Concept of the Day: Parkinson’s Law

There are certain phrases in the English lexicon that are almost universally known, but their history is less well known – this is one of those phrases:

“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”

Cyril Northcote Parkinson

These words appear at the beginning of an article in The Economist in 1955:

It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and despatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.

Parkinson’s Law, The Economist, 19th November, 1955

Parkinson’s initial observations were made in relation to the volume of civil servants and the amount of work being done. This is an ongoing discussion 64 years later, but not one that I feel in any way qualified to comment on. Parkinson was quite cynical about the reasons for an expanding civil service of his day – but I’ll let you read the original article and draw your own conclusion.

(Personally, in 2019, I find the caricatures of the “elderly lady of leisure” and the “busy man” jarring in their reinforcement of stereotypes.)

Where I can comment is in the business world where I see this law at play every day.

Meetings that are scheduled for an hour generally last an hour. This is remarkable when you consider the lack of preparation that goes in to most meetings. Interestingly enough meetings that are scheduled for 30 minutes generally last 30 minutes. Furthermore, there is, often, little discernible difference between the outcomes of a 30 minute meeting and 60 minute one. This is Parkinson’s Law at play.

Someone given a few hours to prepare material to present to a client will generally finish it in the time allocated and the material will be of a good quality. Given more time they would still produce material of a good quality.

Projects that are planned to deliver something over several months will rarely deliver anything in a few weeks, even when the project plan was highly speculative when created. Interestingly, it’s not unknown for projects that are planned for months to last several years, but I don’t think we can hold Parkinson’s Law wholly responsible for that.

I don’t think we can remove Parkinson’s Law altogether, what we need to do is to recognise it and contain it.

One of the powerful aspects of incremental delivery techniques like Scrum and Kanban is that they reduce the impact of Parkinson’s Law by breaking larger activities down into smaller constrained entities. Each entity is still subject to Parkinson’s Law; the constraint contains the impact within the increment.

The impact of constraints is easy to understand if you think about an 8 hour working day. Imagine within that day that you have 16 different subjects to discuss. Add to that scene 10 people sitting in a room for those 8 hours working their way through the agenda from top to bottom. What is the likelihood that with just 2 hours remaining there are still 8 items to discuss? Now imagine those same 16 different subjects and a schedule split into strictly enforced 25 minute slots that gives people a 5 minute break before the start of the next subject. What’s more this schedule requires conclusions to be reached within 20 minutes. Which of these two approaches will result in each of the 16 items being discussed? But will the conclusions reached be of the same quality as the ones discussed for longer? The impact of time on decision making is a complex one, and probably worth a post another day, but there’s evidence that decisions made quickly (not rushed) are often better than those made over a protracted period of time.

What I’ve outlined above is similar to the Pomodoro Technique. This techniques also utilises a set of time constrained slots, typically 25 minutes, and is often highlighted as a way of overcome procrastination, but I think it works just as well as a mechanism to constrain Parkinson’s Law.

My 25 minutes of writing is nearly up, and I want to read through what I’ve written, so I think I’ll leave it there.

Header Image: This is the view from Kirkstone Pass looking down towards Brothers Water and Glenridding beyond. These are some of my favourite hills partly because, for the most part, they are rarely visited.

One thought on “Concept of the Day: Parkinson’s Law”

  1. I definitely noticed this a lot in my last two decades at work as I reduced my hours from 60 hours a week to 10 hours. I didn’t get quite as much done, probably about half, but I sure did see a lot of time wasting going on and happily steered clear of it all with almost no impact on my productivity.

    Liked by 1 person

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