Parkinson's Law

From apppm
Jump to: navigation, search

Author: Ishak Zaaimia

Figure 1.1: Illustration of Principles of Parkinson's Law. Inspired by: (Consuunt 2021)[1]

C. Northcote Parkinson, a British naval historian best known for his best-seller book 'Parkinson's Law: The Pursuit of Progress' (1957), once expressed in an essay to The Economist, an international weekly newspaper, that 'Work Expands To Fit The Time Available For Its Completion', in what is now known as Parkinson’s Law[2]. One consequence of this is that the number of administrators within any given public organization tends to increase regardless of the amount of work done externally by set organization[3][4]. For instance, an elderly lady of leisure can spend a whole day merely composing and sending a postcard to a niece. An hour spent finding the postcard, another looking for spectacles, an hour and a half in composition, and another thirty minutes in deciding whether to wear a coat when heading to the postbox. Whereas a busy man or woman could complete such a task in a few minutes.

Similarly, if a task must be done in a year, it will be done in a year. If something must be done in a week; it will be done in a week. The completion of tasks is planned, as the deadline approaches, based on various choices and tradeoffs necessary to complete a task by set deadline[5]. Relating to project, program, and portfolio management, almost every project, regardless of its size, is delivered just in time. Managers may find that if a task is allotted more time than necessary, then by default the time expended will increase accordingly, as illustrated on Figure 1.1. However, using Parkinson’s Law to set unreasonable goals/deadlines is not at all its purpose. The goal of this article is to illuminate when the use of the Law is appropriate, and in which context it provides the greatest benefits, while elucidating how to recognize when the Law may be taken to the extreme from a project standpoint.


History and Purpose

Parkinson’s Law was first published in an article in The Economist in November 1955, reflecting on how work could be viewed as elastic in its demands on time. The Law not only applies to individuals, but also teams, organizations, armed forces, universities, corporations etc.[6]. Several automatic and purposeful factors are at play. There is a defensive desire to appear busy when there is no work to be done. There is a desire to be prolific and to multiply employees. Furthermore, there is a general propensity to just procrastinate. The Law states in general why the useful work done depends vaguely on the number of employees, overtime policies, vacation schedules, or retirement practices. Thus, the compound growth rate of a bureaucracy or its feverish activity are not indices of its effectiveness. The Law’s validity is heavily reliant on statistical proofs, of which two motive forces can be represented by two nearly axiomatic statements: 1) “An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals”, and 2) “Officials make work for each other”[7]. These forces/factors are further explored in sub laws named: 1) The Law of Multiplication of Subordinates, and 2) The Law of Multiplication of Work.

Law of Multiplication of Subordinates

To understand the validity of the first factor, a thought experiment was postulated in the article for Parkinson’s Law in The Economist, regarding a civil servant designated as A, who finds themselves overworked. It is immaterial whether this stress is legitimate or imaginary. However, it should be noted that A’s sensation may be the result of the decreasing energy that is normally accompanied with age. From the viewpoint of A, there are a total of three possible remedies, proposed by C. Northcote Parkinson[2]:

  1. They may resign.
  2. They may ask to halve the work with a colleague called B.
  3. They may demand the assistance of two subordinates to be called C and D.

In the 1955 article, it is reasoned that throughout civil service history, there has been no instance in which A has chosen any but the third alternative. Resignation would deny A of their pension rights, and by appointing B, A would merely bring a rival for promotion to a higher position, should a vacancy occur. Therefore, A would rather have subordinates C and D, below them. Another point to realize in law of subordinates is that C and D are inseparable, since appointment of i.e., C alone would have been impossible. This is because C would divide the work with A and therefore assume nearly the equal status if B were appointed instead; further emphasized if C is A’s only apparent successor.

