“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”
– Parkinson’s Law
I was reminded the other day about Parkinson’s Law. It was first coined and described in an satirical essay published in The Economist in 1955 by Cyril Northcote Parkinson. It is analogous to the Ideal Gas Law that infers a gas will expand to fill the available volume. As I thought about the law and its implications, two things struck me.
- The law epitomizes all that is negative about traditional management thinking
- What if we were to replace the word “Work” with the word “Value”?
At the same time that Parkinson’s Law was coined, a contemporary of Parkinson’s by the name of Douglas McGregor introduced his Theory X and Theory Y of human work motivation and management.
Through the Theory X Lens
“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”
– Proverbs 16:27
In my experience, whenever I’ve heard management referring to this law, it’s always with a hint of cynicism. Cynicism grounded firmly in Theory X beliefs including:
- People are naturally lazy.
If left to their own devices, people will tend to work to rule. In order to get work done, people need to be pushed along by carrot-and-stick approaches. When challenged to do more, their response will be “That’s above my pay grade”. This is why many road works projects will feature one person digging and more than one person watching.
- Slack time is evil.
People that are not busy are slackers. They need to be told what to work on. They *have to* do work in order to pay the bills and put bread on their tables. Efficiency is the goal. We must ensure we’re utilizing 100% of our resources so that we can maximize output.
- Restrict to need-to-know
To focus people, only share with them what they need-to-know to do their specific work. To share more than necessary would only confuse people and slow everything down.
What If We Look at It Differently?
“Value expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”
– Parkinson’s Law (revised)
How would the management conversation change if we looked at Parkinson’s Law through the lens of Theory Y beliefs?
- People naturally care.
People want to contribute. They’re always thinking “What if it was my money?” They hate boredom. They’re motivated by opportunities for autonomy, mastery and purpose. Management can count on them to do what’s best for the company.
- Slack time is prized.
People want to be better. They will take every opportunity to learn, to innovate and to help others. Effectiveness is the goal. “Is the customer happy?” and “Am I making a difference?”
- Open the kimono.
People need context to be effective. We have nothing to hide. Let’s share the big picture. “Why is it important for the business?” and “Why is it important to me?”
When work is done ahead of time, can we count on people filing the void with value?