The Pareto Principle

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When is 90% really only 10%?

There is a somewhat humorous but an all-too-true rule in business often called the ‘Ninety-Ninety Rule.’ There are hundreds of variations of this warning in business and other creative endeavors. In computer programming, for example, a version of the Ninety-Ninety Rule goes something like this:

“The first 90% of the code accounts for the first 90% of the development time. The remaining 10% of the code accounts for the other 90% of the development time.”

That the total development time sums to 180% is a humorous observation of the tendency of engineering, budget planning, product development, construction projects or nearly any human endeavor to overrun its original schedule. We all know this, and yet we all make schedules.

Of course, there must be another rule out there somewhere that says: “If you don’t make a schedule to be eventually overrun, then the project will take even longer.”

The Ninety-Ninety Rule is a variation of the more scientific Pareto Principle. The Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) states that, for any phenomena, 80% of the consequences stem from 20% of the causes. Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto originally observed that 80% of income in Italy went to 20% of the population. This has become a common rule of thumb in business; e.g., “80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients.”

Let’s apply the Pareto Principle to life as we know it and see if we can learn from it and perhaps save some time and a whole lot of stress.

You and your co-workers are in the middle of a month-long project. In the middle means you are two weeks in, and half of the work has been done. Half of your goals accomplished. You’re on track, right?

Hold on. Who determined what was halfway? Isn’t there a beta test looming out there somewhere and after that won’t the group will need to make changes and corrections to the project.

The problem with many sad results late in a project is that whoever set the schedule didn’t take into account the always present ‘final push’ to finish. Not only does most of the critical testing have to wait until late in the process, but often problems of integration by necessity don’t show up until the final stages of the project.

One solution – a much more reasonable and realistic project schedule. If 90% of the initial work doesn’t get us to 90% completion than perhaps, we should have gotten the first 90% done in 50% of the time. Leave time, lots of time, at the end of any project to integrate, fix, change, modify and finalize the project. If it all works out better than expected, all you get is a project that comes in ahead of schedule. Can that be so bad?

Now, let’s switch from business to personal life for a sneaky lesson hidden in the Pareto Principle. Let’s talk about relationships.

How many times have you heard something like this?

“It was all going so well. He was wonderful. We were planning a future and then it all just fell apart. I don’t know what happened.”

Sound familiar?

But wait you say, that’s girl talk, boys aren’t like that. Oh, really?

“She was amazing. No hassles about me watching sports or hanging out with the guys. She didn’t want me to go shopping with her. And, well you know, that was great too. She even liked my dog. But then the holidays came, and it all changed. Her mother was in town or something. I don’t know what happened.”

You can probably write a dozen variations on those themes, but the result is the same. Relationship over and no one really knows why. The Pareto Principle has a suggestion.

Just like with a business project, we forget that getting to 90% (he was wonderful, she was amazing) is not the same as being 90% of the way to what we want. You see it is a natural human tendency to deal with the easy stuff first. This is particularly true in a relationship. We don’t talk about family (current or future) on the first date. Mothers don’t show up until later, often very late in the conversation.

We naturally go for light and fun first. Depth and day-to-day reality come later. So maybe it’s not so much that the last 10% takes longer, maybe it’s because we keep putting off the really important stuff while we have fun first.

That’s not a bad plan; fun is good. Everything can’t be serious 24/7, at least not if we want to keep our sanity.

But the ‘Ninety-Ninety’ rule and the Pareto Principle tell us that sooner or later we are going to run into that last 10% or 20%. And if we’ve saved up all the tough stuff until then, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

No, don’t bring your mom on the first date, but don’t keep her locked away in the closet until you are shopping for an engagement ring.

At work and play, some realistic planning will help you avoid the stress predicted by Vilfredo Pareto.


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