Don’t break Parkinson’s Law 17 Oct 2005

35 comments Latest by Ovidiu Nistor

Parkinson’s law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Basically it’s saying that demands on someone’s resources expand to fill their free time. Another way to put it is if you give someone 8 hours to do a 2 hour project, it will take 8 hours to get done. From Wikipedia:

According to Parkinson, this is motivated by two forces: (1) “An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals” and (2) “Officials make work for each other.” He also noted that the total of those employed inside a bureaucracy rose by 5-7% per year “irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done”.

This is one of the problems with having too many people on staff — you need to keep them busy. This is how software gets bloated. Too many people, too much time, too many features to add. It’s also a vote for more constraints. By forcing yourself to do less (because you have less money, less people, and less time) you can’t do too much.

35 comments (comments are closed)

Will 17 Oct 05

This is so sadly true.
I fall victim to this all the time :(

Christopher Fahey 17 Oct 05

This is why it’s important to have a daily “quitting time” deadline, a time to leave work each day even if some tasks remains unfinished. Otherwise, your defacto deadline becomes “when I pass out from exhaustion at 4:00am”. And Parkinson’s Law will make those unlimited late hours the most unproductive time of all. You’re better off coming in early the next day.

Not that I ever follow this rule. I’m always working late. And early.

Rahul 17 Oct 05

Now try convincing your boss that doing LESS work for him is ultimately more productive. I know I can’t.

Darrel 17 Oct 05

This is why a 6 hour day seems much more practical in our society than an 8 hour day. We’re just wasting two ours ‘keeping busy’. ;o)

pwb 17 Oct 05

This is true but hardly sad. It leaves huge opportunities for those who don’t fall into the trap.

Ian 17 Oct 05

The ultimate question is how to overcome this. Anyone have any ideas?

JF 17 Oct 05

The ultimate question is how to overcome this. Anyone have any ideas?

Less people, less money, less time, more constraints.

elstob 17 Oct 05

I’m a little confused, surely in this case we want to break the law don’t we?

Sorry to be a pedant, I just want to clear this up.

Don Wilson 17 Oct 05

The ultimate question is how to overcome this. Anyone have any ideas?
Set yourself a deadline and get it done. Now.

When I have school/job work that is due Monday morning, it’s surprising how fast I can get it done on a Sunday night versus the previous week. ;)

JohnO 17 Oct 05

Rahul - I’m open to that answer too…

elstob has a good point… let’s break the law

Alexandre Simard 17 Oct 05

Breaking the law, breaking the law

[/Rob Halford]

Ian 17 Oct 05

Well we already have less people and money, and the usual constraints (plenty). Let me rephrase the question:

How do I delegate tasks without using time frames?

@Don: You’re right, but a deadline really is just a time estimate, and your example proves the point that people will work great under pressure. But the Monday deadline is just another way of saying “8 hours.”

The only thing I can think of is to use VERY challenging time frames for projects. But wasn’t there just a SVN post about how people tend to grossly underestimate?

Darrel 17 Oct 05

The ultimate question is how to overcome this. Anyone have any ideas?

Work for/start a company that tosses out the arcane concept of 9-5/5-days a week.

Umesh Persad 17 Oct 05

Since we are talking about laws, here is a good site:

and more specifically laws on work and the workplace:

Don Wilson 17 Oct 05

We’re such rebels

Dan Boland 17 Oct 05

Sorry to be off-topic, but I just read a little article about 37Signals in the Business section of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Tom 17 Oct 05

Okay, I love the “less is better” thing, but please, can you work on the less vs fewer usage problem? It makes my brain hurt every time you write “less people”.

T 17 Oct 05

Actually I think the ultimate question is ‘how much less?’

Beau 17 Oct 05

I would propose that the Federal government nicely fits the hypothesis of Parkinson’s law, and that its effect is amplified by seemingly unlimited dollars to “multiply subordinates”, fund make work projects, and generally fatten the bureaucracy. One paradox related to this is that a bureaucracy will often grow in a government even though other important programs experience a funding slash.

Darrel 17 Oct 05

that a bureaucracy will often grow in a government

A bureaucracy can grow anywhere…doesn’t just have to be government.

