Parkinson's Law in Project Management

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Author: Erika Marie Strøm

Parkinson's Law states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion.[1] It was formulated by British historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson in an essay for The Economist in 1955.[2]

Originally, Parkinson's Law described how a bureaucracy can grow unrelated to its actual workload because people make work for each other. The growth of bureaucracy depends on two factors: (1) The Law of Multiplication of Subordinates and (2) The Law of Multiplication of Work. From statistical analyses, Parkinson determined the increase in staff per year to be around 5-7% independent of its workload. Based on this, he formulated a mathematical formula to determine the annual increase in staff in any public administrative department.[1]

According to Parkinson's Law, a person will spent all of the available time to complete a task regardless of the tasks size. This tendency leads to inefficient use of time and resources and affects project performance. Project managers can use Parkinson's Law to understand how people work and to ensure productivity and efficiency. Project scheduling is the main driver to mitigate Parkinson's Law.

This article highlights areas in project management that are affected by Parkinson's Law and explains some of the key problems. Two techniques are suggested to mitigate Parkinson's Law and resolve some of the identified problems.



In Parkinson’s essay from 1955[1], the law refers to the relationship between the bureaucracy and its workload. The law describes how people make work for each other by complicating the work. Therefore, a bureaucracy can grow unrelated to its actual workload. The growth depends on two factors: (1) The Law of Multiplication of Subordinates and (2) The Law of Multiplication of Work. The Law of Multiplication of Subordinates states an overworked person, seeking a promotion, in an organisation has incentives to multiply subordinates instead of creating rivals by sharing their work. The Law of Multiplication of Work states that people will make work for each other by complicating it to occupy everyone. This gives the impression that the staff is overworked and lacking resources, therefore more staff is hired.[1]

Parkinson uses the bureaucracy of the British Civil Service as an example of Parkinson’s Law.[3]
Figure 1: Parkinson's Law on the same amount of work (inspired by [4]).
He supports his statements with statistical analyses showing that the number of ships and men in the royal navy fell between 1914 and 1928, while the number of employees in administration rose. With these analyses, he determined the rate of staff per year to be around 5-7% independent of the amount of work. He formulated the following mathematical formula to determine the annual increase in staff in any public administrative department:[1]

 x = \frac{2k^m+p}{n}

  • k = number of employees with incentives to multiply subordinates
  • m = number of hours devoted to answering minutes within the department
  • p = difference between the ages of appointment and retirement
  • n = number of effective units being administered
  • x = number of new employees each year[1]

The definition of Parkinson’s Law as known today is the first sentence of the essay, "It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion" (Parkinson, 1955). Parkinson describes how work is elastic in its demands on time. Work becomes more complex as to fill the time before completion. He uses the example of an elderly lady spending a whole day writing and sending a postcard. A busy man could do it in three minutes, yet the lady spends the day worrying and stressing over sending the postcard.[1]
In project management, this is the definition applied. Parkinson’s Law describes the tendency that people will spent all of the allocated time to complete a task regardless of the time it actually takes to complete it. Likewise, a person will not complete a task before a deadline, resulting in inefficient use of resources and time. For instance, a person has one week to complete a task that takes 8 hours, but instead of completing it on the first day using all of their effort, the person will use less effort and spent a week. There are a number of reasons why people are not interested in completing work before its deadline. Chen and Hall (2021) highlight the desire to appear busy to not receive additional tasks, the desire to avoid having resources withdrawn as a result of over-performance, and the natural tendency towards laziness and procrastination.

Implications on Project Management

The behaviour associated with Parkinson’s Law has a great influence on project performance. Along with student syndrome, it is one of the reasons why projects are routinely inefficient and delayed.[5]

Within project scheduling, it is important project managers are aware of the behaviour caused by Parkinson's Law and how they can minimise it with scheduling. According to Parkinson's Law, a task is either completed on time or delayed. A task is not completed and delivered before its deadline. To achieve the most efficient use of resources and time, the time allocated for each task in a project needs to correspond with the time to completion using maximum effort. If the allocated time is too short, the task is delayed and if it is too long, unnecessary time and resources are spent on the task. According to the the Project Management Institute (PMI) standard Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), a number of factors influence the estimated duration of a task, such as the required resources and the inputs provided by the persons most familiar with the work. The accuracy and quality of the duration estimates depends on how detailed and precise available data is.

