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An insider reviews...

The 80/20 Principle, by Richard Koch Nicholas Brealey Publishing; ISBN 1-85788-168; UK£10.99

Did you know that 80% of crimes are committed by 20% of criminals? Or that 20% of any carpet receives 80% of the wear and tear? Or, perhaps of more interest to readers of this magazine, that 80% of your company's profits are likely to be generated by 20% of your products?

Richard Koch uses these and other examples to demonstrate that 'The Pareto Law' – 19th century Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto's observation that in any given population roughly 80% of wealth will go to 20% of the people – can be extended beyond social economics to all areas of life and business, in the form of the '80/20 principle'.

According to the 80/20 principle, there is a large disparity between effort and reward. A 'vital few'actions will generate results that are far greater than might be expected. Most actions, the 'trivial many', will achieve very little. Although it may not be a precise 80/20 correlation in all situations, there is almost always an imbalance that means certain actions will achieve much more than others. The key to greater personal and professional success lies in spending more time and energy on the 'vital few', while minimising time wasted on the 'trivial many'. Koch explores the potential applications of the 80/20 principle in business and lifestyle, before ending with a discussion of its social implications.

Koch's book is intriguing and frustrating in equal measure. The author's style is concise, easy to read and inspiring without being evangelical. His ideas are thought provoking and encourage the reader to think about areas of their own life where the 80/20 principle could be applied. However, the book is short on practical advice and specific case studies. Koch tantalises the reader. He convinces them that the 80/20 principle could improve their life, but doesn't demonstrate how to do it. While this non-prescriptive attitude forces the reader to be creative in their application of the rule, a few more examples on how to effect the revolutionary changes promised by the book would be helpful.

Another problem – none of Koch's advice is new. The business tips boil down to the following: keep your organisation simple; concentrate on those customers, products and markets that are most profitable to you; get rid of the rest; and maintain innovation within your field. Very few business people will argue with this set of goals and most will also realise that they've heard and read this countless times before in seminars and literature.

Even the section on time management, which promises a 'time revolution', doesn't back this up with practical content. Koch suggests that standard time management approaches are flawed, in that they encourage people to squeeze more into their already busy days, rather than showing them how to focus on what is important. He advocates thinking of time as cyclical – time that has passed is not time that is wasted, as it will come around again. This perception of time as a revolving door, rather than a finite resource, allows individuals to relax and spend more time thinking, instead of reacting blindly to self-imposed deadlines.

This sounds great, but Koch doesn't make any suggestions about putting it into practice. It is hard to see how it would differ from the standard time management methodology of prioritising daily tasks, discarding the irrelevant ones and spending most time on the important ones. It would have been nice to see examples of his theory in action.

The self-help section of the book is no more revolutionary, in essence stating that the key to success and happiness is knowing what you want out of life and your career, and then doing it. Koch mentions several techniques and subjects, including the 'seven habits of happiness'and 'emotional IQ', but these have already been covered in greater depth by other writers. Koch's approach adds nothing new.

In the spirit of the 80/20 principle, the important 20% of this book is the principle itself: that 20% of everything we do leads to 80% of what we achieve. The rest of the book provides an interesting array of examples to which the rule can be applied, but fundamentally, Koch leaves the onus on the readers to decide for themselves how to apply the 80/20 rule in their professional and personal lives. This may satisfy some, but if you're looking for concrete advice or are already an aficionado of 'improvement' literature, you might find The 80/20 Principle a little too lacking in practical substance for your tastes. 

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