Law of Multiplication of Work

Figure 1.2.1: Illustration of the Principles of Multiplication of Work based on description from: (The Economist 1955)[2]

In this thought experiment, described by C. Northcote Parkinson in the Economist[2], where seven officials are now doing what one did before, is where the second factor now plays a role. The seven officials make much work for each other, making them all fully occupied while A is working harder than ever. One incoming document may very well come before each of them in turn. In this example, E decides that the contents of the document fall into the province of F, who then places a draft reply to C, who amends it exceedingly before consulting D, who asks G to handle it. However, G is absent on leave in this point in time, and therefore forwards it to H, who drafts a minute, signed by D, and returned to C, who once more revises his draft accordingly and lays this version before A.

A now has a choice to make regarding signing the thing unread, therefore also deciding whether C or D should succeed to his own office. Considering F’s special increment of salary for the period of the conference, and E’s application for transfer to the Ministry of Pensions. This along with other countless considerations may color A’s intentions, thus tempting A to sign C’s draft and have it done with. However, being conscientious, A decides to go through the draft with care, deleting unnecessary paragraphs and restores the document to the form preferred by F. A then produces the same reply they would have written if C through H had never existed. See Figure 1.2.1 for visual representation of this thought experiment. The results of this thought experiment have thus showed that far more people have taken far longer to produce the same result. No official has stayed idle. All parties have done their best.

Parkinson's Law in Mathematical Form

C. Northcote Parkinson presented, in The Economist, statistical data from British Navy Estimates. These Admiralty statistics were recorded for 1914 and 1928, in which an increase in Admiralty officials from 2,000 as of 1914 to 3,569 in 1928, had been recorded; and that this growth was unrelated to any possible increase in their work. The goal for such an in-depth analysis of the growth of workers in administrative positions, was to find a correlation between a given official’s appointment and the later appointment of his two or more assistants. When focused on pure staff accumulation, all findings so far pointed to an average increase of about 5,75 percent per year. Subsequently, it now possible to state Parkinson’s Law in mathematical form, thus:

In any public administrative department not actually at war, a staff increase may be expected to follow this formula[2]:


In which:

k = number of staff seeking promotion through the appointment of subordinates.
p = difference between the ages of appointment and retirement
m = number of man-hours devoted to answering minutes within the department.
n = number of effective units being administered.
x = number of new staff required each year.

It is however stated that the discovery of this formula has no emotive value. That Parkinson’s Law is a purely scientific discovery, inapplicable except in theory to the politics of the day.


Parkinson’s Law is an observation showing that people often allow themselves more time than needed to accomplish a task. However, it is not a universal psychological effect, always prompting optimization. One must be able to identify the Law in practice and recognize the symptoms of underproductivity. For example, when an employee is working by the hour, they can be said to have committed to working a set amount of hours. Observations has shown that as a result, work expands to fill the 40-hour work week time slot. Productivity could therefore increase as deadlines approach and incentivized goals are set. In all business, time is money. As such, if a task can be completed in less time, it is more beneficial for a business, assuming quality standards are still met[8]. More time allotted towards something does not guarantee a better outcome. There exist two main strategies that could be implemented to manage tasks using Parkinson’s Law more efficiently:

  1. Deconstruction of tasks.
  2. Breaking down deadlines.

These are further explored below from a project management standpoint.

Deconstruction of Tasks

Tasks containing many items and with clearly set deadlines, can quickly accumulate, especially in larger project management endeavors. As such, breaking down and identifying which tasks are of the most importance, can provide insights into where a project manager's focus is better spent.

Eisenhower Matrix

Figure 2.1.1: Eisenhower Matrix Illustration. Inspired by: (TechTello 2020)[9]

Methods such as the Eisenhower Matrix can help prioritize which tasks are more urgent, or what is important to the manager or the entire project management team[9]. If employed right, the matrix can help create a map that avoids crisis situations through planning, make activities more manageable, assist in delegating more and avoid wasting time doing inessential tasks. To use the matrix efficiently, one must be able to distinguish between urgent and important work. Urgent work requires immediate attention and completion within a specific time limit. Important tasks become urgent if delayed often, not properly addressed or carried out with no real interest. Furthermore, important tasks align with the project management’s mission and goals and has a large effect on its success. These tasks require therefore initiative and proactiveness, strategic thinking, risk analysis, brainstorming etc. Urgency can prompt decisions or work that reverberates into the future. Thus, demanding more time to fix problems that arose due to rushing urgent tasks to mediocre completion.

