Republished on VDARE.COM on March 28, 2003
(C. Northcote Parkinson, the father of Parkinson's Law)
Forbes, August 7, 1989 v144 n3 p42(3)
LIKE A SWARM of locusts in the desert sky, myriads of management books are on the move, all heading remorselessly for your free time. Some, polysyllabic and obscure, are in essence the oversize business cards of management consultants who nominally teach at Harvard Business School. Others, slick and simple, are the creations of hungry journalists. (And then there's mystical money management; see p. 52.[Note:This was Crystal clear. (New Age financial guides) by Joe Queenan.])
Once upon a time, however, there was a very different sort of management sage. He wrote not in jargon or algebra but in a brilliantly readable English. He published not in tomes but in terse essays, the most famous less than nine pages long. He used historical and military analogies, but then he had actually been a historian and a soldier. He was scathingly witty, so much so that some readers wrongly assumed that his purpose was satirical.
And, wonder of wonders, when he had finished what he had to say about management, he stopped writing about it and went on to other things. Which may be why he is almost forgotten, except for Parkinson's Law.
C. (for Cyril) Northcote Parkinson, father of Parkinson's Law, turned 80 on July 30. He is a short, stocky Englishman with a formal manner and a steady gaze. he moves rather deliberately nowadays and, although still answering questions with the academic precision that befits a former Cambridge don, often contents himself with a single word.
Recently, after many years in the British offshore tax havens of Guernsey and the Isle of Man, he has transplanted himself to the cathedral city of Canterbury, home of his third wife, whom he married in 1985. And he is at work on his autobiography, writing, as always, in longhand.
"I think Parkinson's Law came to me, or is based upon, experiencing the armed forces," Parkinson says. "I was serving in a joint headquarters, that is to say army and Royal Air Force [military intelligence, he reluctantly admits], and the headquarters was headed by an air vice marshal, who was assisted, or possibly impeded, by a colonel in the army, who was impeded, or possibly assisted, by a wing commander in the air force, and then all three of them were assisted (but definitely assisted!) by me. I was then a major in the army, and we were all very busy winning the war.
"But the day came when the air vice marshal went on leave. Shortly afterwards, as it happened, the colonel fell sick. The wing commander was attending a course, and I found I was the group. And I also found that, while the work had lessened as each of my superiors had disappeared, by the time it came to me, there was nothing to do at all. There never had been anything to do. We'd been making work for each other."
* PARKINSON'S LAW: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
In his great first essay, Parkinson displayed his fundamental method: He reasoned from the behavior of individuals—the different times a busy man and "an elderly lady of leisure" might take to write a postcard—to the behavior of organizations, in this instance their inexorable tendency to grow regardless of the amount of work to be done. Two axioms governed the process, he noted: "(1) an official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals; and (2) officials make work for each other"—supervising each other's efforts, holding meetings and so on.
Cynics were wrong, Parkinson pointed out, to suppose that the expanding organization meant that its individual members were getting lazy or more idle. The awful truth was that they were honestly working harder than ever.
Then, incredibly, Parkinson proved his case. he examined the British Admiralty, the civil service department responsible for the Royal Navy. (This came naturally to him: He was a naval historian who had already published several books and who was ultimately to teach at Harvard, Berkeley and the University of Illinois.)
The numbers were astonishing. In 1914 Britain had the largest navy in the world, with 542 ships in commission, and the Admiralty had a staff of 4,366. At various points as the century wore on, the ships decreased in number and the staff expanded. By 1967, he later found, the Royal Navy had only 114 ships, most not truly capital, and had ceased to be a world force. But Admiralty staff had reached 33,574. This vast increase in staff was not the product of more complex technology: The technical staff had increased much more slowly than the clerical staff.
Parkinson's Law was first unveiled in the Economist magazine in 1955, when Parkinson was professor of history at the new University of Malaya in Singapore. It caused a stir that attracted the American publisher Houghton Mifflin, which published a collection of the original and some other Parkinson essays under the title Parkinson's law: The Pursuit of Progress in 1957.
