Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Looking for the Critical Portion

by Andre · 3 Comments

The Pareto Principle — the concept that 20% of what contributes to an outcome accounts for 80% of that outcome — can be easily misunderstood on a few grounds.

The ratio can vary. 10% of a collector’s paintings might account for 90% of the collection’s value. 50% of a meal might alleviate 100% of a person’s hunger. The ratio may or may not add up to 100%, falling short or exceeding it.

The 80% figure also implies that looking for the critical 20% leads to adequate but suboptimal results. 80% may not be sufficient, and assuming that only 20% of the contributing resource matters can foster an overly narrow perspective.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block to the 80/20 principle is the term itself, which is cumbersome for informal use. Industrial engineers have Pareto charts to analyze operations, but we need a more informal way to apply the principle that makes intuitive sense.

Asking the 80/20 questions

Thinking is mainly a process of asking and answering questions. By asking better questions, we can get better answers. The first step in making a general principle actionable is to turn it into a question. If we frame the 80/20 principle as a question, and drop the specific numbers out of it, we might end up with a tool for thought that’s easier to use. Let’s generate some variations on the question to fit different situations.

  • What’s the least amount of this that makes the most difference?
  • How much of the time I spend doing this activity is creating the bulk of the outcome?
  • Which few of all the thoughts I have are on my mind most of the time?
  • How much of the food on this plate would satisfy my hunger?
  • Which of these activities would have the most leverage?

You may notice a pattern here. In each case, instead of taking the input for granted (a plate of food), we’re making our attention within the input more granular (which food on the plate). Instead of looking at the house, we’re looking for the load bearing walls. We’re consciously searching for the critical elements instead of assuming that they’ll become obvious over time. They probably will, but it’s more efficient to think about the critical elements on the front end.

We start to recognize that much of the time, effort or material needed to achieve an outcome may not be necessary. The first two hours of research may accomplish most of what would be accomplished in five. It’s a matter of applying the right question to your own situation, seeing to what extent it applies.

The questions make no assumption that 20% is the right percentage. The only assumption that’s being made is that some of the inputs account for most of the outputs, which is usually true but not always.

When asking 80/20 questions, it’s important to remember that their main role is to pay closer attention to what resources within a given set are necessary, not to ignore the possibility that all resources are necessary, or even sufficient.

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Tags: Productivity · Thinking Operations


  • veredNo Gravatar // Jun 30, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    I think many people do this subconsciously. We ask ourselves what is the least amount of effort that would produce the best results. I know I do that.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Jul 1, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    The theme is the same but the emphasis is different. The question isn’t how to get the most results for the least effort, but to examine what portion of your current efforts is making the decisive impact. You’re looking for the point of diminishing returns, which is an act of reflection that I don’t think is common. Many people’s impulse is to log more hours at work rather that look at where the results of those hours trail off.

    That was why I used the plate analogy. Most people will attempt to finish what’s on their plates rather than think about how much of the food on their plates constitutes “enough.”

  • LynNo Gravatar // Jul 1, 2008 at 10:19 pm

    It seems to me that you’re talking about mindfulness, both in terms of completing projects and in terms of dieting. Leap into a project without considering efficiency and risk the time suck or some other problem. Leap into a bowl of chocolate fudge and risk…erm…drowning. ;)

    Kidding aside, I add two thoughts to the mix:
    (a) Is MY way of doing this project the most efficient? This speaks to your first two bullets, but in a different perspective: MY way may not be the best way. Is a different approach (or a handoff to a coworker/subcontractor) called for?
    (b) I keep looking at that abstract 20% — who in my organization is most likely to be able to finish that 20% (without taking >80% of the project’s time to do it?). Ideally, there’s a way to maximize one’s under-utilized staff resources (but I haven’t found it yet).