The overall objectives to achieve higher levels of productivity using the Eisenhower Matrix, is to devise a strategy that stays out of quadrant 3 and 4, avoiding tasks that are inconsequential to one’s mission and goals, reducing the number of tasks in quadrant 1 and make way to do more work in quadrant 2. See Figure 2.1.1 for detailing of the quadrants. It is vital to know what someone/something is trying to accomplish as it provides a reference point against which all future demands can be compared and validated. Learning the mission for any given project, program, or portfolio management and creating goals before the definition of tasks and division of work (prioritization) to achieve it.

Critical Path Method (CPM)

The critical path method (CPM) is a statistical technique of project management that manages well defined activities of a project in relation to cost and time requirements[10]. Regarding project management, the critical path is the longest sequence of tasks that must be completed to successfully finish a project. Tasks along the critical path are designated as critical activities since if they were to be delayed, the whole project would be delayed. Identifying the critical path can help a project manager determine the total duration of their project. During the planning phase, CPM is key since it identifies important deadlines and the activities which must be completed on time. Applying the thought experiment, such as the one proposed in (The Economist 1955)[2], could prove beneficial in removing tasks unnecessary to a project's completion.

In the PMI standard Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge[11], it is detailed how a manager could optimize this process regarding the resources. Examples that are listed in the PMI standard include:

  • Resource leveling. This involves adjusting the start and finish dates of tasks based on resource constraints with the goal of balancing the demand for resources with the available supply. This is especially useful when required resources only are available at certain times or in limited quantities, or there is a need to keep resource usage at a constant level.
  • Resource smoothing. This technique adjusts the activities so that the requirements for resources in a project do not exceed certain predefined limits. As opposed to resource leveling, the project's critical path remains the same, along with its completion date. This technique may not apply to all resources.

These two techniques are very beneficial for a project, especially during its planning phase. Furthermore, this resource optimization could also greatly benefit from Parkinson's Law, and from the project manager to conduct a thought experiment and draw on their experience from past projects, in order to identify and remove superfluous tasks. Making the manager aware of the Law's effects early on would have the highest chance to mitigate its effects in order to reach deadlines with the completion of the most critical activities necessary.

Breaking Down Deadlines

Once a project manager can identify their project's most important, compact, and achievable tasks, they can then better review their deadlines. Identify the more conservatively scheduled deadlines and shorten the allotted time to complete each task. For instance, a manager could have the task of compiling an initial strategy for their client within a week. From there they could consider altering that deadline and aim to finish it within 6 days, or even 5[12].

Being able to visualize one’s task and the steps laid out to get there, will most likely permit one to shorten its timeframe. The extra steps planned for each task that are superfluous to its completion, such as steps C-H in the Law of Multiplication of Work example, can be mentally mapped out and cut out of the process, making it more manageable to complete efficiently. Considering the possible effects Parkinson’s Law has on workers while executing various project management processes could greatly benefit time management, and reduce time wasted in all phases of set project.

Estimate Activity Durations

Estimate Activity Durations is an ongoing project process, which estimates the number of work periods necessary to complete individual activities with estimated resources, as stated in the PMI standard A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge[13]. The key benefit of applying this process is that it elucidates the amount of time each task/activity will take to complete.

Estimating activity durations uses information from the scope of work, required resource types or skill levels, resource calendars, estimated resource quantities. Various other factors influence the duration estimates, such as constraints imposed on the duration, effort from the project team, or type of resources (i.e., fixed duration, fixed effort of work, fixed number of resources), and much else. Inputs for the duration estimates are from the person or group on the project team who is most familiar with the inner workings on a specific activity. Furthermore, the duration estimate is progressively elaborated, and often considers availability and the quality of the input data. What determines the duration of an activity is, in many cases, the number of resources expected to be available for completion, along with the skill proficiency of those resources. Other factors to consider when estimating duration in a project include:

  • Law of diminishing returns.
  • Number of resources.
  • Advances in technology.
  • Motivation of staff.