Corporate IT departments are a great example of that.

jim 17 Oct 05

i’ve gotta object!
it’s marketing departments that drives software bloat via feature requests.
less marketing department, less bloat.

Ian 17 Oct 05

One of the most practical topics to emerge on this blog in a while, yet everyone’s just posting “I agree” in their own way. Only two proposals for solving this issue so far.

I think it has to do with incentives and motivation more than anything, but the question is how fine-grained to these incentives have to be before the management overhead collapses under its own weight?

I can attest that even having a small company won’t solve this problem. But I’m new to this. So I want to hear from someone who’s solved it, at least on a small scale.

Michael 18 Oct 05

For once, I agree with Jason. As a sometime development team leader, and project manager, often in “big companies” I find my self just “keeping people busy” in the vain hope that their business will produce something good.

Anyone who has worked in large enterprises knows this is intuitively true.

Drew Caperton 18 Oct 05

A friend and I are starting a church right now and we’re using many 37Signals apps for our collaberation. As our staff grows to more than two people, our plans are to implement shorter working days and a 5-week holiday minimum to start [like in most European countries].

Alexandre Simard 18 Oct 05

Aren’t stretch targets the corporate answer to Parkinson’s law?

Scott 18 Oct 05

I honestly thought the law implied that you work less-efficiently so as to fill the time with the tasks you have already been assigned. Like what I’m doing right now, for example. There is certainly no danger of my projects becoming bloated with all the extra work I’m trying to fill my time with.

Nice Halford reference, by the way.

August 18 Oct 05

Scott: That’s exactly what it implies. I cite “less vs. fewer” as the reason behind this confusion. :p

inge nilsen 18 Oct 05

The ultimate question is how to overcome this. Anyone have any ideas?

Well, one can employ a big a.. “motivator” with a steady and accurate hand, also give him a bullwhip:) Then you will see full productivity from the work force the whole day, and night if there is much paperwork to be done with.

Ben 19 Oct 05

Isn’t it all relative? You might have 3 people on staff and that might be two people too many.

Also the idea of doing “less” because you don’t have time or resources seems wrong to me too. I had a professor, Robert Abel, who was one of the pioneers in film. He always told us when the studios asked if some effect could be done, he’d tell them of course, then promise to do something that had never been done in half the time he thought they MIGHT be able to do it in. Imagine if he tried to do less. I think the idea should be to do as much as you can, as efficiently as you can, and know when to say when.

swHank 19 Oct 05

My gut reaction - this is not an efficiency problem, but one of motivation/self determination. I’ve found that when I’m putting together a schedule and solicite time frames from team members, things are much different then when I make an estimate.

It assumes everyone is honest, skilled in estimates, etc. The flip side is that an activity takes as long as the time it is assigned.

Speck 20 Oct 05

Seein’ it firsthand….I’m working with an organization that has an abundance of designers working on one application, and the application keeps expanding, without regard for the users’ needs/requirements. Leadership keeps comin’ up with ideas/features that “would be nice” to have and there are employees available to work on them, so the app continues to grow.

I’m hopeful that at some point we rediscover what the user needs. Unfortunately, leadership seems to know what’s best.

Karl Whealton 20 Oct 05

This is a great justification for “Critical Chain Project management”. The fact that the work will expand to fill the time means don’t do the task until right before it’s needed, plus some buffer of course.

Mercer 27 Oct 05

What I would like to see done, so the time wouldn’t be wasted “keeping busy”. Encourage your employees to be more efficient. Give them list of small specific tasks. If they have finnished today’s tasks, and there arn’t any other “real” things to be done, tell them that they can go home if they want (even if they spent 2 hours at work), or that they can work on any (personal) projects they want.

Steve Keaton 04 Nov 05

I’m working in computer science research at a state university. I have definitely seen Parkinson’s law in action when I (or others) have been perhaps somewhat lazy about writing an algorithm or figuring out why something is seg-faulting. The professor I work with showed me how to overcome it. He sets goals for every hour of what he is going to do (and they are goals that are ABSOLUTELY IMPOSSIBLE to acheive). He acheives every one of his goals every day. If he doesn’t get one, he just works that much harder. This is how to combat Parkinson’s law.

Ovidiu Nistor 07 Nov 05

Does no one else see the incredible irony in quoting Wikipedia, which has set an infinite timeline to do a finite job?