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.


Things I wish I had known when starting out

Turn UpAdvice for new starters to the world of work.It is a long time now since I started work, 46 years to be precise, and it was a very different world back in 1968 when I first pulled on a lab coat and started shaking test tubes for a living. I was musing the other day on what might have changed and what hasn’t altered in those years. Here are a few of those thoughts, especially about what has not changed. I rather wish that I had known some of these things when i first started out.

  • The Pareto principle
  • The boss is not always right and the boss is (nearly) always right
  • Have a go at the hard stuff
  • People matter
  • Know when to stamp your foot
  • It is amazing what you can achieve if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit
  • When you set a deadline, mean it
  • Choose your battles carefully

Over the next couple of weeks I will be writing a short piece about each of them, but let me start with the most important of them all “Turn up”.

So what do I men by “Turn Up“?

Well we are paid to turn up for work, but I mean much more than that. Have you ever found yourself not really wanting to go, but feel that you have to? Have you ever found yourself distracted during the day (Facebook, Twitter, Shopping List, that attractive young guy/girl along the corridor) only to find that your attention to what you are doing has drifted? Have you ever wandered off to the copier or stationery store as a distraction from what you were doing? Answer ‘Yes’ to any of these and you were not Turning Up.

For me, Turning Up means giving my total attention to whatever it is that I am doing at the time – be that saying hello to my co-workers, writing a report, researching some data, whatever. Multitasking is a myth – the best we can do is switch between different tasks and every time you do that you lose a bit of time ‘shutting down’ what you were doing and ‘starting up’ what you are going to do – wasted time and a brain that can’t quite figure out what it should be working on.

So, when you are at work, BE at work. When you are with someone BE WITH them. When you are working alone WORK alone. And finally, when you have finished for the day GO HOME and be at home.


The-Selfish-SpectrumI have faced a couple of situations in the last week or so that led me to take decisions that were almost entirely in my own self interest. This left me wondering about the concept of selfishness, the extent to which those decisions were selfish and indeed how that concept plays out in our daily lives.

I understand that there are psychologists who argue that every decision we make is ultimately selfish in that it meets with some inner need. So for example, someone who spends their days ‘selflessly’ helping others would actually be doing so because that is how they find their inner satisfaction.

I also wonder if I’m getting more selfish as I get older and I start to understand what I really need. Both of the situations I mentioned above related to what, in my view, were distinctly unsubtle application of organisational politics. Now I like to think that I am as good as any, and perhaps even better than most, at organisational politics yet on both of these occasions I explicitly chose not to play the game. Both of these were volunteer roles and yet there are other volunteer roles in which I continue to willingly play some fairly delicate political games. So what is the difference?

Certainly in one case I was becoming increasingly disillusioned as a very small cog on the periphery of a very large organisation  and maybe that is not a role that I like to play. I am happy to admit to myself that the follower roles that I prefer is one where I still have significant influence and I will happily play a number two, or even three or four, role when I am at least listened to and at best taken seriously. Indeed as I write, I start to realise that was possibly behind my order opting-out. Specifically, that my advice and expertise was being ignored and overruled and the explicit delegations made to me were being unilaterally removed for no apparent reason.

So is it about control? I don’t think I’m too ashamed to say that to some extent it probably is. After a life of bending and twisting, as well as helping others to bend and twist, to help deliver the greater good there is a part of me that keeps saying that “it is about time I got what I need and stuff the rest of them”.

So yes I guess this is selfish and no I am not guilty about it. I will argue that in our lives there needs to be space for ‘me time’ as well as ‘us time’ and perhaps I have just created some of the former.

What about you? To what extent do you think you act selfishly?

Followership – what makes a good follower?

Followership  LeadershipThere are millions of pages read about how to be a good leader – just type both into Google and you are likely to get around 288,000,000 hits for Leadership and ‘only’ 472,000 for Followership. Moreover, from a cursory look at the topic, it seems that much of what is written is designed to inform Leaders about how they can garner better/more followers!

