The Pareto Principle

Pareto-PrincipleHave you ever noticed how some people, successful people, often seem to be less stressed and seem to have more time on their hands despite the fact that they get through more work? Somehow, they manage to focus on the key essentials of whatever they are doing. Well, they may be applying the Pareto Principle. The what?

Otherwise known as the 80:20 rule it was named for the Italian researcher Vilfredo Pareto who, in the late 19th Century, discovered that 80% of Italy’s land was owned by 20% of the population. Allegedly he also found that 80% of the peas he collected form his garden came from 20% of the pods he collected!

Subsequently many other examples of the basic principle have been highlighted, including:


  • 80% of a company’s profits come from 20% of its customers
  • 80% of a company’s complaints come from 20% of its customers
  • 80% of a company’s profits come from 20% of the time its staff spend
  • 80% of a company’s sales come from 20% of its products
  • 80% of a company’s sales are made by 20% of its sales staff

Now this is simply a rule of thumb, a helpful heuristic that gets you focussing on the important stuff. It’s not even necessarily and 80:20 division, maybe 95% of your sales income comes from 5% of your customers. They don’t even have to add up to 100, maybe 90% of your accidents come from 4% of potential causes.

The point is, and I wish I had known this when I was starting out, is that you need to find the crux of the problem or task you are facing and apply most of your effort to that. Prioritise the important bits and the bits that are easy to resolve and avoid the trap that so many under-performers fall into of making excellent the enemy of good.


Who am I?

Who am I?
The search for enlightenment

The simple answer might be ‘Geoff Roberts’, but that is just a name. There are plenty of other Geoff Roberts’ in the world and even plenty of Geoffrey Malcolm Roberts’ – there you go, did you know my middle name or even that I had one? Yes, the name is somehow part of who I am, and I will happily answer to Big G, Big Geoff or in my early schooldays Kangaroo Kid (I could put together a mean long or high jump in primary school).

‘Who am I?’ prompts a somewhat deeper search for identity. A cook, a son, a husband, a stepfather, and brother, a facilitator, a writer and many more to greater or lesser levels of accomplishment. These too are part of who I am, yet really they are things that I do. Yes, the fact that I choose to do (most of) then gives insight but ultimately I may choose not to do any of them and yet I still exist. They are no more me than that name.

Being somewhat antipathetic to religions of any sort I cannot fall back on “A child of God” or whatever label followers adopt. Nor does atheism, especially the radical Richard Dawkins variety, offer much hope; indeed the question itself might be ruled out of order in favour of a more prosaic ‘What am I?’ – a collection of chemicals that somehow randomly came together in the past and found a way to propagate themselves into the future.

So, if not my actions or my beliefs, then am I my thoughts? I hope not. Who can deny at least occasionally having the odd inappropriate thought pop into consciousness, only to be promptly quashed by that internal editor who functions inside our heads? Maybe I am that editor? The usually invisible and occasionally conscious process that guides which thoughts persist into action, which generate ongoing thoughts and which are stopped in their very emergence. This is a guide who steers me towards what has previously been found to be effective, safe etc., which sometimes enables my mind and my body to experiment and which occasionally just says STOP!

This is a moral filter at work – ‘Thou shalt not kill, paedophilia is wrong, respect other people’s property…’ And it is also a practical, life serving one – don’t jump off things without a rope or a parachute, don’t slit your wrists just to experience the feeling of oxygen deprivation…

Of course all of this is learned – babies are fearless, we learn our moral code from our role models and those role models can just as easily be bad as good. What matters to us changes with life experiences.

So, who am I? Surely I am more than a collection of neurons.

An interesting question – what is the best leadership book?

I was just paying my bill after a rather nice lunch, whilst at the same time reading Tools And Techniques Of Leadership And Management by Ralph Stacey.

Stacey “That looks interesting, do you know anything about leadership?” said the young guy serving me.

I explained that I had offered to review the book and was finding it so interesting that I was reading it in detail rather than the broader skim that reviewing normally requires. I will be posting a review of the book in due course, suffice it to say that I am finding it extremely stimulating, relevant and ‘on the mark’ as regards leadership today and effecting change in organisations.

