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Is Parkinson’s Law Being Disrupted By Covid-19?

“Work expands to fit the time for its completion.” This is Parkinson’s Law.

Cyril Parkinson was born in 1909. As an undergraduate he studied history and wrote his PhD thesis on 19th century Far-East trade wars. Interest in naval subjects led him to the observation that the number of admirals increased even though the number of ships in the fleet decreased. He could see how inefficiencies developed and grew, especially within bureaucracies.

Parkinson rose to fame after writing a humorous article for the Economist magazine in 1955. The subject gained widespread acceptance and resulted a little time later in a book entitled Parkinson's Law or the Pursuit of Progress.

Parkinson’s views were qualitative and anecdotal. Statisticians have since carried out studies to determine whether there is scientific evidence for the theories. They absolutely confirm them. Indeed, they calculate that once a team of people working together exceeds 20 in number, it will develop bureaucratic systems as Parkinson suggested. With too much time on their hands people complicate what they have to do and fill the time. Then they argue they need help and so appoint subordinates. Once they have a couple of people working for them it raises their chance of promotion. It is easy to see how this leads to an administration getting larger and larger and more cumbersome.

Charles Handy, the business guru, recognises Parkinson's Law particularly within government departments. In such organisations you are judged by your activities and what you do rather than what you produce. These bureaucracies are what Handy calls "role organisations" rather than productive organisations. These inefficiencies are not exclusive to government departments. Any organisation that grows to a few thousand employees will suffer the same fate.

Let’s draw Parkinson into our favourite subject of frameworks. His framework tells us there is a natural inclination for organisations to grow in size and inefficiency. It raises the question as to whether this will always be the case. For this we have to think about what has happened to organisations since we have been inflicted by Covid-19. In many organisations people in management and service roles have been empowered to work from home. This could be a game changer. It is more difficult for people to expand their empires when not in an office. When you are working from home it isn’t as easy to network and suck up to your boss as it is in an office. What is more, when you are at home your efficiency in terms of output can be measured. I was amused to see a report the other day of a coder who worked from home. His output was so prolific and accurate he was regularly the top coder in the company. In fact, he spent his days surfing while he subcontracted his coding tasks to efficient and very cheap offshorers. What do you say to that Professor Parkinson? Not bad eh?

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