So, I am interested in how I can be the best follower I can be – given the leader I have (and I recognise that ‘my leader’ may change from moment to moment, task to task, environment to environment etc).

As an input to an enquiry at Roffey Park, where I am an Associate, I wrote a ramble on the topic. I repeat it below and welcome your thoughts, additions, criticisms, whatever – just say what comes into your mind as you read it…

You asked what I might like to contribute on the topic of followership. Truth is that I do not have any ‘theoretical’ inputs to offer and, as I said when I originally expressed an interest, this is one of those areas in which I have had a passing interest the many years without the opportunity to develop that interest into something more structured. Hence the willingness to participate in the group that you lead.

When I think about it, I find it extremely difficult to disentangle what it means to be a good leader from what it means to be a good follower. Perhaps this might be addressed by looking at, on the one hand, what a follower expects from their leader and, on the other, at what a leader expects of their followers. This might seem like a classic statement of the bleeding obvious but in my experience it has been rather rare to find a leader who expounds, either privately or publicly, what they expect of their followers; likewise, it is probably a very brave follower who advises their leader what they expect of them!

Whilst I might like to stay away from leadership, it is perhaps rather difficult in this context and so the following points are necessarily an incomplete expounding of my thoughts-incomplete in terms not only of the list of topics but also the explanation of that list.

Firstly, and perhaps above all, I expect a good leader to communicate effectively and I guess that puts an obligation on the followers to let of their leader know, in one way or another, when they are not being communicated with. I vividly remember a time when, in retrospect, I had the priorities of my job out of sync with the immediate needs of my staff. I was spending an increasing amount of time away from the office on strategically important stuff and came home one day to find a post-it stuck to my desk simply saying “Geoff you are no longer available”. This brought home to me more than any textbook or classroom exercise the importance of availability and communication when the followers needed it. Fortunately the relationship I had with my team was such that not only did they feel able to leave this message but they also knew that I would take it in the spirit intended.

I expect my leader to be open and honest with me, even if that occasionally means saying the equivalent of “I’m sorry but I can’t talk about that at the moment”. As a follower I must accept that there are occasions when my leader might be involved in delicate or confidential conversations which it would be inappropriate to disclose at the time. For me, the followership version of openness and honesty centres around not hiding the bad news from my leader as well as disclosing my feelings as well as thoughts about what is going on. I cannot expect them to lead effectively if they do not have the full picture.

This whole communications game has a feeling of being a dance, in which each party has to find out what the other party needs to know and passes such information along appropriately. Which brings me to another aspect of leadership and followership-communication style. As a follower I think there is an onus on me to find out not only what my leader needs to know but also how he wants to find it out. Does he want detailed written weekly reports or is he happy with a quick chat on the phone every Friday afternoon? My own style, generally discursive and flowery, caused some considerable tension between me and one of my bosses until I realised that his approach was very terse and factual-after which I changed my style and things became much easier.

Where there is a legitimate difference of opinions I expect my leader to represent that difference to other parties, rather than simply putting their own view forward. In return, I must commit as a follower to the principle of corporate responsibility and not undermine decisions taken by my own and other leaders.

The next thought that comes to mind relates to trust. As a follower I want to be left alone to get on with my own work knowing that my leader is there if necessary for help and advice. Reciprocity suggests that as a follower I must trust that my leader is doing his work on my behalf.

“I think there is an important area in followership to do with learning when to give up a particular battle. This could they simply because you recognise that the battle you are currently engaged in is simply not winnable, or it could be because of a recognition that giving up on the current battle releases resources to fight on more strategic fronts. The effective leader can guide the followers in this, but ultimately it is for each follower to make their own decision about where to put their resources.

