80/20 Principle: Beginning a Workplace Revolution

80/20 Principle

by Brenton Russell on

Sick of management techniques that allow you to more efficiently cram extra ‘stuff’ into your day?  I certainly am (and so is my wellbeing) so after recently reading the business classic ‘The 80/20 Principle’ by Richard Koch (Amazon affiliate link) I am completely changing my perspective to concentrate on being more effective rather than more efficient.  The first place that I am going to start is my workplace.

The 80/20 Principle – The Vital Few vs The Trivial Many!

The crux of the 80/20 Principle is that:

There is an inbuilt imbalance between causes and results, inputs and outputs, effort and reward.  The 80/20 Principle “asserts that a minority of causes, inputs or efforts usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs or rewards.”

As the principle states, in an overwhelmingly majority of cases 80% of output results from only 20% of inputs. The continued reoccurrence of this pattern was discovered by an Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, in 1897 and has repeatedly been demonstrated since.  One of the examples sited by The 80/20 Principle book is when IBM discovered that 80% of a computer’s operating time is spent processing about 20% of its operating code.  The company immediately rewrote its operating software to make the most used 20% very accessible and user friendly and thereby making IBM computers significantly more efficient and faster than its competitors’ machines.  Once you start to analyse the things around you, you will start to see the 80/20 Principle is in effect all around you or in even greater imbalance like 90/10 or 95/5.  You can read tons more examples in the full book of  ‘The 80/20 Principle’ .

The 80/20 Principle essentially means that:

Most of what we do is low value

Only a few decisions and actions really matter and those that do matter a great deal. ‘ The Vital Few’ decisions, actions, resources, people, projects etc are what really matter and should never be confused for the ‘Trivial Many’.

The original definition of an entrepreneur in 1800 by the French economist J-B Say is someone who “shifts economic resources out of an area of lower productivity into an area of higher productivity and yield.”  Regardless of whether you think of yourself as an entrepeneur or not, we can all act like one.  When we identify the 80/20 Principle in action we can shift resources from the 80% (Trivial Many) to the 20% (Vital Few) and disproportionately increase our outputs and effects regardless of the situation that the 80/20 Principle is operating in.

What’s different about the 80/20 Principle?

Many time management techniques and theories focus on how to use time and complete tasks more efficiently.  The 80/20 Principle adopts a completely different paradigm in that the point is not to manage your time better but to choose better things to do with your time; what you do is far more important than how you do it. Thinking like an entrepreneur, this means shifting resources to the critical 20 as opposed to improving the wasteful 80!

Viva Le Workplace Revolution!

My current workplace is characterised by:

  • Extreme conservatism and bureaucracy
  • Rigid pyramid hierarchy
  • A reactive, short notice, crisis management, nothing is too hard culture
  • Very demanding of its management and leadership staff
  • High email and meeting usage
  • Leaders/managers are contactable 24/7 and work should always be the highest priority

The culture of my organisation means that it is hideously inefficient, bureaucratic and resistant to change but achieves significant results through the quality and the blood, sweat and tears of its people. Sounds like a perfect place to test the revolution!  Being an upper middle leader/manager in my organisation means that there is a lot expected of me (including conforming with the organisation’s norms!) but this also gives me a reasonable degree of influence and power to implement some 80/20 Principles without getting immediately sacked.  So here is what I am going to do:

  • I am going to ruthlessly protect the time when I am at my most mentally resourceful (8.30 am to lunch) to concentrate on the Vital Few tasks by:
    • Working out of a different (and undisclosed!) office up until lunch.
    • Not opening emails until 1200 h – not even to check first thing in the morning!
    • Set my desk phone voicemail to not accept voice messages but instead instruct callers to email me routine issues and ring my mobile only for true emergencies.
    • Screen my mobile phone calls during this time and only pickup for my immediate boss and my own second-in-command.
    • Focus this time on devoting myself to the most beneficial 20% of tasks.
    • For meetings that I have control over and are important I will only program in the afternoons when I am less productive anyway.
  • Put an ‘out of office’ message responder on my email stating that I will only be checking emails at 1200 h and 1600 h daily.
  • Track every project that I work on, people that I interact with, tasks that I undertake,  meetings that I attend, emails that I write, phone calls that I make/receive etc,  then determine the Vital Few and Trivial Many and ruthlessly remove resources (namely my time!) from the Trivial Many to reallocate to the Vital Few.  This is definitely going to put some noses out of joint!
  • Accept that some things are going to be missed and some people’s expectations aren’t going to be met but that my increased effectiveness (note – not necessarily efficiency!) will more than compensate for those short term disappointments.
  • Reallocate some new found time to more thoroughly visualising and planning tasks/endstates before acting.

Right up front I can tell you that some of these changes are not going to be popular. I guess that’s half of the journey, but as Richard Koch says in his book:

“Don’t start a revolution unless you are willing to be a revolutionary.”

The Future of the Revolution!

I am fascinated to see the effects of my workplace revolution both on my own effectiveness and the culture of my organisation.  I have no doubt that I will encounter significant challenges, but these make me more determined to get the revolution going.  I will ensure that I write posts on these challenges as I go along to let you know how I am going.

Now that I have started looking around with my new 80/20 lenses, the possibilities for continuing the revolution seem endless (for some examples see Scott H Young’s blog post on 20 unique ways to use the 80/20 rule or David Risley who has written an article on applying the 80/20 principle to blogging).  I fully intend to migrate the revolution to other areas of my life, so I will keep you posted.

If you have any suggestions for more workplace measures that I can undertake, let me know and I will look to incorporate them with my own above!  Don’t be afraid to suggest some pretty ‘outside of the box’ techniques; I’m keen to give them a go!

All passages encased by quotation marks are taken directly from the book ‘The 80/20 Principle’ by Richard Koch.

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