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Apply the Pareto principle wisely –  and boost productivity by 4X

Boost your team's efficiency with clever utilization of the Pareto Principle, according to a scrum master with experience in driving results.

Anton Skornyavkov

Anton Skornyavkov

Anton is an author, productivity expert, and scrum master.

Pareto Principle

Explore how you can apply methods from agile software development to any kind of unpredictable project you face. Learn 3 essential tactics to boost your team’s performance and continuously stay on top of surprises.

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In much of our work, you’ll find that 80% of the impact comes from just 20% of your efforts. This so-called Pareto Principle is evident in the software we use daily, such as text editors or spreadsheet tools, where we typically utilize a fraction of the available features.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to software; consider how few buttons you use on your TV remote.

Smart companies leverage this principle by focusing on delivering the valuable 20% to capture 80% of the value, effectively quadrupling productivity.

Read more: Augmented workforce is not the future – it’s happening now

In work, the 80/20 rule often applies when you’re doing something that’s new to you – projects where you can expect surprises to happen. When repeating something, you already know what parts play a role and can focus only on those.

Skills responsible for managing this have been honed and improved in the software industry over the last 30 years. Unpredictable projects tend to be the rule here.

Today, however, more and more commercial, non-profit, and even government organizations are using the same methods in any kind of project, and you can too.

Common misapplication

Be cautious about where you apply the 80/20 principle; it can backfire if not used thoughtfully.

Imagine you are a headhunter looking to fill an executive position and you do a background check on them, looking only at the 20% most obvious spots. Most likely, you will overlook something important with potentially dire consequences for your client.

In other words; as a general rule, you cannot just do the most important 20% of an activity. Your quality will suffer. A spoon that’s only been washed 20% is still dirty, even though the largest pieces of food have been removed.

As a general rule, you cannot just do the most important 20% of an activity. Your quality will suffer. A spoon that’s only been washed 20% is still dirty, even though the largest pieces of food have been removed.

Having experienced such problems with quality, many managers have become cautious and prefer to play it safe by doing 100% everywhere.

Focus on results, not the activities

The secret to harnessing the Pareto Principle lies in focusing on results rather than getting bogged down in activities and processes. It’s the 20% of features of a product that deliver 80% of the value. These features should be implemented well, without compromising quality.

So, how can you identify the different results in your project when it doesn’t have anything to do with creating a product?

To answer this, you need to look at your project from the perspective of the people for whom you are doing it – your stakeholders.

Anything that they could see, use, or that would change their behavior is such a result; we call it a vertical slice of work.

In making food, it’s the cooked dishes. In social media marketing, it’s a written and posted article. In hiring, it’s filling an open position.

Often, it’s as easy as in these examples to identify many vertical slices. Once you do, you can prioritize the most useful ones and work on delivering them within days or weeks. Once you deliver them, you and your team can learn from your stakeholders whether they were that valuable.

And again, you prioritize the next items now with your new knowledge. Deliver, learn, repeat.

Identify the many small results

Often, valuable results in many projects aren’t delivered until the very end. This doesn’t give you space to choose what you think the most valuable 20% of them are. For this, there are several tactics to slice a large deliverable into smaller, but still valuable, ones.

And this isn’t just helping you find the useful 20%. When working with unpredictability, there is one sure way to fail: hoping to deliver the one result in the end that will make your stakeholders happy. Slicing helps you get feedback early and mitigates risk.

How to apply the Pareto principle

Here are a few effective tactics for slicing work into manageable, vertical slices:

1. Defuse the risk

Identify the riskiest parts of your project, then think of a result that, once delivered, would demonstrate that the risk isn’t there.

Example: You aren’t sure whether candidates for a particular position would submit a two-minute application video when invited to.

Instead of waiting for applicants to do it, you find 10 potential candidates and ask them directly to apply. Stay in touch with them if they don’t submit a video, to learn why.

2. Narrow the target

If your project affects a large group of people, try to focus on subgroups first.

Example: Instead of targeting all employers in North America, start with female founder CEOs of companies with less than 25 employees. Then move to a different subgroup.

3. Start with a reduced impact

Instead of striving for the target behavior, identify a behavior on the way to your goal.

Example: Instead of focusing on getting heads of HR departments to procure your hiring services, get them to book a half-hour meeting with you.

Focusing on such results allows you to address all possible surprises head-on, learn about what belongs to the most valuable 20%, and deliver the project piece by piece at the same time.

Anton Skornyavkov is a Certified Scrum Trainer with Scrum Alliance and the managing director of Agile.Coach based in Berlin, Germany. His new book “The Art of Slicing Work” is a real-world, low-jargon guide that teaches the main skill of a successful manager in the 21st century – the ability to master unpredictability.

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