December 11, 2009

The Inverse Pareto Sinkhole

If you’re not familiar with the Pareto Principle, then perhaps you’ve heard of the 80/20 Rule. It’s the same thing. It is a general rule of thumb applied to things like productivity, business, etc.

Examples are that 80% of your sales come from 20% of your customers, 80% of your support tickets are caused by 20% of your users, or as an incredibly oversimplified generalization: 80% of your results come from 20% of your assets or inputs. The 80/20 Rule was named after an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto who in the early 1900’s noticed that 80% of the Italy’s farmland was owned by 20% of the population.

The basic management philosophy behind recognizing the Pareto Principle is that you can leverage your results by narrowing your efforts to the 20% of tasks or inputs that result in the majority of your output.

Over the years I’ve also come to recognize what I call the Inverse Pareto Sinkhole. This is the enemy of productivity and the enemy of leverage (the “good” kind of leverage). It’s a black hole and a vortex, it diffuses effort and waters down results.

Think about what developers call “Creeping Featurism”, or Feature Creep. To quote Wikipedia

Feature creep is the proliferation of features in a product such as computer software. Extra features go beyond the basic function of the product and so can result in baroque over-complication, or “featuritis”, rather than simple, elegant design.

What I’m talking about is what happens when the vast majority of your time and effort gets sucked into something that even if it is executed flawlessly, will result in very little output.

It’s getting hung up on one question on an exam worth one measly point but you waste 25% of your allotted time on it which could have been better spent on other questions worth more points.

It’s a new rock band in a garage spending all their time arguing over what the name of the group will be instead of writing songs and rehearsing material.

It’s analyzing a company’s balance sheet and spending 75% of your time validating the assumptions of one line item that accounts for less than 1% of the company’s assets.

It’s basically getting sucked into spending a lot of time on getting that one thing “just right”, when that one thing, considered against the backdrop of the entire task at hand, is inconsequential.

That’s The Inverse Pareto Sinkhole. Meetings, are famous for them.

For the most part, I find meetings useless. Meetings typically devolve into one long Inverse Pareto Sinkhole. It’s just a group of people getting together and everybody just gravitates toward some piece of minutiae dear to themselves and tries to get the entire meeting wasting time on it.

When I’m in a meeting I spend the majority of my time keeping it on track and throwing these inconsequential bits of nothingness over the edge with comments like: “Let’s note that and you can take up via email later” (…with somebody who gives a rat’s ass), and “Ok, well let’s park that for now and try to concentrate on the larger issue of XYZ”. I find this process exhausting, so I generally avoid meetings LIKE THE PLAGUE.

I’ve found I can get much more done via email, or in a real pinch, a phone call.

There’s a reason I bring this up, as I’ll post shortly.