Iraq and the 90% Rule

There is a rule of life that 90% of the cost of an activity will be incurred in performing 10% of the task. I first read this in a study from IBM many years ago that provided empirical evidence of the truth of this rule-of-thumb and it’s something I’ve observed all my life. I consider this rule one of the fundamental postulates of praxeology (the science of accomplishing things). I know that the 90-90 rule (as it’s sometimes called) is attributed to Tom Cargill but perhaps some smart person can direct me to the study that I’m thinking of. It’s lost somewhere in my library.

It’s closely related to Sturgeon’s Law.

In a slight digression one of the great geniuses of Microsoft is the creative application of this rule. By never completing more than 90% of any product and declaring the unfinished product production-worthy they avoid major costs in time and money.

This isn’t just a law of software development or engineering. It applies to staffing (90% of the work in a company is performed by 10% of the people) and just about everything else.

Including the war in Iraq.

I recall turning to my wife when President Bush announced the end of major military operations in Iraq two years ago and saying “It’s just begun”. That’s because of the 90% rule.

When I read this post at CenterField in which the author asks “What is your personal tipping point on Iraq?” i.e. what would make you change your mind about what’s going on there, and several people mentioned different kinds of ratcheting down there e.g. of deaths, attacks, etc., I thought “these guys don’t understand the 90% rule”. The violence and deaths in Iraq will continue at an unacceptable level. And then they’ll stop. Or diminish sharply. We’ll have accomplished that remaining, costly 10%.

Fellow Council-member Rick Moran of Right Wing Nut House calls the Senate Republicans “nervous Nellies”; Nitpicker seems upset that the Republicans are stealing the Democrats’ ideas (and, presumably their thunder). I think that Senators just don’t understand the 90% rule and asking “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” like 6 year olds in the backseat won’t get us there (whereever there might be) a second sooner.

FWIW while I have no objections to publishing milestones for accomplishing our objectives in Iraq (which I think is long overdue), I think that looking for a timetable, schedule, or anything else that has dates and times rather than tasks on it is childish and stupid.

10 comments… add one
  • Ron Link

    It’s certainly true that 10% of people do 90% of the work.

    The theory reflects on the phenomenon of “sweeping under the rug” or piling more and more junk in closets and garages. Industrial/technological by-product pollutants, the archeology of bone/pottery dumps etc. “Things fall apart . . .”

    Iraq is a little more involved than the 90% rule, though. The invasion of Iraq triggered a much larger phenomenon than the original rotten regime of Saddam. This new phenomenon was inevitable given the demographics of the muslim (esp. arab) world compared to the demographics of the western world. It was merely a question of where and when.

  • Iraq is a little more involved than the 90% rule, though.

    I couldn’t agree more, Ron. But I do think the 90% rule is at work as well since I believe that it’s an ineluctable law of behavior like supply and demand or the law of least resistance.

  • Constance Link

    Ninety-Ninety Rule – “The first 90% of the code accounts for the first 90% of the development time. The remaining 10% of the code accounts for the other 90% of the development time”. The last 10% is the hardest and will result in delays in finishing the project … or in this case, the war.

  • Constance Link

    There’s also a bit of irony in that the 90-90 rule was originally known as the ‘Rule of Credibility’ … something the Bush admin has little of these days.

  • Ron Link

    If only the Bush administration had the credibility of a Kofi Annan, or a Jacques Chirac! One of the most amusing things I’ve seen lately is the playing back of Kerry’s and Levin’s previous comments on Saddam Hussein, juxtaposed with their current bloviating. That’s credibility!

  • Constance Link

    Ohhhhhhhhhhhh, somebody didn’t get a Liver Snap this morning, did they? Don’t look at me with those big eyes and expect me to be an apologist for Kofi Annan or Chirac. If you’re nice, maybe we’ll go for a walk later. 😉

  • Jimoose Link

    There has been an eighty twenty rule for a long time but the ninty ten rule is news to me.

    “eighty twenty rule” = 928 hits
    “ninety ten rule” = 43 hits

  • Jimoose, the “90% rule” is an extremely old terminology for it and I’m not surprised that Google doesn’t show a lot of results for it. People who aren’t codgers like me call it the “90-90 rule” (as Connie pointed out). That gets about 2,000 hits.

  • Ron Link

    Admit it, Constance. You are secretly a lap dog for the UN and the French. It’s futile to try to hide it. I spotted it straight away.

  • Constance Link

    (Laugh!) Oh, you’d love it if my name were ‘Fifi’! You’re so far off the mark, Ron. But I am NO fan of Bush & Co., that’s for certain. You guys that put Bush in office — TWICE — get the rap for this one. And just for the record, I’m not a Democrat either.

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