We had a bit of an interchange and then this guy asked “So what do you think is the best leadership book?” “Well” I said “give me a minute to have a think about that” and so he went away.

Now it is of course a totally unanswerable question, not only because of the tens of thousands of leadership books out there but also because of the best depends not only on my own judgement but his own needs. So when he came back we had a brief conversation about the difference between leadership and management (yet another blog will be exploring whether this distinction really exists) and how, in my view, leadership is partly about what you do and even more about who and how you are. I have a proposition that the way to become more effective leader is to become a bigger and better me – role models may be useful, but they are all different and if you do manage to isolate the common attributes of Margaret Thatcher, Gandhi, Richard Branson, Hitler, Jesus etc. then you end up with a minimum entry requirements to leadership rather than the difference that makes the difference.

So in the end I recommended two titles, books that have had a great impact on me. The first was Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People and the second JS Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

7 Habits  JLS

Two very different books and yet books that I know from my own personal experience have helped me become a better me.

I would be interested to know how you would response to a similar question.

Systemic Coaching

Systemic CoachingAt the September EMCC meeting I was part of a small group discussing ‘systemic coaching’. The three of us discussing the topic were really trying to find out what it was all about and this note is my own brief summary of John Whittington’s book “Systemic coaching and constellations” which prompted the enquiry.

The basic proposition is that when coaching an individual the coach needs to explicitly recognise that their client sits within a broader system of relationships and that by coaching the clients we are essentially coaching the system. He goes beyond that to suggest that the coach themselves now becomes part of that system and needs to be hyper-vigilant about their own behaviour and responses.

Extending the idea, he suggests that any individual’s position in the system might be described on the basis of the three criteria – Time, Place and Exchange. Time indicating the actual, or perhaps perceptual, time for which the individual has been part of the system. Place indicating not just the hierarchical position in the system but also the location in the shadow organisation (although he does not talk about shadow organisations specifically – I have interpreted Whittington’s comment on the basis of my understanding of Ed Schein’s concepts). Finally, Exchange relates to what the various players in the system give to and/or take from each other.

His idea of ‘constellations’ is to actively and physically map out these relationships within a system and to have the client explore the implications of changes in those relationships and how those changes might be stimulated. He suggests using physical objects (which of course he can sell you) to represent the players or spatially mapping them on the floor of a room using pieces of paper with individual’s names on them.

The rest of the book goes on to describe a series of case studies and possible approaches to issues or incongruities appearing within the system map.

It is probably worth a read, although for me what I think he was doing with systematising some existing ideas in my current practice. For instance he is fairly explicit in comparing his approach to that of perceptual positions typically associated with NLP. Likewise when he suggests exploring where each individual’s focus of attention is directed, I am reminded of issues to do with personal, team or organisational objectives – not least the implications of that orientation in terms of organisational politics.

It would be interesting to know what other coaches, perhaps particularly those who recognise or use this explicit methodology, have to say.

Straggly lavender

change leadershipThey greeted us as we first drove in. Two stands of straggly lavender, woody from the ground for the first 45 cm and crowned by a barely adequate display of silver grey leaves and fragrant flowers. What had gone wrong? This, here in the south-west of France, is ideal climate for lavender yet these specimens have been allowed (there is a clue) to deteriorate almost beyond repair. With careful and prolonged attention they could be regenerated back to their youthful flush – all they needed was to carefully prune a third of the wood almost to the ground for each of the next three years and to nurture and cultivate them. I was reminded of one of the metaphors I use in my work as a change agent.

I often suggest that change is quite a lot like gardening, indeed the first name I ever had for the work I do was the Freemind Gardening Institute. As a gardener, you acquire a patch of ground (an organisation?) often not knowing the ground conditions and how variable they are (culture?); as you explore you discover a range, sometimes wide and sometimes narrow, of plants (employees?) which may or may not be suited to the conditions in which they are placed (recruitment and retention?) and which may or may not have been looked after properly in the past (training, development, appraisal?). You find that even though this is quite a large garden, there are no instructions for cultivation (business processes?). Or perhaps you wonder why that rambling, weedy-looking almost uncontrolled rambling meadow-like patch in the corner (research and development?) is important, indeed actually vital to the future of the whole garden. And here are you, the new gardener (change agent) who can see things that the previous managers and leaders could not; who can ask questions about the structure and planting that would not have occurred to the previous occupants because they just liked things as they were or had neither the skills nor the energy to change. Your new man can challenge the very assumptions that underpin how you go about your organisational work (“I know that you think you can’t grow rhododendrons in your soil, but did you know that there are now varieties that thrive in neutral and even alkaline soils?”) and by challenging those assumptions can open up new possibilities.

