The Diminishing Returns of Effort

2016-08-15

I’ve been thinking about the principle of diminishing returns on effort in project work. I’ve noted that my expertise, or that of the team I’m working on, accounted for roughly 80% of the initial project content. That is, when we started the project, what we knew about the subject at the starting line got us 80% of the way to the finish line.

This caused me to think carefully about how much effort to expend getting from 80% to 100%. The principle of diminishing returns sets in and it is easy to put forth a great deal of effort and realize only minimal returns.

The sketch in the photo below illustrates this idea. (No, I didn’t draw the cartoonish face at the bottom. It was on the whiteboard when I started a meeting. I liked it and left it there.) I was in a meeting recently and shared this concept and drew this diagram on the whiteboard.

2016-08-15 Supp 1

The triangle on the left depicts your knowledge, or your team’s knowledge of a project subject. The large block at the bottom is the knowledge you have when you start a project. (If the project subject is outside your area of expertise, this concept doesn’t apply.) Note that at the start of the project no time is expended to acquire that knowledge. That time is already past. The investment was made. Now you are realizing the return on your investment.

The triangle to the right depicts effort. Some initial effort is required to organize the knowledge, but not much. You’ve probably noticed in the past that whatever your expertise, it is easy to organize and present your knowledge to others.

So at day one of the project we’re at 80%. What about the remaining 20%? This is where the principle of diminishing returns comes into play. Each increment of knowledge we add to the knowledge triangle requires inversely more effort to acquire and integrate into the existing knowledge paradigm. That is, the value of the new knowledge is less than the effort required to get and use that knowledge.

There are two important lessons that result from this principle:

  1. Start each project by organizing knowledge that you already know (without having to go beyond your immediate team). This will help you understand where the gaps are and how to strategically go beyond 80%.
  2. Carefully assess how much effort should be expended to grow closer to 100%. What is the investment/reward ratio? Keep in mind that rarely is a perfect outcome (100%) in the initial project necessary. (Although, see the caveats below.)

One application of this principle is that people should feel more confident in what they know. I frequently remind people, when working on something in their wheelhouse, “You already know 80% of what you need to know to get this done!” That means take stock of your expertise in this subject and leverage it.

Another application of the principle is to leverage that 80% strategically and organize your knowledge. Then, when you get input from others (to build toward 100%), they have something to react to. In other words, “Get started and give people a proposal or draft to react to.”

There are some important caveats that go with this principle of diminishing returns.

Caveats

  • This does not mean you can ignore the importance of gaining stakeholder buy-in. You help develop buy-in when you put the right people on the initial team (that builds the 80%) and when you strategically enlist others in building the other 20%.
  • Sometimes it is worth getting it perfectly right from the start — when lives are on the line and when legal and ethical matters are at stake. Do not settle for “good enough” in these cases.
  • Sometimes every moment invested to get to 100% is worth it because the margin of victory is so slim — think Olympic competition. Most of us are not elite athletes, but when the stakes are extremely high and the margin of victory is so slim it might indeed be worth every ounce of effort toward 100%.

When you begin your next project, take stock of what you already know. Recognize its value and carefully consider how far up the knowledge triangle you need to go and effort required to get there. You just might realize faster development time and higher quality outcomes!

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Credits
Photo by Aren Van de Pol. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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