Parkinson’s Law explains how bureaucracies (don’t) work

1. Introduction. Cyril Parkinson was a British army officer and civil servant. Early in his career, he noted a curious fact: bureaucracies were laughably inefficient. He explored the subject in a 1958 bestseller Parkinson’s Law, Or The Pursuit Of Progress. Top insights 👇

2. Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Parkinson noted that most modern work is “paper work,” and paper work is thoroughly “elastic in its demands on time.”

3. Three options. Take an overworked employee or civil servant A. A has only three options: Resign, split the work with a colleague B, or hire subordinates. By resigning he loses his pension, by bringing in B he “merely brings in a rival for promotion to W’s vacancy when W resigns.”

4. This means there’s only one real option: hire subordinates. But he must hire 2 – if he hires one, he’s running the same risk as option 2. Parkinson writes: “Subordinates must thus number two or more, each being kept in order by fear of the other’s promotion.”

5. When C complains about being overworked and gets two assistants E and F, A can only “avert internal friction” by hiring two additional assistants for D: G and H. We are now in a situation where “seven officials are doing what one did before.”

6. The new work of keeping the information flow straight between these 7 people rapidly cancels out any gains in productivity. Documents are passed around, meeting notes made, consultation sessions spiral out of hand.

7. Parkinson describes the result: “Far more people have taken far longer to produce the same result. No one has been idle. All have done their best.” Meanwhile, A is able to do the same amount of work that he would’ve if “officials C to H had never been born.”

8. From 1914 to 1928, the number of warships in the British Navy went down from 60 to 20. However, the number of “dockyard officials” went up by 40%, and admiralty officials went up by 78%! This inspired Parkinson’s memorable quip: “A Magnificent Navy On Land.”

9. Two factors are at play in all bureaucracies. One: “An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals.” Two: “Officials make work for each other.” Officials manufacture work for each other both out of misunderstandings, and as a favor – to justify their mutual positions.

10. Bottom line. Parkinson’s Law is very much alive today: from 2009 to 2013, Chevron’s capital expenditures went up by 89% and actual oil production went down by 3%. Since work expands to fit the time available, individuals can fight the Parkinson’s Law by setting tighter deadlines.

Source: Parkinson’s Law explains how bureaucracies (don’t) work

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