Your gardener knows that sometimes it is necessary to remove dead wood, or even the whole plant, in order to create the space and conditions for new growth. He knows that there are many ways to create a riot of colour, some of which are quicker than others, yet potentially more expensive in the long-term. He knows that sometimes you just have to try things out to see if, or how, they will work (you run pilot programs) and that not all of them will work. He knows that the first flush of spring and the glorious summer (quick wins) will deteriorate into a brown, wet, dark, dreary autumn and winter unless the overall plan includes (new initiatives) autumn colour, winter and early spring bulbs and flowers to carry the enthusiasm through until the next green shoots appear. He knows what to fertilise, with what and when. And he can advise on whether to strip the existing garden to the ground and start again (administration/closure and corporate re-birth).

So, any organisational change is a process that is both subtle and brutal when necessary, that follows a path almost inevitably strewn with failed experiments en route to a final destination that may be somewhat different to that first envisaged, that needs constant and dedicated attention not only to the business processes but to the people who design and run those processes and (I would say this wouldn’t I?) needs an external eye/brain/hand because even the best gardeners are constantly reading about their craft and visiting other gardeners to see what they can learn.lavender

The choice is yours – if you really want those lush green lavender patches flowering every year then you can spend three years renewing the existing plants or a few quid on new plants. Of course, the clever gardener can have both by using his old plants as a source of cuttings that will quickly grow into lush new lavender patches.

(P.S. I would love to come and have a look at your garden, or your organisation. Either give me a ring or e-mail me.)

Asking difficult questions for a living…

asking difficult questions“So Geoff, what do you do for a living?” is one of those questions I get asked so often. It  begs either a full answer or, more often, a one-liner designed to either satisfy the craving of some contact who is not really interested or provoke someone who really wants to know into asking more. Hopefully the one-liner might be good enough to provoke the former type of enquirer as well!

So here is my answer

I ask difficult questions

I have to admit that I rather hope that when I make this response you in turn will ask me something along the lines of “Can you explain a in little more detail what you mean by that and how it will make a difference?” So here goes.

I want to start from proposition that we are all deluded about the world in which we operate. Each of us carries around in our head a map of the world, not a geographic map (although that will be part of it) but a ‘map’ of how the world works. But Alfred Korzybski is alleged to have said that “A map is not the territory”. So my map of the world, built up from my own experiences, learning, values, beliefs etc is uniquely mine and contains all those beliefs, biases and assumptions that have helped me function effectively in the world so far. But I’m sure you have already spotted the problem with my map – your experiences, learnings, values, beliefs etc are different to mine and so your map of the world is uniquely yours. They are both right and they are both wrong

The only basis upon which I can act is my own map of the world and because that map is both inaccurate and incomplete my choices are necessarily limited. They are limited by those implicit assumptions that allow me to function efficiently. I pull up at a red traffic light and assume that before very long it will turn to green so I’m happy to sit and wait; but after 5 min, 6 min, 10 min it has not changed green, do I hold my assumption that it will in due course change or do I revise my assumption to one that says the light is broken and drive through it? Perhaps a somewhat prosaic example but let’s have a look at how this might work in your organisation. As someone who works in organisations and helps others facilitate change, I so often come across a refrain along the lines of “Oh, we don’t do it that way round here” or “It can’t be done” or “Well, I will have to ask permission from xxxxx before I can do that”. Each of these responses illustrates one or more assumptions about how the organisation works. There are rules and processes and procedures and cultural norms and imperatives of all of which conspire to inhibit the possibility of change. At the simplest level, I could simply ask “What would happen if you just did it?”, although I usually need to delve deeper into the answer to that question asking, for example, “When was the last time somebody got sacked for failing to follow the procedure or taking their own initiative?” (Usually the answer is never – actually some people in my ex-employer often quote a specific individual, but he was actually sacked for covering up and lying about his mistake not for the mistake itself, a very big difference).

