Pareto’s Law at Work: Focus on Outcomes, Not Output
I don’t have any real skills.
I don’t know how to start a business, build a product, build software, construct or fix things with my hands, or do anything that contributes real value to the fabric of the economy.
I’m only good at one thing: I know how to get things done at work. You’ve got a problem? I can figure out how to solve it.
If I don’t know how to do something, I’ll teach myself the minimum set of skills necessary to deliver the 20% of work that delivers 80% of the results. If I can’t teach myself how to do it, I’ll find someone else to help me.
I don’t pretend to know everything, but I can probably figure out the sequence of things that are needed to solve whatever problem you ask me to solve.
I didn’t learn this skill, I have it because of anxiety. I get anxious about things that aren’t done — so my brain automatically finds the quickest and most efficient way to get things done so that they no longer occupy space in my mind.
This isn’t a good skill to apply when it comes to real art or research as those fields ask for perfection, but in the corporate world, it’s a gold mine of productivity and efficiency that’ll make you better at your job while simultaneously giving you more time back to do things that matter.
Fortunately, while I didn’t learn this skill, I believe that it can be taught.
Figure out what problem you’re trying to solve
“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” — Theodore Levitt
At the end of the day, your boss is just a customer for the services you provide. Most of the time, they don’t really care how you get the job done, just that you got it done.
That performance report for the marketing campaign you ran? You probably didn’t need a 23 page PowerPoint showing how many impressions each campaign generated and every creative asset you used.
The sales analytics dashboard with the whisker-plot and dynamic bar graph? They just wanted a table.
The machine-learning algorithm that predicts which product a new customer will be interested in? You could have just asked them.
Thousands of hours of extraneous work are done by thousands of people every year because they lose sight of, or never even know, the actual problem that they’re trying to solve.
The marketing leader who asks for a performance report just wants to know how much it cost them to acquire a customer. The business that asks for a dashboard just wants to see sales data that gets refreshed automatically. The web product owner who asks for a predictive model just wants customers to have a good experience on the website.
Job’s Theory tells us that customers are just people who “hire” products to help them make progress in a given circumstance. At work, you are quite literally the product that your boss hired to achieve progress. Just as people only buy a quarter-inch drill because they want a quarter-inch hole, you are hired to not just to be an employee, but to solve problems in a business.
Most working people place their value on the work they’re doing in and of itself and not the outcome that they’re actually producing. When they spend a lot of time working, they feel like they generated a lot of value because they worked a lot of hours, when in reality they just worked a lot of hours.
The first step in applying Pareto’s Law at work is figuring out what problem you’re actually trying to solve, and narrowing down all of your tasks and actions toward solving that problem as efficiently as possible. When you’re given a task or a project, don’t just jump in and start doing stuff — take time to clearly understand the progress that the business is trying to make with the work that you’re doing. By doing this, not only will you produce better work, you’ll be working less.
Don’t fall for the trap that doing more, or working longer is creating value — it’s only creating value when it’s actually creating value — not because you feel like it is. Find the problem, fix the problem — then stop.
Enforce the 80% solution
There’s a saying that anything worth doing is worth doing 100%. I’d argue that anything worth doing is worth doing 80%. (If you’re a perfectionist, this section is going to be a hard pill to swallow.)
Again, this doesn’t work so well with art, research, medicine, or building physical things — but for the vast majority of corporate work, 80% is more than enough to get the job done very well.
How much is 80%? The 80% solution is the amount of work you have to do just prior to entering the perfection stage. The perfection stage is the last 20% that will take you just as long or longer than the first 80% took you to complete. Once you’ve hit that threshold, you can almost always stamp it as finished and move on. The 80% solution doesn’t mean that the project is 20% complete, it means that it’s reached the minimum threshold to completely solve the core problem. This is why understanding the problem you’re trying to solve is so critical — because if you don’t then you’ll spend a lot of time doing work that doesn’t ever even reach the 80% solution.
