Skip to main content

What is Parkinson's Law and how to overcome it?

Share on Linkedin Facebook
What is Parkinson's Law and how to overcome it?

Parkinson's Law explains why it happens that a job takes much longer than planned. This law has great practical application in various aspects of life.

We often witness situations in which an organization or team is working on a project, but gives itself a little more time to work out the details, where the project takes a long time, and sometimes never sees the light of day.

For example, according to the plan, the world-famous Sydney Opera House was to be built in 4 years. However, its construction took 14 years.

What is Parkinson's Law?

Parkinson's Law was formulated by Cyril Parkinson (1909-1993), a British historian and writer.

In 1955, Parkinson published his humorous essay in The Economist, in which he formulated the law. He later developed his essay in several books, in which he defined more laws in connection with the basic law.

Parkinson's law states that "The work is growing to fill the available time."

Or, the more time is given to a task, the more work will be done to achieve it. This is because, according to Parkinson's Law, the volume of work expands to the extent necessary to fill the time allotted for its implementation.

Despite Cyril Parkinson's humorous way of presenting this idea, the idea is extremely serious and has a huge practical impact.

Why do teams and organizations fall victim to Parkinson's Law? 

There are two reasons for this. First of all, in many areas, the work is becoming more complex. A variety of conceptual skills are required to perform a large number of activities related to the activity of the right hemisphere of the brain, which is responsible for creativity and creativity. This in turn requires more time to do the job well.

But there is a second point related to Parkinson's Law, and that is procrastination. When a person or team knows that they have a specific time to complete a task, it reassures them that the completion of the task can be left until the last possible moment. The problem here is that any delay in the start of the actual work usually means that it will take more time to complete, which further extends the planned deadlines.

Based on his first law, Cyril Parkinson formulated several other laws as follows:

Law II: "Expenditures are raised to absorb revenues."

Law III: "Expansion means complication, and complication means decline."

Law IV: "The number of people in a working group is growing regardless of the amount of work to be done."

Law V: "If there is a way to delay an important decision, the official will always find it."

Parkinson notes that organizations have an indestructible desire to expand, regardless of the results of their activities. Even if there are no results, the number of employees often increases, creating unnecessary work for everyone, so that everyone becomes even busier. In turn, costs increase so that they fit into revenue, even if there is no need to do so.

How to Overcome Parkinson's Law?

Parkinson's Law has to do with productivity. It is useful to know how the consequences of its negative impact on teams and organizations can be overcome.

Let's imagine an employee who is assigned by his boss to complete the task of arranging for months and years some scattered documents in folders. There is no deadline for the task - the boss tells his co-worker to do it "when he has free time" - but it looks impressive in volume, as the documents have been piled up for years and are too numerous.

The employee has no idea how important this task is to the boss or the organization. He is also unsure why the documents should be sorted by year. How motivated will such a person be to take on such a task without delay? Most likely, he will not be particularly motivated, which is why this task will end in a huge amount

Therefore, the first thing that should be done to stimulate a person or team to take active action is to clarify why one task or another is important and why it is important. This immediately leads to the idea of ​​clarity for employees about the mission and vision of their organization or team.

The mission of an organization

The mission of an organization is the meaning that makes it exist and its fundamental goals. An organization's vision is what it wants to achieve and what it strives to become.

If people in an organization are unsure about these two things, they will have a hard time understanding how each subsequent task assigned to them makes sense. And when one task or another doesn't make sense to the people who have to do it, they usually start trying to postpone it for "further" or not even do it at all.

The next important point for overcoming Parkinson's Law is clarity about the roles in the team or organization when it comes to implementing a project or task.

When there is a common task to be done in a team, sometimes there is a problem with responsibility. It is easy to blur the responsibility and it is not clear who is responsible for what in the joint work and for what - not. This in turn increases the time required to complete the task.

Use the RACI Matrix to define team responsibilities

In this regard, it is useful to use the RACI Matrix to define team responsibilities. At each point in the group activity, it should be clear who is working on the task, who has the highest responsibility and authority for it, with whom the task should be consulted, and who is the person who should be informed about it.

With the help of the RACI matrix, the risk of the inaction of certain people or duplication of effort can be reduced. The matrix is ​​useful for better communication between people, and effective communication is very important to overcome the consequences of Parkinson's Law.

Finally, to combat Parkinson's Law, it is very important that the task is well formulated and that you know what goes into it and what doesn't. People who will work to achieve it must have a clear idea of ​​what will be the main priorities in the work, the main parameters and limitations, as well as the criteria according to which it will be assessed whether the task is completed successfully.

This in turn leads to the idea that a project should not be expected to be perfect. Every project, activity, or task to be done should have a main focus that employees are familiar with, but also areas where the project has no ambition to develop, which employees should be familiar with again.