One of my favourite sayings, and I will claim it for myself unless and until someone can show me an original source, is “It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission” and, by the way, you are more likely to get it.

This surfacing and challenging of the assumptions is, of course, at the heart of any coaching process and it is perhaps no surprise that as part of my work on organisational change I end up coaching individuals, helping them find new ways of seeing the world (new maps) and hence new approaches to the personal or organisational challenges that they face.Simply responding the the question “What do you do for a living?” with “I am a coach” seems both insufficient and not really distinctive.

So please, next time you meet me and I respond “I ask difficult questions”, please ask me a difficult question in return.

What have you stopped noticing?

I waschinese on mobile phone sitting minding my own business on Manchester Picadilly Station a few days ago (oh, the exciting places I get to for coaching assignments!) when an obviously ‘Chinese’ looking young guy came and sat alongside me. Well, as Manchester has one of the biggest Chinese communities in the UK, that was no real surprise. What DID however surprise me was when he pulled out his mobile phone to ring someone and this perfect Manchester accent emerged from his mouth.

Now what really surprises me about that is that I was surprised. I live in Bradford and am perfectly at home with young people with obviously Asian heritage speaking in a broad West Yorkshire accent – I don’t even notice what some might hear as a vocal incongruity, indeed the potential for noticing would be in an Asian under 30 years old speaking in an Asian accent!

Our brains are designed to notice difference, so the incongruity of the Chinese Mancunian is perhaps not surprising. But what is the process, and what are the consequences, of the incongruous becoming the norm?

Whatever the process, this is a challenge faced by anyone brought into an organisation to stimulate change. While we are outsiders we notice all sorts of things about the organisation, and the behaviours of its’ players, that the insiders miss because they have become habituated. In time, we risk ‘going native’ and ourselves becoming habituated to all those ‘weird’ behaviours we have been employed to point out and change. A change agent has a limited life in any organisation.

So, what have you stopped noticing about your world? And what are the consequences?

Risk and management/leadership – don’t delude yourself

riskPart of the work I do is to help implement risk-based decision making in respect of major capital assets for the water industry – contact me if you really want to know what this is about – and every time I think about the work we do here it leads me to the need to explore how ‘we’ approach risk in our lives and how that might affect our management and leadership practice.

Now, there are loads of articles and books written about the mechanics of Risk Management – this is not another one, this is about how we mis-perceive risks and the potential consequences of that. So let’s ask a few questions:

Would you rather have a nuclear power station in your back yard or a beehive?

The nuclear power station please. There is NO authenticated record of a ‘civilian’ dying as a consequence of the proper operation of a nuclear power station, yet (in the US – I can’t readily find UK figures) around 50 deaths per year are attributable to bee stings! I haven’t done the maths, but I suspect that eve after accounting for the extra deaths caused y the accidents at 3 Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima you had better avoid beehives!

What are your odds, if you buy a single ticket, of your 6 numbers being drawn in the National Lottery? And would you prefer these odds to those of being killed by lightning?

Well, in a typical year 3 people get killed by lightning in the UK, so if we average that to a weekly basis (to enable comparison with the weekly lottery), the chances of being killed by lightning in a typical week (assuming a UK population of 60 million) are 1:385,000. Better put your £ on a random person you know being killed because the odds of your numbers coming up are 36 times less likely!

OK, so these are extreme examples, yet they do illustrate how poor many people are at knowing the risks we face in our daily lives. So how good do you think you are at estimating the risks you face in your daily decision making at work?

Health and Safety is the classic arena – it’s one of the few areas where, by statute, we are required to make risk-based decisions. Yet it is also one of the fields of greatest weirdness. How many times have you heard “We can’t do that because we might kill someone”? Well, how likely is it that someone gets killed at work? You might like to look here for the answer…and you might be surprised that you are probably more likely to be killed going to or from work that actually at work (according to the DoT road deaths currently run at ca 2000 per year) or indeed at your home!

