Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Parkinson’s Law revisited

Probably the most underappreciated business adminstration analyst was C. Northcote Parkinson, author of Parkinson’s Law. It states that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” But that is an overly simplistic take on his genius. He noticed that despite the reduction of the number of ships in the British Navy, the number of civilian employees and bureaucrats working for the Navy actually increased. Between 1914 and 1928 the number of Capital ships declined from 62 to 20, and the number of Navy officers and men from 146,000 to 100,000. Yet the number of dockyard workers increased by 10%, the number of dockyard officials and clerks by 40% and the number of Admiralty officials by a whopping 78%. He goes on to explain why there is inevitable employee creep that is totally independent of the amount of work needed. The most significant is called The Law of Multiplication of Subordinates reprinted here:

To comprehend Factor I, we must picture a civil servant called A who finds himself overworked. Whether this overwork is real or imaginary is immaterial; but we should observe, in passing, that A's sensation (or illusion) might easily result from his own decreasing energy-a normal symptom of middle age.

For this real or imagined overwork there are, broadly speaking, three possible remedies: (1) He may resign. (2) He may ask to halve the work with a colleague called B. (3) He may demand the assistance of two subordinates to be called C and D. There is probably no instance in civil service history of A choosing any but the third alternative. By resignation he would lose his pension rights. By having B appointed, on his own level in the hierarchy, he would merely bring in a rival for promotion to W's vacancy when W (at long last) retires. So A would rather have C and D, junior men, below him. They will add to his consequence; and, by dividing the work into two categories, as between C and D, he will have the merit of being the only man who comprehends them both. It is essential to realize, at this point, that C and D are, as it were, inseparable. To appoint C alone would have been impossible. Why? Because C, if by himself, would divide the work with A and so assume almost the equal status which has been refused in the first instance to B; a status the more emphasized if C is A's only possible successor.

Subordinates must thus number two or more, each being kept in order by fear of the other's promotion. When C complains in turn of being overworked (as he certainly will) A will, with the concurrence of C, advise the appointment only by advising the appointment of two more assistants to help D, whose position is much the same. With this recruitment of E, F, G and H, the promotion of A is now practically certain.

Never in my newspaper career, most of which was in management, was Parkinson ever mentioned. Not in any training courses, not in any discussion groups. Yet his theory nails the most fundamental principal for cost control of the most expensive component in business, payroll. While he takes shots at government civil servants, his criticism is equally valid for profit making companies. Perhaps it is because the gist of his concept is only 4 and a half pages long. You can read it here. He published a book containing Parkinson’s Law and other lectures he gave at the University of Singapore. It is well worth a read. Most libraries have it, and a paperback version is available through for under $10/used.

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