Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

Parkinson’s Law

Posted in Books, Management by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on September 8, 2008
Parkinson's Law


One of my favorite books is Parkinson’s Law. Its eponymous law, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion“, is famous even though most people do not know that they are quoting the first chapter of this obscure book.

But my favorite chapter is the third, titled “High Finance, or The Point of Vanishing Interest”.

When I have described the chapter to my friends they always have recognition depression: they recognize the depressing phenomenon that the chapter discusses, and they want to hear no more about the book because it is so depressing. But if you persist until the end there is useful insight.

The chapter recounts a committee meeting. Bear with me. The first item is the most important, namely whether or not to approve the £10 million contract to build a power station. The book is from the ’50s so the sum was supposed to have been astronomical.

However, only two people in the committee know anything about power stations. The others have no clue, and are to embarrassed to admit it, so they ask no questions lest they reveal their ignorance.

Of the two people who do know, one person wants to object, yet again, to the choice of contractor. The chairman says this will be noted, but that it is too late now to go back. The second person has a whole range of questions, starting from why the cost is a suspiciously round £10 million. However, he knows that no one else will understand his questions, much less the answers necessary, so he just sighs and gives up.

The team spent just a few minutes on the £10 million agenda item.

The next item on the agenda is the building of bicycle shed. All the people who were ashamed of their ignorance would now like to justify their place on the committee by “contributing” to the debate. Furthermore, everyone has some level of understanding here as they would have had to make similar decisions with their personal finances. It takes 45 minutes of arguing before the decision is made about £2000 of spending.

Next item: how much to spend on coffee? Even more opinions are volunteered as everyone has an opinion about coffee. It takes 75 minutes to decide what to do about less than £100 and the decision is to research more information in time for the next meeting. In other words, the time spent on each item is inversely proportional to its importance.

Does this sound like the last meeting you attended?

Here is the clever bit. Parkinson says that there is a point of vanishing interest, a cost below which there is no interest by committee members in debating further. So, if you want to get your budget spending approved, find out what that threshold is and divide your budget into several milestones, each of which is below the threshold.

This is more powerful than it sounds. For example, lots of software is entering the enterprise because of software as a service (SaaS) business models. It begins with a small spend for a small team. The small spend is not worth discussing in a budget meeting; it is small enough for one person to pay with their credit card and have reimbursed.

Soon, another team hears about how well your team is doing with the new tool and wants the same. They make the same decision, and so on for a few more teams.

Eventually, it is time for a big decision. Should the whole enterprise get the software? By that point, however, so many people are using the software that switching to another tool is an expensive proposition. This is the CIO’s nightmare but the problem is only getting worse. On the other hand, if you are trying to make change happen (not always a good idea) in how your team does its work, SaaS software is making the process cheaper and easier than ever before.

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  1. shivya said, on September 8, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    That story does explain a lot! Look at how long we’ve come from the 50s. Gosh, and despite so much growth.

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