Figuring out the correct 20% of things to put first.
I have to confess that I’ve never get to the end of the week to find that “I totally forgot to eat this week”. Somehow, I always find the time to eat. Nor do I find that I have totally overlooked sleeping. Now that’s not so say that sleep and diet don’t get neglected somewhat from time to time, but they usually get some kind of attention every week one way or another. Usually, sometime during everyone’s week, they become high enough on the list of priorities that they get added to the list of things to do today.
Dr Stephen Covey talks about this in his well-known classic “7 Habits of highly effective people” as the habit of “Putting First Things First”. (For reference see links below.) Here he talks about putting the big rocks into your schedule first, the important things that must be done, before fitting in the other less important although often urgent tasks.
The point is well illustrated using a glass jar, and when the big rocks are put in first, then smaller pieces of gravel can fill some of the gaps, then there is still room for sand to fill more gaps, and finally, water can be poured into the jar too, before it becomes full. It’ll only all fit in by starting with the big rocks first. Put the sand and water in first and there’s insufficient room for the big rocks to be added to the jar.
If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.
~ Dr Stephen Covey
When trying to figure out what is a big rock, in practice, we get help using the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule. This states that you get 80% of your results from 20% of your effort. It is a principle that is used quite widely wherever you read about priorities. But where did it come from?
I first encountered this principle when I was working for a major international Tyre Manufacturer, that was apparently hitting hard times. As a result, there we had a company-wide initiative to train every employee on the Total Quality Management principles promoted by Joseph Juran (1904-2008). Here we were encouraged to focus on Quality by Design – to replace Quality after Design – addressing “the vital few and the trivial many” things that had an influence on product quality, and the idea that Quality is defined as “fitness for use”, and we monitored the “Cost of Quality” and used “Quality Circles”.
Now Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) was an Italian engineer, sociologist, economist, political scientist, and philosopher, and he coined the Pareto Principle, built on observations of his such as that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by about 20% of the population. This principle was then observed to ring true in other areas of life, and in particular, Juran used it to help identify the Vital Few things, the 20% of the causes that generated 80% of a problem. This was one of the main threads of his work and the place where he suggested that key management attention would need to be focused. He added to that by encouraging the formation of Quality Circles to address the other 80% of the causes – the trivial many (or later called the useful many).
We’ve all been given 24 hours in every day, and that’s just enough.
So how should we apply that to this issue of prioritising then, this 80/20 rule? Well, a great way to do this is to consider three questions, the ‘three R’s. Leaders ought to consider these three questions in seeking to identify their priorities, and consider all aspects of life’s demands, not just the business aspects:
- What is required,
- What offers the greatest return, and
- What brings the greatest satisfaction.
Having assessed the answers to those three life questions a further 80/20 question to explore is to identify those things on the list identified here and see which items could be performed by someone else at least 80% as well as the leader can perform them, and these can be progressively delegated.
This should then leave the 20% of things that the Leader MUST do in order to be most effective, and these are the big rocks that must be put into the diary first.
Check out: Big Rocks First (Dr Stephen R. Covey, First Things First)
About Roger Fairhead
Roger is a leadership specialist delivering Leadership for Business Achievement through Speaking, Training and Coaching to business leaders and entrepreneurs.
“He is articulate, tracks complex issues with ease and has an incredible gift for raising pearls of wisdom out of the murky depths of people and process.” His passion is to help people to learn effective leadership skills to lead their teams to capitalize on their strengths and passions to realize their dreams.
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