Considerations regarding Parkinson’s Law happens in the motivation of staff factor, highlighted above. Here the project manager needs to be aware of when workers start to apply themselves only at the last possible moment before the deadline, or when work starts to expand to fill the time allotted for its completion. To avoid the traps of time scheduling (specified more in the section Limitations) the project manager could draw on their experience and lessons learned from previous projects, to consider the rate at which tasks were completed at the varying deadlines (often illustrated in a Burndown Chart), while steering clear of the Law’s various limitations.

Program or Project Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT)

PERT is a time-based technique used to quantify risks at a given point in the development of a project or program[14]. The method was developed in the late 1950s and deals with projects in which planning, scheduling, organizing, coordinating, and controlling uncertain tasks take place. The technique deals with the activities that have been deemed necessary to complete a project and identifies the least amount of time needed to complete the task, along with the minimum time required to complete an entire project[15].

Both PERT and Parkinson's Law were published internationally, and independently, in 1957, and both address the same issues. Therefore, to apply both, from a project management standpoint, is ideal. Furthermore, it could be said that PERT is an analytical refinement of the Law. The more complex a project is, the more there is scope for PERT. For projects only containing single tasks, PERT and Parkinson's Law nearly coincide[16]. If a project manager can better interface the two principles, then it would yield greater benefits than the traditional use of PERT, such as:

  • Helping maximize resource use.
  • Make project planning more manageable.
  • Better estimation of more definite completion dates

Though Parkinson's Law rely heavily on observable phenomena throughout all projects, this could prove difficult to implement as project complexity grows. However, as a project manager grows in experience, so to does their understanding and view of their team's efforts and efficiency.


Parkinson’s Law should not be considered an inherent effect in every project, present to be diminished or eliminated by setting unreasonable deadlines. Any activity takes time to complete, and the more complex a project is, the more time is necessary to complete it. Some project managers may take the principles of the Law to the extreme, trying to fit more work into a given time frame than can actually be performed. Managers should avoid scheduling an overload of tasks, with the intention of keeping everyone busy and pushed into tight deadlines, leaving no room for considerations about finer details or possible ideas along the process. Initially, workers will strive to upkeep their productivity to reach the tight deadlines, however this strain will build up and result in various shortcomings, including:

  • Task completed late – the growing number of tasks and shortening of deadlines have progressed too much.
  • Lower quality work – to complete the activities/tasks in the given time frame, a quality centered tradeoff is necessary.
  • Overworked employees – workers are at risk of burnout and resignation.

Implementing Parkinson’s Law to a higher degree in a project will bring promising results in the short term. However, if put under adequate pressure, this may lead to workers developing chronic stress issues, or to burnout at an alarming rate, and therefore is not a viable business strategy.

Further reading

G. J. Gutierrez and P. Kouvelis (1991). ‘Parkinson’s Law and Its Implications for Project Management’. Management Science, vol. 37, no. 8:

A scientific paper that explores critical path models concerning project management with the inclusion of work force behavioral effects on any given project’s completion time. More specifically, worker behavior expected under Parkinson’s Law. The model described in this paper helps examine the effects of information release policies on subcontractors of project activities and develop managerial policies for properly set deadlines for series or parallel project activities.

Parkinson, C. N. (1957). ‘Parkinson's Law, or The Pursuit of Progress’:

Book authored by Parkinson’s Law’s creator, Cyril Northcote Parkinson, in 1957, who stated that ‘work expands to fill the time available’. A few years after his article being published in The Economist (1955), he published this book, which goes far beyond the Laws famous theorem. The author expands by explaining how to meet the most important people at social gatherings and why the time spent debating an issue is inversely proportional to its objective importance. Much else is explored from the basis of the Law to which we as a species are prone.

