We've all heard of Parkinson's Law — “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” I bet you've lived this. After all, who hasn't sat in an hour-long meeting that really ended after 30 minutes. The rest of the time is just filler. It's already booked after all.
I wanted to learn more about this law so I went back to the source and read Cyril Northcote Parkinson‘s (1909-1993) original 1957 version of Parkinson's Law.
The implications of the law were interesting.
Politicians and taxpayers have assumed (with occasional phases of doubt) that a rising total in the number of civil servants must reflect a growing volume of work to be done. … The fact is that the number of officials and the quantity of the work are not related to each other at all. The rise in the total of those employed is governed by Parkinson's Law and would be much the same whether the volume of the work were to increase, diminish, or even disappear.
More than that, Parkinson comes up with the brilliantly insightful Law of Triviality.
“The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.”
Parkinson puts this law into dramatic form. Imagine a meeting …
Chairman: We come now to item nine. Our treasurer, Mr. McPhail, will report.
Mr. McPhail: The estimate for the atomic reactor is before you, sir, set forth in Appendix H of the subcommittee’s report. You will see that the general design and layout has been approved by Professor McFission. The total cost will amount to $10,000,000. The contractors, Messrs. McNab and McHash, consider that the work should be complete by April, 1959. Mr. McFee, the consulting engineer, warns us that we should not count on completion before October, at the earliest. In this view he is supported by Dr. McCheap, the well-known geophysicist, who refers to the probable need for piling at the lower end of the site. The plan of the main building is before you–see appendix IX–and the blueprint is laid on the table. I shall be glad to give any further information that members of this committee may require.
Chairman: Thank you, Mr. McPhail, for your very lucid explanation of the plan as proposed. I will now invite the members present to give us their views.
It is necessary to pause at this point and consider what views the members are likely to have. Let us suppose that they number eleven, including the chairman but excluding the secretary. Of these eleven members, four — including the chairman — do not know what a reactor is. Of the remainder, three do not know what it is for. Of those who know its purpose, only two have the least idea of what it should cost. One of these is Mr. Isaacson, the other is Mr. Brickworth. Either is in a position to say something. We may suppose that Mr. Isaacson is the first to speak.
Mr. Isaacson: Well, Mr. Chairman. I could wish that I felt more confidence in our contractors and consultant. Had we gone to Professor Levi in the first instance, and had the contract been given to Messrs. David and Goliath, I should have been happier about the whole scheme. Mr. Lyon-Daniels would not have wasted our time with wild guesses about the possible delay in completion, and Dr. Moses bullrush would have told us definitely whether piling would be wanted or not.
Chairman: I am sure we all appreciate Mr. Isaacson’s anxiety to complete this work in the best possible way. I feel, however, that it is rather late in the day to call in new technical advisers. I admit that the main contract has still to be signed, but we have already spent very large sums. If we reject the advice for which we have paid, we shall have to pay as much again.
(other members murmur agreement.)
Mr. Isaacson: I should like my observation to be minuted.
Chairman: Certainly. Perhaps Mr. Brickworth also has something to say on this matter?
Now Mr. Brickworth is almost the only man there who knows what he is talking about. There is a great deal he could say. He distrusts that round figure of $10,000,000. Why should it come out to exactly that? Why need they demolish the old building to make room for the new approach? Why is so large a sum set aside for “contingencies”? and who is McCheap, anyway? Is he the man who was sued last year by the trickle and driedup oil corporation? But Brickworth does not know where to begin. The other members could not read the blueprint if he referred to it. He would have to begin by explaining what a reactor is and no one there would admit that he did not already know. Better to say nothing.
Mr. Brickworth: I have no comment to make.
Chairman: Does any other member wish to speak? Very well. I may take it then that the plans and estimates are approved? Thank you. May I now sign the main contract on your behalf? (murmur of agreement) Thank you. We can now move on to item ten.
Allowing a few seconds for rustling papers and unrolling diagrams, the time spent on item nine will have been just two minutes and a half. The meeting is going well. But some members feel uneasy about item nine. They wonder inwardly whether they have really been pulling their weight. It is too late to query that reactor scheme, but they would like to demonstrate, before the meeting ends, that they are alive to all that is going on.
Chairman: Item ten. Bicycle shed for the use of the clerical staff. An estimate has been received from Messrs. Bodger and Woodworm, who undertake to complete the work for the sum of $2350. Plans and specification are before you, gentlemen.
Mr. Softleigh: Surely, Mr. Chairman, this sum is excessive. I note that the roof is to be of aluminum. Would not asbestos be cheaper?
Mr. Holdfast: I agree with Mr. Softleigh about the cost, but the roof should, in my opinion, be of galvanized iron. I incline to think that the shed could be built for $2000, or even less.
Mr. Daring: I would go further, Mr. Chairman. I question whether this shed is really necessary. We do too much for our staff as it is. They are never satisfied, that is the trouble. They will be wanting garages next.
Mr. Holdfast: No, I can’t support Mr. Daring on this occasion. I think that the shed is needed. It is a question of material and cost …
The debate is fairly launched. A sum of $2350 is well within everybody’s comprehension. Everyone can visualize a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some $300. Members at length sit back with a feeling of achievement.
Chairman: Item eleven. Refreshments supplied at meetings of the joint welfare committee. Monthly, $4.75.
Mr. Softleigh: What type of refreshment is supplied on these occasions?
Chairman: Coffee, I understand.
Mr. Holdfast: And this means an annual charge of — let me see — $57?
Chairman: That is so.
Mr. Daring: Well, really, Mr. Chairman. I question whether this is justified. How long do these meetings last.
Hilarious throughout, Parkinson's book was the original Dilbert.