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Using the Pareto Principle (80:20 Rule) in Survey Research

The Pareto principle (which you may know as the 80-20 rule) states that, for many phenomena, 80% of consequences stem from 20% of the causes. It is a common rule of thumb in business; e.g., "80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients."

The Pareto principle also applies to survey research. When planning your survey project, plan on expending 20% of your resources on the survey execution (data collection) and 80% of your resources acting of the information gathered (follow-up actions).

Pareto Principle for Survey Research 

Let me explain using an example:

I recently completed a survey project for the Taos Municipal School District (TMSD) in Taos, New Mexico. A year ago the school board formed a subcommittee with a charter to make recommendations for improving communication within the district.

The committee quickly decided they needed to do a survey in order to learn what problems existed and what solutions may work best. The need to do a survey project led them to me.

My first task was to set expectations on two fronts:

  1. The scope of communication within a school district is huge.
  2. The survey project is not an end. Early in the design the focus needs to be on what is going to be done once the survey is complete.

After nearly a year with the "volunteer" committee meeting once a week, we had completed three surveys (one each to parents, staff and the community) and collected over 1,000 responses.

TMSD spent $12,500 and the volunteer time on the data collection and analysis.

Does it seem reasonable that they might spend $50,000 and many many committee hours to implement solutions and improve communications?

Understanding the Survey Results

The results showed that the problems and solutions were different for different schools within the district.

It was clear communication was not going to improve unless changes were enacted; website upgrading, school improvement teams (high school, middle school and elementary schools), a district liaison to the community and a stronger relationship with the town's newspaper were just some of the recommendations.

Will the information be used and changes enacted?

There was a glimmer of hope right at the start: The study results were presented at a School Board meeting in the city council chambers.

After seeing the results and hearing the recommendations, the board took action on one recommendation right there on the spot.

The board voted on and passed a resolution to make "progress on improving communications" a standing agenda item for their monthly meetings.

(In this case, the cycle time from results presentation to specific ACTION broke my old record!)

Do yourself and your customers a favor.

Plan at the start to expend time and money on the implementation side of your next survey research project.

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