B. Chen and N. G. Hall (2021). ‘Incentive schemes for resolving Parkinson’s Law in project management- European Journal of Operational Research, vol. 288, no. 2, pp. 666–681:

This paper aims to provide strategies for mitigating the influence of Parkinson’s Law on projects by providing incentive schemes, which could also eliminate its effect entirely. The authors’ work uses mechanism design within non-cooperative game theory, dealing with various issues resulting from the Law. A particular issue in focus is the possibility that a worker with multiple dependent tasks can improve their incentive payment by falsely reporting some of their task completion times.

D. Kamma, G. Geetha, and N. J. Padma (2013). ‘Countering parkinson’s law for improving productivity’. Association for Computing Machinery, pp. 91–96:

Mainly concerning software development companies, this research paper aims to mitigate the effects of Parkinson’s Law on programmers. Dealing with issues such as giving more time than necessary to a programmer, the extra time will not be documented as “free time” on the programmer’s activity reports but will result in loss of productivity. By allocating a third of the estimated time for completion, and implementing daily status meetings, this paper investigates and analyzes the results, showing how minor changes to management can significantly improve productivity.

Durrani, I. (2011). ‘Parkinson's law quantified: Three investigations on bureaucratic inefficiency’. Bulletin of Pure & Applied Sciences- Physics, pp. 381-396:

Scientific paper that formulates three investigations on bureaucratic inefficiency under Parkinson’s Law, in a quantifiable and dynamical socio physical framework. The first model investigates how the increasing size of decision-making bodies can become inefficient as members join. The second model is of a system of employees being promoted, getting subordinates, and leaving a company after having served for a certain time. The third and final model investigates at what age should employees be sent on old age pension to ensure maximum efficiency within a company.


  1. Consuunt (2021). Parkinson’s Law explained in a simple way with Examples. Available at: (Accessed: 18 February 2021).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Parkinson, C. N. (1955). ‘Parkinson’s Law’. The Economist, 19 November. Available at: (Accessed: 14 February 2021).
  3. ’C. Northcote Parkinson’ (2021). Wikipedia. Available at: (Accessed: 14 February 2021).
  4. Moss, R. (1978). ‘An empirical test of Parkinson’s Law’. Nature, vol. 273, (no. 5659, May). pp. 184. doi: 10.1038/273184a0.
  5. Kaufman, J. (2021). The Personal MBA: Master The Arts of Business. Available at: (Accessed: 21 February 2021).
  6. Krakowski, M. (1974). ‘Pert and Parkinson’s Law’. Interfaces. vol. 5, (no. 1, November). pp. 35–40. doi: 10.1287/inte.5.1.35.
  7. ’Parkinson’s law’ (2021). Wikipedia. Available at: (Accessed: 14 February 2021).
  8. Maddox, C. (2018). ‘How Parkinson’s Law Can Help You Build a Better Business Workflow’. Calendar. 7 November. Available at: (Accessed: 22 February 2021).
  9. 9.0 9.1 Bansal, V. (2020). ‘Eisenhower Matrix: How to Prioritise and Master Productivity’. TechTello. Available at: (Accessed: 22 February 2021).
  10. ProjectManager (2021). Critical Path Method: The Ultimate Guide to Critical Path. Available at: (Accessed: 22 February 2021)
  11. Project Management Institute (2017). Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (6th Edition). pp. 210-212. Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI).
  12. Lea, S (2018). ‘How to apply “Parkinson’s Law” to improve efficiency in your business’. BusinessBalls, 22 October. Available at: (Accessed 22 February 2021).
  13. Project Management Institute (2017). Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (6th Edition), pp. 195-204. Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI).
  14. Project Management Institute (2019). Standard for Risk Management in Portfolios, Programs, and Projects, p. 143. Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI).
  15. Surbhu, S. (2019). ‘Difference Between PERT and CPM’, Key Differences, Available at: (Accessed: 26 February 2021).
  16. Krakowski, M. (1974). ‘Pert and Parkinson’s Law’. Interfaces 5, pp. 35–40. doi:10.1287/inte.5.1.35.
Personal tools