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Use the 20/80 Rule – Better! Results Tip #17

Most of us are familiar with the 80/20 Rule of Time Management. Simply put, this rule suggests that 20 percent of our efforts will account for 80 percent of our results (*). I’ve never tried to measure the accuracy of this rule, but I’m comfortable enough with its basic premise to allow it to influence how I plan my work time each day.

Only recently have I been exposed to what I’m calling the 20/80 Rule of Action. And here’s how this one works.

When addressing any issue needing our attention – for example, anything where we are seeking Better! Results (my MAJOR theme in these articles and my work) – we invest 20 percent of our time in analyzing the issue and its causes, and 80 percent considering and pursuing solutions.

For Example

Time, clock, timer, stopwatch 60 minutes

You have a 60-minute meeting with a work team on an important issue. Applying the 20/80 Rule of Action would prompt you to track the time in the discussion for the first 20 percent (roughly 12 to 15 minutes) before ‘pivoting’ the discussion to focus on possible solutions. The pivot occurs from a short statement like, “OK, I think we have a rough idea of the issue and possible causes, now let’s brainstorm about what we might do about it.”

In short, the 20% mark is where the conscious directed shift or pivot occurs.

I’ve been asked if I’m really that rigid in my timekeeping. And the answer is yes and no. Yes, because I do keep an eye on the clock in my meetings so I’m more mindful of our progress against the time commitment I’ve requested from others. And no, because I see the 20/80 breakdown as a target rather than an absolute. Most days I find 50/50 is pretty good. Much different from the 90% problem discussion/10% solutions discussion I see in most management meetings.

Businessman presenting to colleagues at a meeting

David Rock’s “Quiet Leadership”

In his interesting book Quiet Leadership (currently my favorite business book by far!) author David Rock goes deep into this concept. He says, “It might sound obvious that to transform people’s performance we need to focus their thinking on solutions, rather than problems. Yet it’s surprising how little we do this in practice.”

Rock refers to discussions of problems as interesting, where discussions of solutions are useful. Interesting v. useful – hmmm…

Application in Real Life

I’ve taken Rock’s ideas and begun to apply them more consciously in my work. I’ve seen Better! Results immediately. Here are a few quick examples from recent consulting and coaching engagements:

Example one:

Why did this happen? (20% of discussion)

What do we (or you) need to do to achieve here? (80% of discussion)

Example two:

Why did you do that? (20% of discussion)

What should you do next? (80% of discussion)

Example three:

Why isn’t this working? (20% of discussion)

What do we (or you) need to do to make this work? (80% of discussion)

Problem solving aid mind map business concept

Two Foundation Lessons

I’ve now read Quiet Leadership three times in four months. Each time I pick up new insights and ideas. But there are two foundation lessons I’ve highlighted and hopefully learned:

First, focusing on problems leads us to the past. Focusing on solutions leads us to the future.

Second, problems disappear into the background as solutions develop.

Agree? Let me know – especially if you don’t!

But if you’re not sure it will work, why not try it and then form an opinion. That’s what I did. Now I KNOW it works.

(*) – for fascinating insight into the origin of this concept, do a quick search on  the ‘Pareto Principle’