PARKINSON’S LAWS: More Applicable Than Ever

My colleague Toddi Gutner’s thoughtful post last week on Continuous Partial Attention and the Law of Unintended Consequences reminded me that certain laws of organization management are timeless.  Foremost among these, for me, are those of C. Northcote Parkinson, who based his dicta on analysis of the British Civil Service in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  See if they resonate with you too.

“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion” is the most famous of Parkinson’s Laws.  Simply put, it means that given a task and a time span in which to finish it, most people will use all of the time allotted – no matter how simple the task.  If the only thing you have to do tomorrow morning is to write a letter, that’s what you’ll be doing from 9-12.  Clearly, this law is the enemy of productivity.  The well-run company instills a sense of urgency in its employees and rewards those who deliver ahead of deadlines.

“The number of people in any working group tends to increase regardless of the amount of work to be done.”  Several years ago, our firm had a client whose content was only minimally attractive to the media.  Try as we might, the hits didn’t come in profusion.  Our incorrect solution: add more people to the team – see if they could get lucky?  Not only did that not work, we clearly lost money on the account.  Only when we reduced the size of the account team and had a “reset meeting” with the client did we begin to turn the situation around.

In Parkinson’s Pursuit of Progress (1958), he gives a wonderful example of the law above, showing that the number of employees in Britain’s Colonial Office increased as the British Empire declined.  He offered two good reasons for this: (1) “An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals”, and (2) “Officials make work for each other”.  If you are managing teams or groups or people, these are two good laws to remember.

And if you have P&L responsibility – either for an account or for an entire organization – here is one more critical one:  “Expenditures rise to meet income.”  You probably know this from personal experience.  When your salary goes up or you get a bonus, you spend more money.  But this is risky behavior over the long haul.  If you increase your (personal or business) cost structure significantly over time, you will be in a tough spot when the economic winds shift direction, as many companies and individuals have discovered to their detriment in the last three years.

Parkinson was certainly not the only author of laws – most of us are very familiar with that of Mr. Murphy.  What other laws of organizational behavior do you subscribe to?


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