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Parkinson’s Law

March 29, 2016

Parkinson’s Law by C. Northcote Parkinson deals with common situations affecting everyone who is either responsible for others or who works in a committee or team.

The book is an outgrowth of articles that Professor Parkinson wrote and the succinctness of his laws makes them easy to remember and recognize when you might be in a meeting or situation where you find yourself on the receiving,wrong end of the law.  Knowing these laws can save you many hours and increase and improve your productivity.

The book was written in a simpler time when computers and instant communications were a fantasy.  However, every one of these laws is just as applicable today as they were when they were first penned over sixty years ago.

Law #1: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.  Give someone four hours to get a job done, and it will take four hours.  Give them seven hours to get the same job done, and it most likely will take seven hours.  Moral: Set deadlines that are realistic, but probably a little less than the job should take.  Never allocate more time than absolutely necessary to get the job done.

Law #2: This law of the rising pyramid is demonstrated by two almost axiomatic statements: 1) A person in authority wants to multiply subordinates, and 2) subordinates make work for each other.  Many people in almost any size organization feel that the way they can increase their importance and value is to increase the number of people who report to them. Proof of this can be borne out with the huge layoffs and cut backs made during the period following the financial melt-down in 2008/2009 and the lack of a decrease in productivity and the increase in company profits. Tip: Make managers cost justify all new hires.

Law #3: In nearly every matter of controversy, we can assume that the people who will decide will be in the middle bloc.  When dealing with an issue to be decided upon those on both ends of the controversy most likely have already made up their minds and generally will not allow themselves to be swayed by the debate.  The middle bloc will be the ones who will make the decision.  The middle bloc is usually those with no strong disposition toward either argument, and, accordingly, who most likely do not care as much about the issue.  Sometimes the matter passes not as much on the merits, but on how persuasive proponents are, or whether a point is made that the target feels is important even if it has nothing to do with the issue at hand or sometimes because of an inane comment that seems hilarious to someone in the middle bloc.  Tip: The middle bloc is the people you should spend your time presenting your argument to, not the committed and present the argument in their terms, not yours.  Note: This will be good advice for the two major candidates during this year’s presidential campaign.

Law #4: The amount of time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the amount involved.  Simply stated most people cannot deal with large numbers.  Because of that, they will retreat to, and find comfort in, the smaller items.  Tip: Shape agendas to present large items in smaller pieces, or to not allow yourself to get bogged down with the minutia when there are really important decisions that have to be made. Set time limits to discussions and cut off rambling about items with lesser dollar amounts, and give managers a greater dollar limit to their authority.

Law #5: Committees are organic in their nature.  They take root, grow, flower, wilt, and die, scattering their seeds from which other committees will bloom in their turn.  Or that its life cycle seems to go on ad infinitum; and at the point of supposed extinction, picks up new members which will now perpetuate the committee.  Tip: Avoid forming committees when there is a mechanism already in place to deal with a situation.  Also when establishing a new committee set a time limit to end it.

Other laws: Professor Parkinson has laws for most fields of endeavor where people act in groups or in a structured atmosphere.  He covers personnel selection, physical plant size and design, the power position at a cocktail party, paralysis of an organization, and the question of retirement and at what point the employee actually retires, which is usually a number of years before they actually leave the organization.

This 1957 book remains relevant, on point and is still being published.  It would do all managers well to read it.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 6hawthorne permalink
    March 29, 2016 11:38 am


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