The Impossible Triangle in project management

For example, in project management, the concept of the "Impossible Triangle" is known, which consists of price, quality, and deadlines. For a project to have practical value, we need to focus on only two of the three variables. In practice, it is impossible to perform all three things to a great extent - a job is done qualitatively, both quickly and cheaply.

All this should be known in advance by the people who will be working on a project or task, otherwise, they will wander, waste a lot of time, and eventually, Parkinson's Law will be in full force.


Parkinson's law states that work grows to fill the available time. Read more: Time Management.

This has negative consequences for organizations, which manifest themselves in the form of ineffective efforts, bureaucracy, increased costs, and low morale.

Parkinson's law can be neutralized by requiring active managerial action from the very beginning of a project or task.

Additional Parkinson's Laws

Law I: "The work grows until the available time is filled."

Law II: "Expenditures are raised to absorb revenues."

Law III: "Expansion means complication, and complication means decline."

Law IV: "The number of people in a working group is growing regardless of the amount of work to be done."

Law V: "If there is a way to delay making an important decision, the clerk will always find it."

Law of Silence: "The progress of science changes inversely with the number of journals published."

Law of Delay: "Delay is the deadliest form of denial."

Data law: "Data grows until the capacity of the data carrier is full."

Law on Operations: "The time spent in a meeting on a problem is inversely proportional to its value."

Law of a Thousand: "A company with more than a thousand employees is a self-sufficient empire that creates so much internal work that it does not need contracts with the outside world."

A popular example of writing a letter to a niece

The author gives the example of an elderly lady who sits down to write a card to her niece. Because the woman has no work to do, this otherwise simple task manages to fill her whole day - an hour goes to choose the card, another hour to look for glasses, half an hour to find the exact address of the niece, an hour and a half for composing the letter, and another 20 minutes for wondering if to take an umbrella on the way out to the post office. The effort, which would take no more than three minutes per busy person, could last for hours with more free time.

Anyone who has faced the challenge of completing their work by a certain deadline knows how true Parkinson's law can be.

The historian's article has a very specific purpose - criticism of the bureaucratization of the British state administration. Despite a 2/3 reduction in the British Navy's fleet and a reduction in the army staff by a third between 1914 and 1928, the bureaucracy had inflated by almost 6% a year.

The fewer people and activities that need to be managed, the more the management staff increases. Parkinson points out that the reason for this paradox is related to factors that have nothing to do with the specifics of the operational needs of the Navy.

One of the scholars who support this theory is Stefan Turner, a professor at the Medical University of Vienna. His interest in Parkinson's law arose when the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Vienna split into a separate structure in 2004.

Within two years, says Turner, Vienna's new Medical University has increased its administration from 15 to 100, while the academic staff has hardly changed.

At the same time, he came across Parkinson's book and was inspired to test its laws with a mathematical model.

Any company with 6% annual growth in administration will sooner or later disappear

Parkinson says that any company with 6% annual growth in the administrative apparatus will sooner or later cease to exist, as the entire workforce will deal with bureaucracy at the expense of productivity, "Turner said.

Parkinson points to two elements that lead to bureaucratization. The first of them is the so-called law on the multiplication of subordinates - the tendency of managers to hire two or more subordinates to perform their tasks so that no one is in direct competition with the manager himself. The second factor is the tendency of bureaucrats to create jobs for other bureaucrats.

Companies usually start with a horizontal hierarchy. As the business grew, managers recruited assistants, who were subsequently promoted and in turn began to hire their subordinates.

Thus the pyramidal structure begins to grow. Artificial layers are added, which have no purpose other than to introduce a new hierarchy and create an opportunity for the structural displacement of the people that the manager wants to motivate and satisfy. When the pyramid turns out to be too big or expensive to maintain, it can "eat" all the company's profits. If the bureaucracy is not drastically reduced at this stage, the company will perish.

Turner also analyzes the structures that underlie Parkinson's Inefficiency Study: Governments.

The Austrian and his colleagues examined the number of ministries in nearly 200 countries and found that there was a negative correlation between cabinet size and government efficiency, political stability, pluralism and accountability (measured by the World Bank), life expectancy, education, and education. standard of living (measured by the UN).

Change in efficiency when the group reaches 20 people

The scientists' model shows a significant change in efficiency when the group reaches 20 people.

"We have created a realistic model of people-to-people connections and given virtual commissions random initial opinions on various topics. We see serious differences in the ability to form coalitions in 20 people. Smaller interest groups have formed that block each other. This explains why "It's becoming increasingly difficult to reach consensus solutions with big governments," Turner said.

If Parkinson's theses are still valid today, does the same apply to his famous first sentence? Is it true that without strict deadlines a person tends to waste his time so that the performance of a specific task takes more than necessary?

Research shows that there is some truth in Parkinson's law

Research conducted in the decades following Parkinson's essay shows that there is some truth in it.