Besides scheduling, resources, risks, and governance are also affected by Parkinson's Law.


In project scheduling, the objective is to make a detailed plan of activity durations and dates to ensure timely completion of a project. As the project progresses, it is monitored and controlled to update the schedule.[6] In terms of Parkinson's Law in scheduling, the concern is whether time and resources are used efficiently. As previously mentioned, the quality of a schedule depends on factors such as the number of available resources. However, in the following section the focal point is purely project schedule management and how it may be affected by Parkinson's Law.

According to the PMI standard, project schedule management consists of six processes to properly manage the completion of a project. The processes are: (1) Plan Schedule Management, (2) Define Activities, (3) Sequence Activities, (4) Estimate Activity Durations, (5) Develop Schedule, and (6) Control Schedule. The fourth process, estimate activity durations, has a great influence on minimising the behaviour resulting from Parkinson's Law. The estimated activity durations need to correspond to the time it takes to complete the activity. This requires an estimation of the amount of work effort and the amount of available resources to complete the activity.[6]

The following scheduling techniques and tools can be subject to Parkinson's Law if not properly managed:

  • Analogous estimating is used to determine the duration of an activity in the fourth process, Estimate Activity Durations. This technique uses historical data from a similar activity or project to estimate the duration of an activity. It is frequently used to estimate activity durations when information about the project is scarce. This is less time-consuming and costly, but also less accurate.[6] The durations may be unnecessary long, which results in inefficiency due to Parkinson's Law. The risk of using durations from a project affected by Parkinson's Law is also likely.
  • Reserve analysis is used to determine the amount of reserve needed to handle contingency. Duration estimates can include contingency reserves, also known as schedule reserves, to account for uncertainty. The contingency reserve should be used, reduced, or eliminated as the project progresses and more information is available.[6] According to Parkinson's Law, instead of using the reserve on contingencies, people will assume they have more time to complete an activity without delaying the project and use it. The contingency reserve is most likely used rather than reduced or eliminated.
When dealing with Parkinson’s Law, it is important to set realistic, but tight deadlines. By having contingency reserves, efficiency is at risk.
  • Critical Path Method (CPM) is one of the techniques used to develop a schedule in the fifth process. CPM is used to identify the shortest time to complete a project based on the estimated activity durations. The early start, early finish, late start, and late finish dates are calculated for all activities without regard to resource limitations. CPM helps the project manager determine if a schedule is on the critical path.[6][7]
However, in CPM activity durations tend to be purposely overestimated by employees to ensure the activity is completed on time and to avoid blame if it is delayed. Overestimation of durations leads to inefficiency due to the behaviour resulting from Parkinson's Law.[5]
According to Kinser (2008), if CPM is not properly managed people will start an activity on its late start date, consume all float, and turn all paths critical.[8]

The following techniques could compromise efforts to minimise implications of Parkinson's Law:

  • Crashing is a common technique used when an activity or project is behind schedule. More resources are added to shorten the time to completion.[6] Crashing may be applied to a project delayed by the implications of Parkinson's Law.
Parallels can be drawn between the observations Parkinson made in his essay and The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick Brooks (1975). Brooks' Law states that adding people to a late project, makes it later. This statement is based on Brook’s own experiences at IBM. When a software project was behind schedule, the project was crashed. However, by adding more people, bureaucracy and training increased. Instead of being more effective, the project was delayed further.[9] Both laws have in common, that the increase in bureaucracy leads to inefficiency. If a project is affected by Parkinson's Law, crashing may be a technique applied to salvage the schedule. However, crashing can increase risk and cost and may actually have the opposite effect and delay the project even further.
  • Multitasking is typically used when a project needs to synchronise activities to stay within schedule. Multitasking is unavoidable in most projects as activities often are related.[10]
The nature of multitasking increases the risk of enabling the behaviour caused by Parkinson's Law. Multitasking requires a number of activities to be completed within the same time frame, thus requiring people to divide their attention and effort between each activity. This approach contradicts Parkinson's Law describing that the least amount of time and maximum effort should be used to complete an activity. Attention is diverted from the single activity and time is spent on shifting between activities.[10]


As a result of inadequate scheduling, human and financial resources are used inefficiently. Resources are allocated according to the schedule to ensure both human and financial resources are available to complete the project.[11] If all of the allocated time is spent on completing an activity, independent of the actual completion time, so are the resources. If time is spent more efficiently, the resources can be applied to another part of the project or organisation.
The typical response to a delayed activity is to apply more resources to stay within schedule.[6] If the activity is delayed due to Parkinson's Law, even more resources are used inefficiently. Therefore, Parkinson's Law plays a great role in project performance, because it affects how and when projects are delivered. This corresponds well with Parkinson's initial observations. If a person feels overworked, they will hire subordinates and complicate the work to occupy everyone.[1] Resources are spent inefficiently and may lead to further stress and complexity.


