Is the 80/20 Rule Inevitable?


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Early in my career, I enjoyed creating technology for technology’s sake; the act of coding something is fun. It didn’t matter what I was coding or who I was coding for. There is undeniable artistry and craftsmanship in the things engineers do. Crack open your iPhone; what you see is art to someone. If you could look at the source code for your favorite app, you would see craftsmanship by the author.

It wasn’t until later in my career that I started considering what I was building and who I was building it for. Junior engineers are so often shielded from real life users, locked in the basement as it were, that I think I was not the only one. As I started meeting customers and users I was able to empathize with their pain; whether it be a missing solution to a problem or frustrating tools or inefficient workflows. My empathy fundamentally changed my view of technology. It mattered less whether I had fun coding a beautiful piece of software - my art became the impact I was able to create for someone else. Did the technology suit them, did they like it, did it add value to their lives?

When I began to focus on the value that technology creates, I was shocked at some of my discoveries. Users love the idea of technology; our society is conditioned to love the idea of technology, but users quite frequently didn’t love the reality of technology. The Pareto principle (also known as the 80–20 rule) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. I believe this applies as much to technology as anywhere else.

80-20

On day one of a project the possibilities are endless. Who doesn’t love to imagine the analytics platform that will provide real time access to all of our data and let us create dynamic customizable reports on the fly with blazing speed, perfect quality,and no learning curve whatsoever because everything is just obvious in its simplicity. What a world it will be!

The system that is eventually delivered (I say eventually because it will take three times longer than planned) doesn’t look quite like we fantasized, doesn’t work quite like we fantasized, and is scaled back and simplified in every facet. What it does do is represent a change to the way we do things - something new to learn, more work. On second thought, the old system doesn’t seem so bad, right? At least we know how to use it and it does exactly what we expect. There is value in meeting expectations.

This outcome is mind blowingly common. To apply the 80/20 rule: 80% of users only use 20% of the features, or perhaps a better statement, 80% of the value comes from 20% of the features. We live in a technology revolution; we are creating more technology faster than imaginable but we are also throwing so much of it away. The waste is staggering. Projects never see the light of day or sit on users’ desktops in relative obscurity because they simply do not create value. This value proposition is so obscure that too often we learn this lesson the hard way, on day 300 of the project.

In the financial sector, rigorous modelling is performed to understand risk and returns of an investment deal from every angle. Venture capital backed technology projects may be scrutinized as much but as you move to Angel investments, internal IT projects, and other channels the bar falls away. Somewhere right now a business is approving the purchase of a 50k tool that will “provide the CEO visibility so he can sleep better at night” or “delight the analysts with a 10% workflow efficiency.” Will that tool pay for itself? Or will it trigger the need for additional technology resources before it can add value?

The question is whether this application of the 80/20 rule is inevitable. Can we choose to spend our resources building the 20% of technology that creates maximum value?