In the 1960s, scientists proved that if the subjects "unexpectedly" received an additional extension of the term of work on the task, it would take them more time to complete.

In another 1999 study, participants were asked to rate four groups of photos. When they are told that the fourth group will drop out, the subjects start procrastinating on the penultimate third set, instead of just finishing the task earlier.

The researchers found that the extra time spent on the task (counting the number of letters in a given phrase) did not improve the accuracy or the ability to memorize pairs of words in the subsequent surprise test.

In that case, what should one do to increase one's productivity? Should I set shorter deadlines, or should I limit my efforts?

Can limited time improve our productivity?

People have a limited capacity for memory, attention, and endurance (mental range), says Eldar Shafir, a professor of psychology at Princeton.

Because our ability to concentrate is limited, we divide it sporadically as we see fit as we perform the tasks of our daily lives. Sometimes - by necessity - one has to tighten up and focus one's efforts.

When a person knows that there is a deadline and it expires soon, it acts as a warning of an approaching storm - threatening and inevitable. This is the reason why the mind is mobilized more seriously to perform the task.

The problem is that even if it is completed perfectly, everything else shifts to the periphery of attention - even if it is important personal commitments. This is the price everyone pays for the success achieved with full concentration of effort.

Rushing to complete a task in a short time can also have drawbacks - especially when the deadline is set by someone else. If the working time is too short and a person panics, he will have to sacrifice his efficiency, and from there everything can go wrong.

People often say that if they had not been pressured at the last minute, they would not have finished the job. But research shows that human productivity is not linear.

What does this mean for the hypothetical elderly lady with Parkinson's, who writes letters to her relatives? If she had given herself a tighter deadline, she would probably have finished sooner. But if there's nothing to do all day anyway, she may have finished just in time.

Questions and Answers

Q1: What is Parkinson's Law in the economic context?

A1: In the economic context, Parkinson's Law refers to the observation that government or organizational bureaucracy tends to expand over time, regardless of the actual need for its activities or the accomplishment of its objectives. It is often associated with the notion that work and administrative tasks tend to increase in complexity and volume, leading to inefficiencies and wasteful use of resources.

Q2: How does Parkinson's Law affect productivity and resource allocation?

A2: Parkinson's Law affects productivity by diverting resources and attention to non-essential or redundant tasks, leading to a decrease in overall efficiency. As bureaucratic processes expand, more resources get allocated to manage the bureaucracy itself, leaving fewer resources available for productive activities.

Q3: What are the consequences of bureaucratic expansion due to Parkinson's Law?

A3: The consequences of bureaucratic expansion can include increased administrative costs, delays in decision-making, reduced responsiveness to changing conditions, and decreased innovation. It may also result in a bloated workforce and decreased accountability.

Q4: How can organizations combat the negative effects of Parkinson's Law?

A4: Organizations can combat the negative effects of Parkinson's Law by implementing measures to streamline processes, improve transparency, and enhance accountability. Regular reviews of bureaucratic processes can identify inefficiencies and opportunities for improvement.

Q5: How does Parkinson's Law relate to public spending and government programs?

A5: Parkinson's Law is relevant to public spending and government programs as it suggests that government bureaucracies tend to expand continuously, leading to increased public spending on administrative activities. This expansion may not always be linked to the achievement of the program's original goals.

Q6: What role does effective oversight and evaluation play in preventing bureaucratic expansion?

A6: Effective oversight and evaluation play a vital role in preventing bureaucratic expansion. Regular evaluations of government programs and agencies help identify redundant or non-essential activities, leading to more targeted resource allocation.

Q7: Can Parkinson's Law impact private sector organizations as well?

A7: Yes, Parkinson's Law can impact private sector organizations as well. Bureaucratic processes, unnecessary red tape, and a focus on administrative tasks can hinder the agility and efficiency of private companies.

Q8: How can resource constraints influence the manifestation of Parkinson's Law?

A8: Resource constraints can exacerbate Parkinson's Law as organizations may focus more on administrative activities and less on productivity due to limited resources. This can lead to a vicious cycle of inefficiency and resource misallocation.

Q9: What are some successful examples of organizations overcoming Parkinson's Law?

A9: Successful examples of organizations overcoming Parkinson's Law include those that implement lean management principles, foster a culture of efficiency and innovation, and regularly review and optimize processes.

Q10: How can public policy address Parkinson's Law to improve economic efficiency?

A10: Public policy can address Parkinson's Law by implementing measures to reduce bureaucratic red tape, enhance transparency and accountability, and promote the efficient use of public resources. Emphasizing evidence-based decision-making and periodic evaluations of government programs can lead to better economic efficiency.

About the author

Lucas Augustin, Writer at Business Value-Oriented Principles

Lucas Augustin is a lecturer in business and management with over 20 years of practical experience in managing teams and organizations.

Related posts:
Become a Certified Project Manager
$280   $130
FREE Online Mock Exam