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In 1955, Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a British historian, wrote a humorous essay in The Economist based on his experience in the British civil service. While he did not refer to it specifically as Parkinson’s law, the first sentence of the essay later became an adage which describes the very nature of paperwork in bureaucracy.
It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.– Cyril Northcote Parkinson –
While the adage itself can be useful as a tool to imagine scenarios in which huge amounts of work must be completed in a very short amount of time (thus requiring inventive thinking to reduce the time required to produce the desired result).
Poor managers can also find Parkinson’s law useful as a cudgel to assign work with unrealistic deadlines.
Parkinson continues by explaining that because the relationship between the time required to complete paperwork is elastic, so to is the relationship between the number of staff required to complete work.
Using his experience in the British Civil Service to illustrate his argument, Parkinson relies on two axiomatic ideas:
- An official wants to multiply his subordinates, not rivals
- Officials make work for each other.
The first is easy to understand. If a manager is feeling overworked, she/he would much prefer to not pass along work to someone new at the same level as them, less they later become competition for a promotion. Furthermore, by passing along work to two subordinates, the manager makes themselves less replaceable by being the only one with both halves of the knowledge of the work they are doing.
This process perpetuates itself. When one of the manager’s subordinates becomes overworked, with the approval of the manager, will wish to appoint two additional subordinates for the reasons outlined above (fear of rivals and becoming more indisposable). Eventually this expands to 7 workers performing the duties of one.
The second axiomatic idea hinges on the idea that the existence of additional personnel in bureaucracy naturally increased the amount of work required to perform duties that could be accomplished with less man hours in a leaner organization due to the additional work created by each additional member.
“An incoming document may well come before each of them in turn. Official E decides that it falls within the province of F, who places a draft reply before C, who amends it drastically before consulting D, who asks G to deal with it. But G goes on leave at this point, handing the file over to H, who drafts a minute, which is signed by D and returned to C, who revises his draft accordingly and lays the new version before A.”
Official A then must work to undue the needless additions of C, proofreads the document (as “kids these days” can’t write with proper grammar), all while being burdened by worrying about other interoffice politics which otherwise could be avoided entirely.
In the original paper, Parkinson goes on to illustrate his argument using numbers from the British Navy and Civil Service.
Parkinson’s original article was a delight to read. Interesting, humorous, and insightful. If you’re not convinced to read the original source material, consider the way that he concludes the essay:
“Parkinson’s Law is a purely scientific discovery, inapplicable except in theory to the politics of the day. It is not the business of the botanist to eradicate the weeds. Enough for him if he can just tell us just how fast they grow.”
Simply put, Parkinson’s law is not only hilarious reading, but it also provides a bit of insight for businesses to guide them to be a little bit more lean.