Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Parkinson’s Law

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” This familiar law is the first sentence of the book Parkinson’s Law and Other Studies in Administration, written by C. Northcote Parkinson, and published by The Riverside Press in 1957. This book is an absolute gem. It combines wit and humour to explain how human nature and self-interest drive the forces of administration.

Parkinson explains how the administrative part of an organization will grow regardless of whether the rest of the organization is growing or shrinking. Administrative growth is independent of the total amount of work that must be done.

This explains why the organizational charts I’ve seen of city government show a majority of workers doing administration and a minority actually doing the work the city is paid by taxpayers to do. Sadly, the numerous administrative workers aren’t just idle, though. As Parkinson explains, they create work for each other so that all workers are very busy, but the output of the entire administration is minimal.

In the second chapter, Parkinson explains why reasoned argument is a waste of time when trying to sway a committee vote. Efforts are best spent trying to sway the votes of clueless committee members. I learned this the hard way after many years of doing work on standards bodies.

Another of Parkinson’s laws is the Law of Triviality: “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.” This law arises from the fact that people focus on the things they can understand. A good modern example is the focus on the cost of the G-20 summit fake lake as opposed to the overall summit cost which was about 20,000 times higher. The overall summit costs are complicated, but everyone can understand a fake lake even though its cost is trivial.

Parkinson has numerous examples to support his claim that organizations move into perfectly planned buildings only after their important work is complete. After entering this perfect building, the organization begins to decline. Modern examples include many tech companies that moved into new headquarters just as the tech bubble burst.

One particularly funny chapter showed how to find the important people at a cocktail party. Although much of the analysis is meant to be funny rather than completely accurate, many of Parkinson’s claims about the nature of parties ring very true. Sadly, it seems that I am not an important person.

A running theme through the book is the comic mock arrogance of the author. Like many of the jokes, it likely contains at least some truth. At one point in a discussion of trying to save an organization riddled with incompetence, the author notes that it may require “the services of the greatest living authority: Parkinson himself.”

This book is only 113 pages long with not much text on each page and is well worth a read if only for its humour. For those in a position to change the administration of an organization, this book could be a valuable guide.


  1. A lemma of this law is that nor matter how large a pay raise you receive within 6 months you will need more money, if you needed the raise in the first place.

    Big C8j's 3rd Lemma of Money

  2. @Big Cajun Man: I think that needing more money often has more to do with personality than income.

  3. sounds very interesting...will read

  4. Canadian Capitalist left a comment on 2010-07-06:

    I read this book many years ago and agree that it is an absolute gem. And it's not just the public sector. Look at how many project managers most software companies have!

    One other instance (again not 100% accurate) is the number of companies that win naming rights for sports arenas and then go into decline. Enron Field comes to mind. Hopefully, Scotia Bank and Sun Life will escape the curse :)