Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress by C. Northcote Parkinson

26 September 2007

Today’s review happens to be a classic of 1950s organisational management that still holds quite true nearly half a century later.

Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress by C. Northcote Parkinson

Parkinson’s Law is one of the truisms of the modern workplace — it’s usually given as ‘work expands to fill the time available’, but it was initially set out as ‘bureaucracy expands over time’. It’s given as the reason why some particularly inept managers seek to improve their appearances by hiring subordinates to make themselves look more important. It’s given as the reason why people work faster (though not always better) under strict deadlines. And it’s given as the reason why those deadlines always seem to creep up on you when you were certain that you had plenty of time beforehand. So perhaps it’s only fitting that the original book by C. Northcote Parkinson, based on the satirical essay he wrote for the Economist in 1955, is written with a sense of humour so dry that it practically leaves a sandy taste in your mouth.

Like any good statistician, Parkinson provides useful formulae for calculating his Law in mathematical terms. To calculate the staff increase in ‘any public administrative department not actually at war’:

x = (2k^m + l)/n

where k is the number of staff seeking promotion through the appointment of subordinates; l represents the difference between the ages of appointment and retirement; m is the number of man-hours devoted to answering minutes within the department; and n is the number of effective units being administered — x will be the number of new staff members needed every year. Now, Parkinson does not say if this is a good or bad thing. He merely suggests, ‘Those who hold that this growth is essential to gain full employment are fully entitled to their opinion. Those who doubt the stability of an economy based on reading each other’s minutes are equally entitled to theirs.’

Parkinson discuss several other aspects of bureaucratic and office life, as well as various principles he and ‘other researchers’ have observed in the course of their examinations. He calculates the general age at which people should retire, as well as how to get someone to retire when they don’t want to — his suggestion involves exhaustive travel that is made to feel as if it is a great honour instead of a gruelling punishment. He discusses how the selection of individuals for a job tends to follow either the British (who you know/are related to) system or the Chinese (competitive examination ad nauseam) system. There’s a fascinating section on the ‘Point of Vanishing Interest’, which says that the time spent on any item of an agenda is inversely proportional to the sum of money involved. (I’ve observed this firsthand on any number of occasions, both in the corporate world and in academia.) Parkinson’s Law may be a slim volume, but there are any number of little gems within it that are worth chuckling over.

(One point I should mention, though — there is one section that would probably strike a modern-day reader as dodgy, if not openly racist. It happens to be a section about how the living conditions among individual Chinese ‘coolies’ serves as an indication of their gradiations of wealth and wealth potential. Considering that the book was written in the late 1950s, Parkinson’s attitude and tone might be understood if not forgiven. Were it not for that one chapter, I would really have nothing to complain about.)


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