The Relevance of Parkinson’s Law


One of the most enduring aphorisms to come out of the twentieth century can be attributed to a British historian and the most incisive (and funniest) observer of bureaucracies and organizations, namely C. Northcote Parkinson, The Ultimate Organization Man. It is the justly famous Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

It is a stunning insight into the workings of all organizations, whether they be big corporations, big universities, big hospitals, or big media. It applies equally to all of them, without a shadow of doubt. Every day of our lives confirms the relevance and timelessness of Parkinson’s Law.

We learn from Parkinson that deadlines are essential. Since work can be made endlessly elastic, nothing would ever get done without deadlines. For instance, one could decide to take forever to finish this article because one would have forever to read it. Deadlines may give rise to superficial thought processes, but without them people could choose not to think at all.

We also learn from Parkinson that successful bureaucrats are generally driven by two guiding principles: to multiply subordinates, not rivals, and, to make work for each other. Every official who feels that she is over-worked will appoint subordinates to assist her, and when they feel overworked, they will also do likewise. Thus, bureaucracies and organizations left to themselves ultimately tend to self-destruct under sheer weight of numbers. They become like dinosaurs that cannot adapt to change. Witness the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Parkinson’s book is replete with wisdom and merriment. Thus, large committees rarely amount to much; instead a few influential members may decide to meet in private on another day and decide on the strategy to be implemented through consensus amongst themselves.

Parkinson also stated that, in general, people tend to talk in inverse proportion to how much they really know. Those who have little knowledge can pontificate endlessly and exhaust their entire knowledge during the span of a single meeting. They are not constrained by their ignorance because they are not aware as to how much it is that they do not know. By contrast, the well informed cannot possibly explain everything during the course of one sitting. Indeed, some of the things they could state might insult the others by exposing their ignorance. If such a situation is seen as counterproductive for their personal career advancement they may prefer to keep quiet.

Each chapter of the book is noteworthy, particularly the one that deals with the most appropriate way to word a notice inviting applications for a specific post. Parkinson does not advocate advertisements which would result in a flood of applications because the world and its brother feels that they are all equally suited to fill a particular vacancy. Instead, his advice is to word notices for prospective employment in a manner so detailed and precise that only one or two people would apply as they would know that they are the only candidates really capable of delivering the goods. There is also a hilarious section on the various recruitment systems that have been prevalent in various countries during the ages. According to Parkinson’s assessment, however, none of them could hope to compete with an appropriately worded notice.

Parkinson’s reputation rests not so much on his historical writings as on Parkinson’s Law (1957) and its successor The Law and the Profits (1960). Both these books first make you laugh and then make you think, much like a hallmark Shavian play.

Parkinson’s Second Law, though not so well known as the first is almost as significant: “Expenditure rises to meet income”. He added the qualification that very often expenditure also tends to surpass income. Freely translated it implies that the more you have, the more you want; which explains why the rich are often neither particularly happy, nor even solvent. Parkinson, however, really intended his Second Law to explain the constant increase in Government expenditure. Governments, he said, tend to spend whatever is available to them, and ever so often quite a bit more.  In fact, the qualification to the Second Law may be more valid than the law itself; governments show little hesitation in spending well beyond their tax revenues.

Parkinson inspired many imitators who devised other, albeit lesser, laws governing organizational behavior. Chief among them is The Peter Principle (1969): “Every employee (in a company) tends to rise to the level of his incompetence”. Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will”, while equally applicable to organizations,  may not be included in this category because it was first postulated in 1949.

Parkinson may not have been the fountainhead of all wisdom, but he helped us immeasurably in comprehending the vicissitudes of human behavior in organizations, much more so than most writers on the subject. That he also made us laugh as he went about it will keep the world eternally in his debt.

– Contributed by Prithviraj

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