“Fill ‘er up!”—Parkinson’s Law and Your OrganizationJul 24, 2023
If you wait until the last minute to do something, it’ll only take a minute to do.
But what if you have a month to do something? Will it take a month? Parkinson’s Law says yes. “Work expands to fit the time available for its completion” goes the law.
In the 1950s, C. Northcote Parkinson used this so-called "law" to describe the workplace, drawing on his experience in the British Civil Service. You can read the whole thing online. Just imagine it in the great British accent of Parkinson himself. About the law, he noted two truths: 1). Officials want to multiply subordinates and not rivals; and 2). Officials make work for each other.
It’s hard to argue with either one of those statements, and if you’re like me, you’ve probably experienced his main idea around time constraints. The more time you have, the more time you use.
I’m convinced Parkinson’s Law has significant implications for us as individuals and as managers.
1. Thinking time disappears first.
Parkinson’s Law says you’ll spend as much time doing the work as you have time to spend. The problem, then, is that there’s no time left for thinking about the work or planning it.
A couple years back, I co-owned part of a sports media company. During that time we spent an entire year trying to drive performance and be more productive in our outputs. We increased our staff team and everybody felt pressure to “do stuff” to show their productivity.
A little nervous that we were just doing a ton of stuff, I instituted a “Think/Plan/Do” strategy.
Thinking time is critical where you’re doing what Cal Newport calls “deep work.” Planning time is when you throw resources (money and time) against an idea. How is this going to play out? What’s it going to cost us? Only then do you get to “doing.”
A lot of people reverse this process, though, and begin with “doing.” The problem with that strategy is that because of Parkinson’s Law, they never actually get to thinking or planning. That’s why you have to set aside the time for thinking and planning. Limit your doing time and make time for the other vital parts of the work.
2. Managers must excel at planning.
Deadlines drive action. It is that simple!
As managers, it’s important to create the right time deadlines.
Deadlines that are too close result in shoddy work. Everybody dreams of products that are good, fast and cheap, but you can only have two of the three at the same time. Which means if you have an immediate deadline and need fast work, it’s either going to be bad or expensive.
But deadlines that are too far out are no good either. They create no urgency and too much time slips by that could have been used productively. You end up with wasted time and resources.
Good deadlines create urgency and quality.
So what’s a manager to do? She must excel at planning.
If you allocate a ½ day meeting for 6 people, for example, that’s 24 work hours. As the manager, you need to make sure that time is maximized. What do you need to accomplish at the meeting to justify those 24 hours?
It’s up to the manager to think through these issues beforehand. If not, Parkinson’s Law will fill the time for you.
3. It’s about more than time.
We usually think about Parkinson’s Law in relation to time spent at the work (if you have 10 hours for a task, you’ll probably spend 10 hours), but there are lots of other applications.
Spending—If you budget $1,000 for a project, you’ll probably spend it. Sometimes this is freeing, but for many people, this simply creates waste. Ask yourself if you could save tons by better stewarding your money.
Organizational size—If you have the money to pay people, you’re probably going to keep them around and keep hiring more. There’s a natural inertia to growth. That’s the great fear many people have of the federal government (voiced above all by Ronald Reagan here), but it’s true in most companies and industry. People don’t naturally cut their own jobs. They naturally ask for more help.
In work and in life, get in the habit of looking for waste and excess and cut back.
After the evidence of the past sixty years, Parkinson’s Law is about as accepted in the business world as the law of gravity is accepted on the planet.
And just like gravity, the trick is to use it to your advantage and not fight against it all the time.
Use Parkinson’s to your own advantage by incentivizing yourself to work quickly. Say, “I’m gonna give myself ____ hours for this project. If I can do it in 75% of the time and still do it well, I can use the 25% to go home early, work on other demanding projects, or go fishing.” (I’d take choice #3 just about every time.)
I’ve said in this weekly blog before that when I am under a serious deadline and a huge load, I work in 15-minute intervals with fierce focus. You don’t beat Parkinson’s Law but you can use it to win.
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