Data Scientists use the 80% solution all the time. When developing a predictive model, there is typically a point in development when the modeler is no longer making significant gains in model performance with each subsequent iteration of a model. A Data Scientist may go through hundreds of different parameters and algorithms to achieve a testing accuracy that is strong. When he/she reaches the point that new iterations are achieving only tiny incremental gains, that is when it’s usually ok to stop and move to productionizing the model. The time it will take to increase the accuracy of the model by a couple percentage points is not worth it to the business and can instead be put towards implementation. As I’ve already pointed out, this is not true in a field like medicine where the risks are much higher (where even tiny gains in prediction accuracy can be the difference between life and death). When it comes to email segmentation though, for example, the differences between an 80% accuracy and an 82% accuracy are not worth the additional time.
Applying the 80% solution principle can save you hundreds of hours of work over the course of a year. An example from my own work life:
I was on a project for a large technology company to provision marketing data that could tie B2B sales engagements and web behavioral data together. Stakeholders at my firm asked if we could visualize the data in a ‘customer journey’ — that would show a customer and all of thier marketing touchpoints in a web application. We began scoping developers and building wireframes for a custom web app with visualization capabilities. After working through the problem, I came to understand that the core challenge we were solving wasn’t how to display the information, it was the unique method of stitching together CRM and behavioral data, which provided information the client had never had access to before. While the visualization was a cool idea, there’s no way we could replicate the capabilities and options of a dedicated visualization tool like Microsoft Power BI or Tabluea. Instead of building out an entire visualization and dashboard solution, we pivoted to focusing on simplifying the data stitching process, and used third party tools to visualize the data instead.
Enforcing the 80% solution will allow you to complete more projects, in less time. When you get more done, you’ll have more time to think about the problems your solving (or take a long lunch) which will make you even more efficient and productive. I can guarantee you’ll see results in your performance reviews, your work life balance, and maybe even your job title.
Get it done, then improve
Applying Pareto’s Law at work is all about getting more done, faster, and more effectively. The bottom line is: figure out how to get it done. Done isn’t perfect, and done doesn’t mean it has everything, done just means done. The beauty of having something done is that it’s solving the problem that you set out to solve — which means urgency is removed from the equation. This is where iteration and improvement come into play.
The sooner you have something done, the more time you have to make small adjustments or improvements to it before it gets delivered. Make no mistake, this is not the same thing as continuing to work on a project all the way to the deadline. When you finish something and let it sit, you come back to it with fresh eyes and new perspective. This is a great way to improve writing, for example. You write an article or an essay, then leave it for a week and come back it to later. When you let it sit around for a while, you return to it with your brain having flushed all the waste products that were created as you first thought through the problem, making it significantly easier to edit.
During my Masters program, I was asked to write 40 to 60 page essays on topics ranging from marijuana legalization in Uruguay to US foreign policy in Iran. I consistently aced these papers by following the “get it done, then iterate” strategy. Papers were almost always assigned at the very beginning of the semester and due at the end. My secret to acing these essays was getting the paper done halfway through the semeter — giving me 4 to 6 weeks to make small improvements to tone, clarity, or add additional evidence or sources. The reason most people procrastinate projects until the last minute isn’t because they’re lazy, it’s because they want perfection. They don’t start because of the fear that whatever they produce won’t be the best it can be. The irony of this is that it won’t be perfect no matter when they start, they’ll just have less time to improve it. By getting it done now you accept that whatever it is will be imperfect, perhaps even bad, but that you’ll improve it later when you’re much more capable of doing so.
If you have a deadline on a project, get it done. Then sit on it for a little while, and go back to make small improvements. Not only will this strategy help reduce stress, but it will make the all your deliverables more polished and focused.
Outcomes, Not Output
Throughout my career, I’ve leveraged Pareto’s Law at work to get more done, do higher quality work, and free up my time. You can do this in your own work by:
- Figuring out what problem you’re solving.
- Enforcing the 80% solution.
- Getting it done, then improving.
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