The Pareto Principle is alive and well in project management

So let’s start with a definition or an understanding of the ‘Pareto Principle’?

“The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) states that 80% of the results come from 20% of the causes.”

Let me give you an example of how I used this many years ago. I was the training manager in a company that had a centralised typing pool (I did say it was many years ago). Staff in the pool struggled to turn the work around within the target of 24 hours. As a Consultant, I was asked to look at what training was needed.

80% of typing pool problems came from 20% of the causes

I started out by analysing the issues and discovered:

  1. Authors kept changing their minds thus causing repeat letters to be printed out
  2. The letter was often written by one person and signed by their manager. But the manager sometimes did not agree with the content, the grammar or tone. This resulted in several versions being typed before the letter was finally signed off
  3. Bad handwriting – staff said they wasted a lot of time trying to decipher handwriting. Letters had to be put to one side until the person came along and rewrote that bit of the letter (or in some cases the whole letter)
  4. There were spelling mistakes and words omitted by typing pool staff

The 4 issues mentioned were some of many mistakes that I identified. When I looked at the statistics they accounted for around 20% of the errors but around 80% of the wasted time. The 80/20 rule applied! (80% of the problems came from 20% of the causes.)

The solution: I coached the typing pool supervisor and deputy to coach the authors (and her staff) in a proactive way. The result; after 3 months the target time of 24 hours was being achieved more regularly, and after 6 months all the time.

So what is the link with project management?

I have worked with project managers, project sponsors and team members. They talk about their problems – and do they talk!

Now I have not done any formal analysis as I did with the typing pool. However I feel that if the 80/20 rule were applied then many of the problems mentioned would effectively be prevented. What are the problems – that account for 80% of issues people face?

  • Defining the project – there are still many projects where ‘getting to done’ is far from clear. Many project managers are frustrated around the lack of a clear objective. Many team members feel the same, as they cannot see the end goal
  • Stakeholder management – this is by far the most common issue that accounts for so much angst, worry and anxiety around many of the people aspects of project management. Sometimes a stakeholder is forgotten, or it is assumed ‘they know’, or there is a lack of skills to influence them
  • Time management/work breakdown structure(WBS) – my good friend Mike Clayton from  suggests that time management is definitely in the top 3 problems. I believe that through the WBS the full extent (size, complexity) of the project becomes apparent. It is then that people worry about time management and personal organisation issues.

If these 3 issues were proactively managed then many of the problems around delivery of projects would disappear. Now I know some of you reading this will say this is too simplistic. I would argue that so many problems around project management can be identified even before the project kicks off. The 3 identified account for the 80% of problems are holding back project delivery (from 20% of the causes)

So what can project managers and team members do?

Focus on managing out the three problems.

Ensure there is a written project definition signed off by the sponsor and involving key stakeholders. Carry out a formal and in depth stakeholder management with a range of actions, including effectively communicating to all parties. This can also include developing influencing skills of all project managers (influencing without authority courses can easily be run for project staff). Finally, personal organisation skills can quickly be developed again with the application of time management principles and techniques alongside clear priority setting by the organisation.

Project managers need to solve problems and if they solve only the top 3 then their lives would be a lot easier. Of course, your problems may be different however it is still up to you to solve them, proactively

Maybe the title of this article should read “The Pareto Principle should be alive and well in project management?”

Do your own analysis and let me know what you think.

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6 Responses to The Pareto Principle is alive and well in project management

  1. Ian Cribbes says:

    Great article Ron and fully agree with your points. In my experience it is the relationship with the project stakeholders, or not in many cases, that result in the biggest headaches.

    • Ron Rosenhead says:

      Thanks Ian, how are you?

      Yes, this is a key issue for many people who come along to pro courses. Sadly, this aspect is often rushed, not done at all or done poorly with really negative results.

      Keep pushing the stakeholder management piece – it’s essential and thanks Ian.


  2. David Bewick says:

    The application of Pareto can manage just about anything. In 6sigma 80% of issues come from 20% of the process and so on. I’ve even used it to manage my inbox and it works. 80% of the value comes from 20% of the e-mails.

    • Ron Rosenhead says:

      Thanks David. Correct! It is a underused tool and I think that its use would add to an organisations problem solving if used more often.

      Apologies for the delay in responding. I have been away travelling (and working).

      Thanks again

  3. Great article!
    This is still happening in so many projects all over the world. I am involved in a French project, was involved in Austrian and Romanian projects and the 80% of the issues came from 20% of the mistales( WBS definition first, Stakeholder engagement, time allocation).

    All the best,
    Virgil ANDREI
    PMP, Senior Project Planning & Risk Management Consultant

    • Ron Rosenhead says:

      Hi Virgil. I’m pleased you confirm its use! It is a powerful model that should be used more often.

      Apologies for the delay in responding. I have been away travelling (and working).

      Many thanks for getting in touch.

      Best wishes, Ron Rosenhead

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