According to Parkinson's Law, people complicate their work to fill the available time to completion. Inherently, this can lead to a number of risks. As described by Parkinson, Parkinson's Law in a bureaucracy leads to increased risk of stress and higher costs.[1] In projects, tasks and activities may appear more complex than they actually are and lead to increased levels of stress. Additionally, inefficiency results in higher costs. By managing Parkinson's Law, a manager can also account for potential risks that affect the project's performance.[12]
Furthermore, contingency reserve is used to manage risk. As mentioned in Scheduling, the use of reserve can lead to increased behaviour arising from Parkinson's Law. Therefore, a manager must be aware of Parkinson's Law while using this technique.


The growth of bureaucracy Parkinson described has an impact on decision-making. Studies have shown that the size of a cabinet is negatively correlated with government effectiveness. In large groups, smaller groups begin to form and block each other, which is why it is difficult to come to an unanimous decision.[3] In smaller projects, this is not necessarily a problem, but as a project gets bigger it is important a project manager keeps this in mind.
Parkinson's Law can also apply to other parts of project management such as the productivity in meetings. Clark (2020) states that "One of the most misused methods of filling time is meetings." A survey of senior managers showed that the majority think meetings are unproductive, inefficient, and keep people from completing actual work.[13] Therefore, it is important meetings are used efficiently. Some ways to achieve a more productive meeting is by purposely making the meeting short and plan an agenda beforehand.[14]

Mitigation of Parkinson’s Law

There are a number of ways to minimise the implications of Parkinson's Law. As previously described, scheduling plays a large role in mitigating or eliminating Parkinson's Law. The estimated duration of an activity and its corresponding deadline have an impact on how productive people are and whether resources and time is spend efficiently. Additionally, by monitoring and controlling the status of the project against the developed schedule, the project manager can take corrective action if the project is delayed due to Parkinson's Law. Techniques such as Variance analysis show possible variances in CPM.[6] The variance analysis can uncover if people are starting on the late start date and consuming alarming amounts of float due to Parkinson's Law.
Furthermore, it is important people know when a task or activity is done to avoid lingering. If tasks are properly broken down and have clear goals, it is easier to determine when it is completed and ready to be delivered.[15]
The following suggestions are additional initiatives to minimise the implications of Parkinson's Law.

Critical Chain Project Management

Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM) is an alternative approach to CPM that actively seeks to eliminate the implications of Parkinson’s Law. Unlike CPM, CCPM focuses on resource constraints and eliminates float and slack.[12] This method assumes activity durations are purposely overestimated to ensure timely completion. This results in a false sense of security as people will use all the allocated time and safety time according to Parkinson’s Law.[16] The safety time of each individual activity is allocated into one central buffer, a project buffer, at the end of the schedule.[7] The activity durations are based on a 50% confidence level, instead of the commonly used 80-90% in project management. By aiming for durations that are too tight, attention is not diverted from the task and multitasking is avoided. Furthermore, if activities are delayed, it will not cause the entire schedule to slip. With a 50% confidence level, the activity cannot realistically be expected to be completed within a certain time. Therefore, task due dates and milestones are not set. This also eliminates the possibility of Student Syndrome.[12][16]
There are three kinds of buffers: Project buffers, feeding buffers, and resource buffers. Project and feeding buffers are safety times, while resource buffers act as warning signals to ensure timely availability of resources. The critical chain is the longest resource-leveled path through the schedule including all buffers.[7]
During project execution, the consumption of the project buffer is monitored. If activities require more time, it is consumed from the common project buffer and if an activity is completed early, the time is added to the buffer. Using a buffer consumption chart, the project manager can monitor the use of the buffer and take corrective action if needed.[12] The disadvantage of using this method is the risk of oversimplifying the schedule.[16] Furthermore, this technique may meet resistance from people in the project.[5]

