Friday, February 03, 2012

The Pareto Principle

A long, long time ago, near the beginning of my ministry, I attended a leadership conference taught by John Maxwell. I ate up the material because it related to what I was facing in my church and life at the time. I was just reminded of one of the principles that he taught as I was sitting at my desk looking at literally scores of books that I want to read.

The truth is that you can't do everything. You can't read everything. You can't listen to every podcast and you certainly can't keep everybody happy. That's where the reminder about the Pareto Principle came to my puny little mind.

The Pareto Principle (also known as the 80–20 rule, the law of the vital few, and the principle of factor sparsity) was developed by an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto way back in 1906. What it basically teaches is this: for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. He observed, for example that, in 1906, 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people. In his garden, 80% of the peas came from only 20% of the pea pods.

Frankly, I don't care about the peas and the pods or who owns what in Italy - the question for me is how can I apply this principle. Maxwell shared some great applications for my church and my life. Take a look at some of these examples and see if you have found these true in your environment:
  • 20% of the people do 80% of the work.
  • 20% of the people give 80% of the money.
  • 20% of the people take 80% of the time.
  • 20% of the people invite 80% of the visitors.
  • 20% of the people make 80% of the decisions.
  • 20% of the people teach 80% of the people.
  • 20% of the time produces 80% of the results.
  • 20% of the programs give 80% of the growth.
  • 20% of the message gives 80% of the content.
  • 20% of the job gives 80% of the satisfaction.
The bottom line application for all of us is this: if we devote our energy, time, and resources to the top 20% of our priorities, we’ll achieve 80% of the results we desire. This is one application of this principle that I have definitely found to be true. All of us are busy (some at things that don't matter, but that's another story). Many of us find ourselves with not enough hours in a day to accomplish all that we need to accomplish. So, obviously, choices need to be made. Here are some lessons from Pareto.

It's not how hard you work, but how smart, that counts. 
I've known some very unsuccessful hard workers. They're certainly not lazy, but lazy is not the only way to be unproductive. We need to recognize those areas of responsibility that are going to move us the greatest distance toward our destination, and do them first.

Someone spoke of the "tyranny of the urgent." Without planning and evaluating, we end up constantly having to deal with things that are now "urgent," simply because we weren't paying attention. With my personality I learned a long time ago that I wasn't going to get a lot done without the use of a planner. Working hard was never an issue, working smart was.

Organize or agonize.
I say this as I'm surrounded by stacks of papers and files on my desk. I'm an "abstract random." I tend to move quickly from project to project and like to have a lot of things of the go. I can be like the talking dog in the movie "Up" who was constantly being distracted because he thought he saw a squirrel. I like squirrels, they're cute little furry animals, rodents actually that like nuts....  Sorry. The point is. I've had to learn (still learning) to organize my major projects or regret the missed deadlines.

For those with personalities like mine, this is an ongoing process. But I do find the principle holds true. I need to keep asking myself which of these projects will bring the greatest reward and refocus my energies on those.

Choose or lose.
The truth is that we are always making choices whether we want to be or not. If we do not choose to place first things first then we are choosing to place them somewhere else. When those important things are moved down on the totem pole our effectiveness drops as well. Sometimes we simply cannot do everything that is asked of us so we must choose - or lose.

Evaluate or stalemate.
Someone called it "the paralysis of analysis," the inability to make a decision. It's also been called the "ready, aim, aim, aim... syndrome." We have to set and maintain priorities if we're going to be effective in our chosen field of endeavour. How can we do that? Here are some questions to ask:
  • How do we determine our priorities?
  1. Requirement: What is required of me?
  2. Return: What gives the greatest return?
  3. Reward: What gives me the greatest joy?
  • How do we maintain our priorities?
  1. Evaluate: Where am I?
  2. Eliminate: What am I doing that can be done by someone else?
  3. Estimate: What is needed to accomplish my objective?
I know that I have a set amount of hours to work with in any given day and week. The question is, what am I going to do with that time? If I apply the Pareto Principle and focus on the top 20%, rather than the squirrels, chances are I'll get a lot more done. So, as far as my books are concerned, I think I'm going to figure out which 20% are going to give me 80% of what I need to know. The others look good on my shelf for the time being. By the way, if you're reading this, you're in my top 20%. : )

Related Articles:
"Do It Now" - The Principle of Inertia
“Put God First” - The Principle of Priority
Developing Great Habits
Key Leadership Qualities - Discernment
Are You Teachable?
Resources: Top Ten Lists For Canadian Christian Leaders
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