2 Ways You Can Use Parkinson’s Law in Project Management

I am a believer in Parkinson’s Law in project management and its applicability in both my working and personal life.

What is Parkinson’s Law?

Parkinson’s Law is derived from the first sentence in an article published by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in The Economist in November 1955. The article itself was a humorous essay about the rate at which bureaucracy expands over time. However, the first sentence below is what has been the subject of many further thoughts and works.

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

The first-referenced meaning of the law has dominated, and sprouted several works, the best known being the Stock–Sanford summary of Parkinson’s Law:

“If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.”

Other summaries include Horstman’s view of Parkinson’s Law:

“Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.”

the Asimov paraphrase of Parkinson’s Law:

“In ten hours a day you have time to fall twice as far behind your commitments as in five hours a day.”

as well as many summaries relating to computers, such as:

“Data expands to fill the space available for storage.”

In summary, when considering Parkinson’s Law in Project Management it is fair to assume that if something must be done in a year, it’ll be done in a year. If it must be done in six months, then it will take six month. If something must be done next week, it’ll be done next week. If something must be done tomorrow, it’ll be done tomorrow…. I think you get the point here.

Applicability to Project Management

The way in which I translate Parkinson’s Law in project management whenever asked in the role as a project manager I always use the version of the above in that “work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion”.

I think that we can all resonate with the above statement, particularly in the role of a project manager. Almost every project — be that a small task, a bid or a large project — they are delivered just in the nick of time (at the earliest). If your team has a week to prep for a presentation; they will use up every minute of that week. If you have only an hour to prep for the same presentation how would the outcome differ?

As an aside here; what I am talking about here is calendar time. You will tend to find that if a task is given a longer duration by default the time expended (and associate costs) will increase accordingly. However, there are instances where you may have 5 days to complete a task, do nothing for 4 of them and complete the task in one 1 day.

We’ve all produced a board report on the train on the way to the meeting or finalised an org chart for a bid 30 seconds before the submission is due.

Therefore, I believe that Parkinson’s Law has a number of coinciding rules which although may be mutually exclusive have a connectedness that can be used to you and your projects benefit. For Parkinson’s Law in Project Management this means:

· The time given will be the time used

· The importance of a task increases in accordance with its urgency

So let’s check out two ways below on how you can actually make Parkinson’s Law work for you and your project.

Make Parkinson’s Law Work For You As A Project Manager

Deadlines

The obvious one here is that you need to ensure that you add deadlines to absolutely everything that you are looking for your project team to complete. Remembering the above this will give you the benefit of specifying the amount of time granted whilst increasing the perceived importance of a task by increasing it urgency.

This can be a small ‘non-programme’ deadlines such as daily huddles to last no more than 15 minutes or a reminder to produce the monthly progress report one day earlier than previously requested with only 4 hours allowed to produce the document.

This is however, not an opportunity to set an unreasonable deadline. It is often good practice to consider counterfactual simulation question (subject of another post) which forces you to ask the question “what would it look like to finish a project in a very short period of time?”

Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, once said, “If you split your day into ten-minute increments, and you try to waste as few of those ten minute increments as possible, you’ll be amazed at what you can get done.”

The Law applies to individuals, teams and organisations. It holds for the civil service, armed forces, enterprises, businesses or universities. Conscious and unconscious factors are also at play here. There is the defensive desire to appear busy when there is no work backlog. There is the yearning to be fruitful and to multiply subordinates. There is the general tendency to just procrastinate.

Most project teams are aware of their projects critical path. As such the critical path receives the attention and urgency required to ensure that it is delivered. However, the other activities to be completed as part of the project which have float or slack are the one’s that are most at risk to suffer the effects of Parkinson’s Law. You can rightly use the available float to smooth resources on your programme but be aware to ensure that these tasks are not all left to just-in-time as this will inevitably lead to programme delays.

Measuring

I am a big believer in the statement “what gets measured gets managed” and the same is no different here when trying to gain the benefits of implementation of Parkinson’s Law in project management. It will be a good idea to implement (even if only in the short-term) a Daily Diary to keep a track of what it is that people are actually working on during the day — this can also be linked to the Pareto Principal (see separate post).

Being aware of your project progress in super detail will allow you to not only ensure that you are implementing your Parkinson’s Law project management initiatives but will actually impart Parkinson’s Law on the activities themselves providing maximum efficiency.

It is at the discretion of the project manager how this data is used. You may find that there is commonality in the norm that work takes 25% more effort than estimated. If you decide to give your team 25% more time, Parkinson’s Law in Project Management could lead you to the conclusion that they would take an additional 25% on top of this or an 56% increase against the original budget. Although there is much that can be done to improve the motivation and behaviors of the team to reduce the 25% cost overruns; in this scenario it would be more prudent to put the 25% in the forecast but not communicate this assumption to the delivery team. Also, it could be possible to reduce their budget by 20% so if they do overspend by the 25% they will be to the original budget.

Let’s work this through to hopefully make sense of it and show how you can make assumptions of the impact of Parkinson’s Law to your project:

· Original budget for a task is £100

· The norm is that it will take 25% more effort resulting in a spend of £125

· If you make £125 the new budget there is a risk that the resulting spend based on the norm overspend of 25% would result in the spend of £156 (56% overspend on the original budget)

· If you chose to reduce the original budget by 20% making it £80 if there is a norm overspend of 25% this would result in a total spend of £100 which is equal to the original budget

· If you keep the budget at £100, price the costs as £125 and work with the team to reduce the norm overspend to 15% you will spend £115

Summary

There are clear uses for Parkinson’s Law in the project management of tasks, activities and overall projects. We have identified two quick ways that you can implement Parkinson’s Law into your project management arsenal which will allow you to see pretty quick and tangible benefits.

Try them now and provide us with some feedback of your findings.

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Andrew Crabtree

Andrew Crabtree

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Husband, Dad, Programme Manager in the Nuclear Industry | ex-pro rugby player, 4x Ironman finisher, ex-Bank Manager | getintonuclear.com