The success of this book was so enormous that it changed Parkinson's life. For years he spent every summer on the lecture circuit in the U.S. Eventually, he abandoned academic life ("It can be a cutthroat kind of a business") for independent writing. However, he still retains a sentimental link with Alabama's Troy State University, which has been enterprising enough to make him Honorary President.
It's common to depreciate Parkinson's later essays in comparison with his first. A rereading suggests this is a mistake. For example:
* PARKINSON'S SECOND LAW: Expenditure rises to meet income.
Parkinson's discussion of the dynamics underlying the historic expansionary tendencies of government budgets, reasoning as always from the stoutly self-interested behavior of individuals, concluded that programs cannot be reduced piecemeal. Only across-the-board cuts will work. This was in 1960—almost 25 years before Gramm-Rudman.
* PARKINSON'S THIRD LAW: Expansion means complexity, and complexity decay.
Formulated in 1962, this law defied the consensus of the day to an extent that is easily forgotten. Economists believed in economies of scale. Capitalists believed in conglomeration, synergy (remember synergy?) and General Motors. Politicians believed in planning and large units—bigger school districts and "multiversities" in the U.S., more nationalization in Britain.
Today the advantages of restructuring, entrepreneurship and decentralization are generally acknowledged, even if not always applied. But Parkinson's attitude still places him athwart the tide. He is opposed, for example, to Britain's membership in the European Community, very much an article of faith with Britain's political establishment. "It's basically my preference for the smaller unit rather than the larger one," he says.
* THE LAW OF DELAY: Delay is the deadliest form of denial.
Parkinson's analysis of the incentives that inspire negativism in officials ("abominable no-men") anticipated the Public Choice school's "economic theory of politics" (see FORBES, Nov. 17, 1986).
* THE LAW OF TRIVIALITY: The time spent on any item of a committee's agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum of money involved.
Parkinson was deeply interested in committee behavior ("comitology"). Citing the history of the British Cabinet and its predecessors back to the Middle Ages, he argued the most effective size for any meeting is five. But interest groups pressing for representation inevitably expand a committee in stages to 20, at which point ("the Coefficient of Inefficiency") conversation will break out at either end of the table, members will stand to make themselves heard and then start giving speeches, and the useful members will be making plans to settle outstanding issues later on over lunch.
The Law of Triviality focused on another consequence of individuals' self-regard: Expensive decisions are reviewed less thoroughly than small ones because they tend to be embarrassingly technical.
* INJELITANCE: A vital Parkinson contribution was his diagnosis of why certain organizations suddenly deteriorate: the rise to authority of individuals with unusually high combinations of incompetence and jealousy ("injelitance").
"The injelitant individual is easily recognizable from the persistence with which he struggles to eject all those abler than himself. He dare not say, 'Mr. Asterisk is too able,' so he says, 'Asterisk? Clever perhaps—but is he sound?' ... The [organization] gradually fills up with people more stupid than the chairman...."
Organizations can be cured of injelititis spontaneously, when an individual conditioned to hide his intelligence penetrates to the top post and "suddenly throws off the mask and appears like the demon king among a crowd of pantomime fairies." Or sometimes a massive amputation and simultaneous transfusion of new blood will work—but not always. Ultimately, however, the only course is to eliminate the organization completely. "Infected personnel should be dispatched with a warm testimonial to such rival institutions as are regarded with particular hostility.... As for the [office] buildings, the best plan is to insure them heavily and then set them alight."
Among other Parkinson gems: essays (understandably heartfelt) on the disincentive effects of taxation, anticipating supply-side economics; and on the peculiar tendency (with historical examples] of organizations to build perfect headquarters for themselves just as they go into decline.
"When I'd said my say, I'd said it ... I moved on to study other things," says Parkinson. In the late 1960s and 1970s he increasingly turned away from business, writing plays, political essays, mock biographies of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower, popular histories and eventually a series of novels about the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic era. He says casually that he has produced "about 60 books" in all.
Parkinson is not a complete guide to management. His primary focus was bureaucratic rather than commercial. But what he has to say is applicable to any business, in fact any kind of organization. So forget about Attila the One Minute Manager. Go to your bookshop and order a copy of one of the remaining Parkinson books still in print, Parkinson: The Law Complete (from Ballantine, $2.95).