I think I might also argue that an effective follower recognises that on occasions the boss might need help, even when the boss themselves might not have made such a recognition. I used to have a follower who was very good at taking things off me once they got past the initiation and into production phase-they did this because they knew where my strengths lay (not in production mode) and how theirs could complement me. Another aspect of this that might not be recognised very often is the loneliness of being a leader. I would not know whether to label it mentoring, coaching, counselling or what, but I am certain that an effective follower knows when their boss needs some form of support and is prepared and able to offer that support.

A good follower knows and respects the leader’s short, medium and long-term priorities and does not pester them with issues outside that envelope unless the follower can demonstrate the strategic importance of their issue.”

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.

Driving Organisational Change – 7 Tips to Help you Succeed

“The one constant is change” – and perhaps especially so in these difficult times.  These tips will help you make the most of your investment in consultancy.

 7 Tips to help your change succeed

  1. Lead as well as manage

Hundreds of books have been written about the need for change management and I am not going to disagree because any project needs appropriate management. Yet project management is not enough – it is about processes and the biggest challenge in change is that it affects people. This is where leadership comes in – be active in showing the future and the way to get there, support individuals and groups, listen as well as speak, be there when you are needed.

  1. Value and use resistance

You will meet resistors – they have their own reasons for not wanting to change and those reasons make absolute sense to them (if not you!). Listen to them – have they perhaps spotted something that has been missed? Have they got personal challenges (lack of training, concerns about future security, etc) that you can help them with? Resistors can cause more damage than the supporters can help. Treat them carefully, respectfully and individually – a ‘convert’ will be worth their weight in gold.

  1. Do what you can, where you can, when you can

I have yet to see the path of any change effort go smoothly; some things prove more difficult than expected and others simpler. For a big change you night think of it as lighting little fires all over the organisation – some will die out and you will need to come back to them but others will flare up and those you fan and help spread more widely.

  1. Ignore losses, consolidate wins

If you focus on losses or failures, they get bigger and more overwhelming, you then pull in even more losses. So find ways to ignore these losses. Shift your attention to something positive, stop talking or thinking about them. What can you do to consolidate your successes? Write them down or put them on a wall. Keep a record of your wins. Talk about them to everyone you can. Celebrate them. Make a habit of finding and focusing on the wins of others. The more attention you put on success, the more success you get.

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate…

THE most important issue. Everyone involved in the change needs to know why it is happening, what the future is going to be like, how it will affect them and their colleagues (don’t underestimate ‘solidarity’). It’s not just about newsletters, much more effective is routine face-to-face discussions in formal and informal (canteen, coffee machine…) settings – use your apostles (see Tip #6) to spread the word and explain what’s happening. And remember that you have two ears but only one mouth – this is where you sense the resistance that is so useful for Tip #2.


  1. Recruit sources of power

The power you can exercise is in direct proportion to your ability to meet the needs of your people. Power comes in many different flavours and they are all needed to create effective change as different individuals will respond to different power bases (the fact that you are the boss may matter more to you than them!). Your, and your apostles’, Personal Power will be much more valuable than all the Formal Power you can muster – the latter might create compliance, the former commitment.

  1. Find and nurture your apostles

You can’t do it all yourself, you need a small and growing number of individuals who are totally with you and actively supporting you. These advocates need constant support – ‘feed and water’ them because your change really does depend on them. Keep them close to you, allow them time and actively encourage them to get out on the shopfloor convincing others through the sheer commitment they show. Finally, reward them for their efforts.

What do you think? Can you offer any tips of your own?


The immovable object and the resistible force

In the second of my pieces on guiding principles for delivering effective change I want to talk, in a tangential way, about one aspect of how to handle resistance.

The one thing that is certain when you embark on a process of change is that you will meet resistance. Perhaps that ought to be two things of which are certain, because the other is that you cannot predict where, from whom or in what form that resistance will appear. But appear it will and you must address it. The point of this particular piece is one way of addressing it – not that  this is only one way, indeed there are several other tools that you will need to use. This tool is particularly useful in the early stages of the change efforts.

