother of invention, Pareto was likely the father. Pareto was probably lazy or at least he worked smart. Perhaps Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, is a descendant. 

Leaders need to be efficient with their time. Everybody has more to do in a day than they have capacity close at hand. Leaders need to keep a to-do list up to date so that important items don’t slip through the cracks. By being obsessive about prioritization, leaders can address or delegate tasks in a proper flow. 

Once you have identified the right priority to address, it’s time to put the 80/20 rule back to work. What are the tasks whose completion will have the greatest impact on the successful execution of all related activities? These are the high leverage items, the thin edges of the wedge. By addressing the top 20% of the priorities as soon as practical, you will have accomplished 80% of the project. If you’re trying to open a restaurant, why paint the ceiling when you haven’t installed the front door. At that point, when you’re 80% complete, it’s time to do it again. Focus on the 20% of the remaining items that will take you closest to the finish line. 

The irony of adhering to the 80/20 rule is that prioritization takes time. Detailed planning, to-do lists and the communication required to prioritize with relevant stakeholders should always live in the 20%. It’s about measuring twice and cutting once. Roger Penske said that “if you want to get the car through the pit stop quickly, you have to go slowly”. 

Take advantage of the 80/20 rule. It’s a gift to all leaders from Pareto.