Prioritise those conflicting priorities; keep focused on the ‘Big Picture’. Remember Pareto’s 80/20 rule?

Credit: Online Photo


Debate – for curious minds

Captains are visionaries. They always keep the big picture and the horizon in mind and at the forefront of their destination. They are focused and are not too easily distracted and sidetracked by trivia that can easily be handled by well-trained crew and sailors. Yet, many of us fill our days with those trivia! We micromanage, firefight, run all over the place seemingly (and sometimes pretending to be) busy. But our end deliverables and products reveal the truth. The employer will not measure our performance by our façade of busyness, but by the services and products we actually deliver at the end of the day.

This week was a perfect example of this very unfortunate scenario. Two extremely important meetings were poorly-attended by key officials. A longtime devoted adviser almost lamented at one of the meetings that “we need to decide what we really want for this country”. In other words, we need to be more focused!

Have we Lost the Plot?

By ‘we’ I am referring to us – Heads of agencies – DGs, Directors, CEOs, etc. The titles we carry will mean more if we can prove to the powers that be that we are delivering results. In early February the Hon Minister of Finance did not mince his words on the subject of ‘incompetency’. What if we are humble enough to admit this and do better as we now commence the 2nd quarter of our first year of graduation from LDC to DC, and that we think about our work and our service as ‘not as unto Ceasar but unto God’? The Government had the foresight and wisdom of establishing the Ministerial Committee on ‘big projects’ in a way to address this incompetency question. This therefore begs the unkind yet frank question, what is the Government paying us for? That aside, maybe the great Italian thinker, Pareto, might help us refocus our efforts on the big picture as we move forward.

Pareto’s 80/20 Rule

Italian civil engineer, sociologist, economist, political scientist, and philosopher Federico Damaso Pareto is widely known (at least among students of management and economics) for his renowned ‘80/20 rule’. He died on 19th August 1923 but his legacy has withstood the test of time. Pareto argued the principle that ‘for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes (the “vital few”)’. Yes, the vital few versus the trivial and routine-driven myriad things that we scurry around doing. We carry titles that signify us as ‘captains’ but we may be busy attending crew work. Either that or we’ve simply just lost our sense of direction, so much so that we can’t differentiate between north and south. Take a 10-15 minutes break today and read a bit about Pareto’s 80/20 principle. ‘In business, a goal of the 80-20 rule is to identify inputs that are potentially the most productive and make them the priority.’ You can apply this principle even in your work.

Pareto’s 80/20 Rule and our crippled Economy

Pareto’s principle has tremendous lessons for our shattered, Covid-inflicted economy. In the Press Statement issued by the Hon Prime Minister on 24th February announcing the opening of the ‘Tamtam Travel Bubble’, he was unequivocally clear on the necessity “for the Government to begin implementing the Tamtam Travel Bubble now so Vanuatu’s economic recovery from the global COVID-19 pandemic can also begin”. He further warned, “The Government cannot keep the border closed forever –– we need to start creating a pathway that allows us to go forward safely into the future while still minimising the risks to the people and prosperity of our country”.

In brief, we need to refocus our efforts on the economy and get it back on track. The Hon PM and his senior Ministers have made that firm commitment in numerous ways, even as far as committing to a regular series of High Level Consultations (HLC) with the country’s private sector. This is unheard of. Never have we seen this level of seriousness and commitment before. The next HLC session is scheduled for Friday, 9th April. Are we (officials) still committed or have we run out of steam?

HLC preparations and NTDC

Only three (3) DGs turned up to the ‘preparatory meeting’ hosted by the private sector on Monday this week for the upcoming HLC on 9th April. This meeting was supposed to be for the DGs to help prepare and advise the private sector of our common approach to the HLC discussions with our leaders. Then the second event on Wednesday this week, the first National Trade Development Committee (NTDC) meeting of 2021, only two DGs and a few Directors were there, flanked by committed officers who may not necessarily be decision makers.

DG Trade Mr Joy likened the NTDC as our ‘economic development parliament’. ‘Who is supposed to be driving the economic development agenda of this country’? I’ve heard this question from another senior DG recently.

If it is not a single institution of Government, I would say NTDC has to be that body – that forum of economic and social development thinkers and engineers.

The policy debates and implementation plans discussed at the NTDC cover a broad range of areas from trade to agriculture, education, infrastructure, ICT, health, and the entire spectrum of agenies of Government that contribute to the country’s social and economic development. A lot more is involved at the NTDC than the inconceivable perception that this is just about ‘trade’.

The NTDC as the peak body driving our economic development plans in the country currently faces the burning questions of relevance and legitimacy in the very critical times we now live in. It is therefore high time we all returned to the drawing board to refresh and resharpen our vision. I am seriously hoping that come the 2nd NTDC in July we will have a full house of those very capable thinkers and architects of our economy. We owe our commitment to the country and to the poor and destitute around us that have lost their jobs and whose eyes may be blurred with painful tears of uncertainty.

If we heed Pareto’s advise on the 80/20 principle, I am confident we will focus on big impact decisions that will help to fastforward our economic progress during these unprecedented difficult times.

Howard Aru is current CEO of the Vanuatu Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (VFIPA) and former Director Genera of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, and Biosecurity and the Ministry of Health.

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