So, many moons ago I completed my masters degree in organisational change and my then boss asked me “What was the most significant thing that you have learned in two years of very expensive study?” My answer might seem somewhat glib, let me assure you it wasn’t and isn’t. The answer was “Do what you can, where you can, when you can”. And this is the second of my guiding principles for leading change effectively.

 Do what you can, where you can, when you can

When you get involved in change you will find some people who are really keen (the marketeers would call them early adopters), some who just sit and wait but will follow the crowd once they know which way the crowd is going ( I will call them ‘the herd’)and some who will actively or passively resist. My question to you is “Why would you want to spend time, especially at the beginning of a process, working with resistance when you could be creating change and generating enthusiasm by working with the early adopters?” As you work with early adopters they start to show the direction for the herd and slowly but surely the herd will follow. The contrary scenario is one in which your efforts are frustrated by and your energy sapped by resistors from whom the emerging messages to the herd are negative. All you do by working with resistors in the early stages is tire yourself out, build up more resistance and risk and entrenching yet further resistance in the herd.

So, perhaps my principle to do what you can, where you can, when you can is not so glib after all. I have likened the job of a change agents to lighting a series of small fires in an organisation. Sometimes the fire will take hold and it is those ones, especially in the initial stages, that you pay attention to, giving them whatever support they need to burn effectively whilst not becoming a wildfire. Some of your fires will just burble along, not dying out nor turning into wildfires – these you also support, looking for easy opportunities to help them along and maybe connect to different yet related places that are all part of the overall thrust of what you are trying to achieve. The ones you ignore are the fires that just flicker before dying out. Fire dies because it does not have enough fuel or enough oxygen, or enough people to supply it with fuel or oxygen. So let it die out until such time as you can find enough fuel enough oxygen (enough support and energy) to be able pay it some consistent attention.

To me this Principle –  “Do what you can, where you can, when you can” – is probably the most important principle in leading change. We only ever have a limited resource available so let’s make sure we commit our resource to areas in which we can make a short term difference, after all John P Kotter did talk about realising quick wins.


What stories could you share about how this division of effort, or perhaps lack of it, helped or hindered your change efforts?

Make that list! Stop thinking and start doing…

Completions GestaltI am sat here, brain the size of a planet, watching the clouds drift past as I wonder what to do. Not that I don’t have LOADS to do, but what next? What little, or big, task would excite me enough to stir me into action? Wondering why I would rather watch the clouds than get productive (not that watching the clouds does not have its place, of course)?

And I am reminded of this little model we created to explore task completion (or not!) – A Completions Gestalt (see picture, left).


The proposition is, and this is just a model – not necessarily true, just there to aid our thinking, that when we complete a task we go through a series of steps:

    1. I Sense – my senses are constantly being bombarded with bits of data that may or may not be relevant to my situation. Too many to take in, so…
    2. I Become Aware – somehow a part, a very small part, of that data make its way into my consciousness. The mechanisms are probably the basis of another blog.
    3. I get motivated – now that my brain has actually noticed these few bits of data it have to decide how important it is that I act on them. This is the territory of values.
    4. I invent what to do – perhaps I should put “invent” in quotation marks, because whilst a completely new scenario might require genuine invention, much of what crosses my path simply requires my brain to remember an appropriate response and tailor it to the situation.
    5. I take action – so far everything has been happening inside my head, it’s only when I do something or say something that the world is likely to change.
    6. I get rewarded – the metaphorical grey cell that is currently occupied with this task is going to continue to be occupied until it gets some recognition that action has been taken.
    7. I become available – once recognition has been noted, that little grey cell can now free itself to start paying attention to something else.

I find this a lovely little model for figuring out why I am stuck.


Step one is about sensory function – how well are my senses working? Do I need to turn my hearing aid up? Is my sense of taste hindered by a cold?

Step two is about sensory awareness – am I actually paying attention to information my sensory organs are producing? Or am I wandering round in my own little Daisy world totally aware of my surroundings?