Now, let’s come right down the scale of seriousness. How many systems do you know of, or have you even put in place, that are there ‘just in case’? And did you estimate (accurately, now) the chances of the event happening and of course the consequences of the failure if it did happen? And was the cost of the system/process higher or lower than your consequence estimate? I will admit to having been a bit of a radical when I had a ‘real’ job (actually, I was paid to be so) and a favourite trick was to stop doing things that I or my team didn’t think were worth while – it was amazing how few got resurrected.

So, this little rant was really a challenge to you to think more rationally about the risks you face in your work (and/or life), so that you can make better informed decisions. What examples have you got of weird decisions made on the basis of totally unrealistic risks?

Are you really listening?

I hear you but am I listening?Yesterday, I was driving my granddaughter to meet Peppa Pig. The radio happened to be on and it was one of those “my favourite tracks” sessions. The subject, I can’t remember who it was and it doesn’t really matter anyway, played Michael Jackson’s ‘The Man in the Mirror’, introducing it with comments to the effect that it was a song about how effecting change in the world necessitated starting with the man in the mirror (that is, yourself). I have heard this track many times and never, ever made that connection.

Then, this morning, I am driving that same grand daughter to nursery listening to a programme about The Jam Generation – that generation brought up in the 1980s with The Jam as part of their youthful soundtrack. The commentator seemed surprised that some senior Tories claimed to enjoy The Jam, and other groups of that ilk, despite the relatively left wing nature of their lyrics. He could not understand how they could subscribe to the lyrics in the song and yet be right-leaning Tories.

What both of these incidents suggested to me was the difference between hearing something and listening to it.

I have heard the Michael Jackson track many times and many times I have explained to other people that when I am listening to music. I very rarely pay attention to the specific words in the lyrics. More, I am concerned with the patterns of sound.

In the second case there the similarity, the commentator did not seem to acknowledge the possibility that these right-wingers could be hearing the lyrics while not listening to the words.

Now this observation is no great shakes but it does remind me of the need to be clear about whether a conversation I am part of is simply part of my life’s soundtrack or something whose contents might have much more meaning if I paid attention to what the other person was saying. Listening is an active process, its demands mental effort.

So today my challenge is to pay active attention when you are listening – whether to the radio, your colleagues at work, your partner, or whoever. Maybe it’s okay to have the radio on as a background soundtrack; but surely when we are face-to-face with someone they deserve as much attention from those as we might expect from then in reverse

Life is (not always) good

Life is good
I have just read a comment on Facebook “X wishes that people would not use Facebook to moan about stuff”.

Do you know people who seem to spend more time complaining than celebrating? More time moaning about how grim the world is than doing something, anything, about it? So did I until…

He had been a friend for many years, generally hard work but occasionally real fun to be with. We had gone out for a Chinese meal one night and for some reason he took umbrage at my leaving a tip for the staff – something, I forget what, had not pleased him abut the service but I had been very happy and I was paying and so left the usual tip. He went on, and on, and on, and on, and on… about how ‘wrong’ it was for me to leave a tip when he had been dissatisfied. Something must have flipped, because I told him there and then that as I was paying I felt it was for me to decide on a tip and anyway I did not appreciate him making a major visible and verbal fuss in a restaurant that I had used for years and hoped to use again. I then chose not to see him again – I deleted his presence from my life. And how things changed; that one action of saying ‘I have had enough of this. I am an adult and I choose with whom I spend my time’ released all sorts of space in my brain. This person had been an energy parasite for years and suddenly I had freed myself.

I guess that my reflection on all this is that we can look at life in two ways (to be a bit simplistic about it!). We can notice and comment on all the bad things – and they do exist – around us, or we can notice and recognise the good that happens.
What mindset do you think develops when we notice and talk about the crap that happens (and it does happen)? How much more positive are we likely to be about the world if we develop a mindset based on noticing the great stuff around us?

Now I am not saying to ignore the crap – it happens and needs dealing with. What I am saying is twofold, firstly deal with the duff stuff and move on, secondly notice and celebrate the good around you.

Today’s challenge – spend 15 minutes during which you actively notice and say out loud something positive every minute.
Tomorrow’s challenge (and every day thereafter) is to notice at least one high point of every day and to record it somewhere.

Isn’t life great 🙂