It was a meeting with my design and product partners. Just the day before, we had been brainstorming ideas for the strategy for the coming year. In the 24 hours between, I had written up a draft of a strategy. It was more to gather my thoughts than anything else. My design partner smiled, and I worried that maybe I had overstepped. But he wasn’t annoyed or surprised. Instead, he was complimentary. He said, “I’m always impressed by how quickly you get to an 80% draft, and how you’re OK with sharing that early work”.

It’s true. In a leadership role, we’re asked over and over again to produce clarity from ambiguity. At every level of an organization, leaders are synthesizing the all the information they have, and outputting new information. Neither the inputs nor the outputs resolve all or even most of the ambiguity. As leaders, we need to be comfortable with both receiving and emitting ambiguity — it’s never going to be perfect.

In many different situations, both large and small, I practice familiarity and comfort with ambiguity by striving to synthesize information, in writing, aiming to get to 80% fidelity in 20% of the time.

The 80/20 Rule

This is a form of the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule.

The Pareto principle states that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes (the “vital few”). Other names for this principle are the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity. — Wikipedia

The principle applies in many contexts. 80% of land is owned by 20% of the people. 80% of sales come from 20% of clients. 80% of bugs come from 20% of the code. My corollary is that 80% of impact for anything comes from the first 20% of the work.

In my experience, this is true of all kinds of different work. In the first 20% of a software project’s lifespan, you will get a prototype that is 80% indistinguishable from any form of that product that will ever exist. Maybe this corresponds to the initial MVP of the product, which required one quarter of work.

For pure information processing, i.e. reading and writing, the first 20% of the time can be as little as one hour.

Assuming you’re with me so far, a couple of insights follow naturally.

  1. It rarely makes sense to wait for more information; if you have an hour right now, start synthesizing (writing)
  2. Pass the information on quickly; by holding on to information to “perfect” it, you’re blocking downstream people from 80% of their immediate impact

Together, these ideas are a powerful way to break through personal procrastination and paralyzation.

Trust Your (Professional) Instincts

Learn to think like a consultant. Companies pay consultants to synthesize information, and come up with recommendations. They have very little context in the actual business, maybe 20% of any leader on the inside. They have “business” training and experience — but this is not their primary value. Leaders use consultants to outsource creating clarity from ambiguity. In practice, very often their recommendation is something that the leader has already proposed, but which is now made into a compelling written artifact.

The 80/20 rule is your permission to resolve this ambiguity yourself. You can create the written artifact, even without all the information you would like to have. It will be 80% as good as anything anyone could come up with, regardless of time. It’s faster than engaging any consultant.

This applies no matter what the context is. In my career, I can think of times when I did not trust my own instincts about things like the valuation of a start-up I was thinking of joining, or the fundamental product flaws in something we were building. In all cases, my first take was 80% correct. I’ve learned to not dismiss my own analysis, just because I’m “not an expert”.

Don’t Optimize for Perfect Information

When faced with ambiguity (i.e. in every situation, ever), it’s tempting to wait to get all the information you think you need. Even in the best case, you’re making a sub-20% optimization at the cost of time. It’s not worth it. In the worst case, your conclusion will arrive too late to matter.

There is opportunity cost to waiting for more information, both in terms of other things you could be working to synthesize, and in terms of downstream leaders that you’re depriving of information. In these cases, do the 80% version and then send it out. Done is better than perfect.

As an added bonus, you often capture some outsized value for getting it done quickly, or being the one to get it done first. In a sea of potential ideas, the ones that take form first will invariably have outsized influence in the formation of the final, coalesced proposal. “Getting there first” is not-too-subtly anchoring the group’s thinking.

When to Go to 100%?

When does it make sense to continue to put effort into something past 80%? Maybe never. But, sometimes the goal posts move significantly. What was an 80% solution in a fixed space is now just part of a solution in a much, much larger space. What you can do is sprint to an 80% solution in the new problem space. It may take as little as an hour.

This may all sound like half-assing your way through everything. But, it’s actually very hard to send partially baked ideas out to your colleagues. It’s hard to take many different signals and synthesize them down into something coherent. Writing well is hard. Don’t confuse the number of minutes something takes with difficulty.

In high school and college, I used to feel guilty about doing this. If I wasn’t always pushing to 100% effort, was I wasting my potential? Eventually, I came to two realizations. First, I never fully stopped thinking about any problem that was still in progress. Even if the 20% effort had not started yet, I was invariably thinking about the problem in the background, whether it was while walking to class, eating, or taking a shower. That effort count too — especially in salaried employment, we’re never really not working.

Secondly, sprinting to 80% of the impact means you can then get started on the next thing. Now, I relish the prospect of checking off an item on my list at 80%, and looking down to see what I get started next.