Incentive Schemes to Encourage Early Completion

Chen and Hall (2021) suggest incentive schemes applicable to CPM and CCPM to eliminate or mitigate Parkinson's Law. To encourage early delivery, an employee is rewarded for early completion. The schemes are designed to assure the employee works in their own interest and eliminates the potential for strategic behaviour by a group. To ensure the employee cannot fake their completion of a task, a certification of completion is provided by an independent expert. The early completion is passed on in the project, resulting in improved project performance. The schemes also encourage higher efficiency at each task level and resolve student syndrome. The incentive schemes are easy to implement, but are not directly applicable as organisations have different approaches to performance incentives. Nonetheless, the schemes proposed provide a basis to design schemes on.[5]

Annotated Bibliography

Project Management Institute, Inc. (July 8, 2019). Practice Standard for Scheduling (3rd ed.). Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI).

PMIs practice standard for scheduling describes the latest techniques and tools within the area of project scheduling. The practice standard elaborates on A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) and includes additional techniques to mitigate Parkinson's Law such as Critical Chain Project Management. PMIs standards are trustworthy sources to good and accepted practices within project management.

Herroelen, W. & Leus, R. (2000) On the merits and pitfalls of critical chain scheduling, Project Management Institute, Inc.. Paper presented at PMI® Research Conference 2000: Project Management Research at the Turn of the Millennium, Paris, France. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

In this paper, Herroelen and Leus reflect on the use of Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM). The fundamentals of CCPM are explained and the advantages and disadvantages are analysed. They conclude that CCPM oversimplifies scheduling and make suggestions for further research.

Chen, B. & Hall, N. G. (January 16, 2021). Incentive schemes for resolving Parkinson’s Law in project management. European Journal of Operational Research. 288 (20): 666–682.

This paper suggests incentive schemes to mitigate or eliminate Parkinson's Law. The schemes encourage early delivery of completed tasks while avoiding group strategy. They are applicable to the scheduling techniques Critical Path Method and Critical Chain Project Management. The paper thoroughly explains how incentive schemes are used and how they affect project performance. The incentive schemes cannot be directly applied to a project as organisations have different performance incentives, but serve as a basis on which incentive schemes can be designed.


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  2. Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica "C. Northcote Parkinson", Britannica. Retrieved 13 February 2021.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Wen, T. (May 22, 2020) "The ‘law’ that explains why you can't get anything done", BBC. Retrieved 21 February 2021.
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  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Chen, B. & Hall, N. G. (January 16, 2021) "Incentive schemes for resolving Parkinson’s Law in project management". European Journal of Operational Research. 288 (20): 666–682. doi:10.1016/j.ejor.2020.06.006
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 Project Management Institute, Inc. (September 22, 2017). "Chapter 6: Project Schedule Management". Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (6th ed.). Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI). pp. 173–230.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Project Management Institute, Inc. (July 8, 2019). "Chapter 2: Schedule model principles and concepts". Practice Standard for Scheduling (3rd ed.). Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI). pp. 9–43.
  8. Kinser, J. (2008) "The top 10 laws of project management", Project Management Institute, Inc.. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2008—North America, Denver, CO. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
  9. Roth, D. (December 12, 2009) "QUOTED OFTEN, FOLLOWED RARELY", CNN. Retrieved 21 February 2021.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Reddy, S. & Espejo, J. (2013) "Is multitasking the enemy?". PM Network. 27 (2): 24–25. Retrieved 24 February 2021.
  11. Project Management Institute, Inc. (2017). "Chapter 9: Project Resource Management". Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (6th ed.). Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI). pp. 307–358.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Cooper, J. (2013) "Improving focus and predictability with critical chain project management", Project Management Institute, Inc.. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2013—North America, New Orleans, LA. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
  13. Clark, R. L. (June 23, 2020) "How Understanding Parkinson’s Law Can Make Meetings More Productive", Empowering Serving Leaders. Retrieved 28 February 2021.
  14. Locke R. "12 Secrets To a Super Productive Meeting You Should Know", Lifehack. Retrieved 28 February 2021.
  15. Litemind "Beat Parkinson’s Law and Supercharge Your Productivity", Litemind. Retrieved 28 February 2021.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Herroelen, W. & Leus, R. (2000) "On the merits and pitfalls of critical chain scheduling", Project Management Institute, Inc.. Paper presented at PMI® Research Conference 2000: Project Management Research at the Turn of the Millennium, Paris, France. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
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