Step three is values territory – I am motivated to do something about issues that are important to me and when I am not motivated perhaps I ought to question myself about why I am doing this task in the first place.

Step four is about creativity – If I always do what I always did, I always got guess what I always got. The more creative I can become in my responses to the situations in which I find myself, the more successful I will feel.

Step five – is where we enter Just Do It territory. It’s sometimes too easy to get caught up in what ifs, to worry about potential consequences of action, is it the right action, with something else be better, perhaps I should leave it till tomorrow until I get more data, am I doing it the right way? Well, you won’t know the answer to any of these questions until you actually do something.

Step six – is where we reward ourselves for having taken action. At its simplest, it might be crossing the task off your task risk. What certainly seems to be the case is that the reward needs to be Prompt, Proportionate, Personalised – so buying myself a Rolls-Royce because I’ve cut the grass might not be proportionate, nor would buying my neighbour a meal at a three star restaurant because they think that Harvester pubs are upmarket.

Step seven – is where that little niggle in the back of our brain you said you were going to do….   is finally removed and we start creating brain space to have a go at something else.

So, what action I going to invent in response to idly looking out of the window? Well, the first was to write this blog. The second is to make my list – I know from past experience, yet sometimes forget, that I work most effectively when I do have a list of a few things to do and when I do have fixed appointments in my diary. I just need reminding occasionally.

Do pay attention!

Pay attention to detailI came across this quotation (apparently from a movie – do you know which one, becasue I don’t?) recently…

“Wars are won one battle at a time. Battles are won one bullet at a time.”

We all need to keep our eye on the big picture, but when this gets in the way of the detail then there is a risk that the war will be lost one battle at a time.

A friend of mine, Julie Kay, recently wrote in her blog about ‘caring’ and it struck me that there is a resonance here – if I really care about what I am doing then I will do it to the best of my ability, getting it right first time and avoiding re-work and wasted effort.

Often getting the detail right can make or break getting the job right. If this is the case and someone says “I don’t do detail”, are they in the right job?

How about you commit to excellence to day? Do every job as if it really really mattered.

Life is for living

Richard Bach - OneI have just been reading another wonderful little book by Richard Bach called “One”. I first came across Richard’s books when I was introduced to Jonathan Livingston Seagull over 30 years ago. JLS can take you half an hour to read or a lifetime; it can be a simple story about a Seagull are a complex parable about learning. For many years I never left the house without a seagull on a chain around my neck, until the day that I realised the seagull had flown away when the chain broke,  never to be seen by me again.

Anyway, back to this latest book “One”. He posits a situation and an exercise that I challenge you to take on yourself. Somehow or other  he meets himself in the future and that future self  knows, for certain, that he only has six months to live. Let me give you the exercise by quoting from the book:

“I think we ought to take this napkin here”, she reached into her purse, “and this pencil, and we ought to list what we want to do most and make this the best six months, the best time in our lives. What would we do if there were no doctors with their dos and don’ts? They can’t cure you, so who are they to tell others what to do with whatever time we have left? I think we ought to make this list and then go ahead and do what we want.”

I don’t know whether the subject of this piece was lucky or not that he knew for sure that he had another six months to live. I don’t know whether or not I will be alive when you read this entry-there is no reason why I shouldn’t be but who knows what happens on the roads or in that complex biochemistry that keeps is running every day?

So my challenge to you is to do the exercise, to figure out what it is that you want to do (not need to do – that’s usually someone else’s agenda), to make a list and to get out there and do it. Oh, there will be challenges, but isn’t a life full of those anyway? Yes, you might upset a few people but you are living your life and you probably only have one of them so you might as well get the most out of it.

And some people will tell you that it’s impossible, selfish, not affordable, etc  – those are their hangups. So let them deal with them rather than dump them on you. I urge you do this exercise , after all you might only have six months to live.