For 99p in a well-known charity book shop, I picked up a tidy little paperback book. It’s wonderfully illustrated, mixing humour with one or two earnest thoughts. Originally, it would have been about 3 shillings[1] (15 new pence) to buy. So, I may have paid over the odds.

Was C. Northcote Parkinson[2], right? Certainly, when I listen to the epic tale on HS2[3] it does get me wondering if Parkinson’s Law works as well in the 2020s as it did in the late 1950s. Progress is slow, as work expands. The more there is to do, the more there is to do.

The UK’s number one railway project, High Speed Two, HS2 is a massive project. It’s image of yellow jacketed workers stomping across chewed-up fields is a long way from the reality. In the back rooms and offices are thousands of planners, managers, and administrators toiling intensely. Politicians posture over reams of reports and change their minds at every juncture. There’s a hitch every week.

Given my experiences, I should be able to make some judgements about Parkinson’s Law. That is to say that: work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. It’s generally associated with Government administration and the operation of a civil service. My observation is that large scale industry is just as guilty of this characteristic. 

It can be said that a large aircraft could not be certified until the pile of paper needed to do so weighted as much as the finished product. This tong-in-cheek saying stems from the frustration that builds-up when progress is slower than people would like it to be. What a “pile of paper” means in the digital world is more difficult to ascertain but it’s a lot of stuff. 

Whatever the merit of Parkinson’s Law, the arguments made for it have been undermined as employment practices have changed dramatically since the 1950s. Internal structures of bureaucratic and deep hierarchical organisation are no longer the fashion. The whole phenomena of Buggins’ turn[4] still exists but is in abeyance. Much of industry may have shaken it off, but the political world still clings-on and offers jobs on seniority rather than by merit. Hierarchical organisations that feed on a certainty of their continued existence remain plentiful, but they are now more subject to more disruption.

Parkinson does mock the large organisations of his time. Some of his anecdotes resonate perfectly with the world of the 2020s. These are observations of human behaviour.

One that rings a bell with me is the description of a board meeting were agenda items are methodically addressed in order. Let’s say, the subject of item 9 on an agenda is for a major investment expenditure and the next item, item 10 addresses staff car parking spaces. No prizes for guessing which one gets the most discussion time. When faced with complex financial arguments and detailed pages of figures there’s a tendance to defer to those who know about that sort of stuff. When faced with a subject that everyone understands and impacts everyone in an obvious way, the temptation to engage in discussion about the later is overwhelming.

Let’s conclude that progress that doesn’t take account of the human factor is going to hit the rails or maybe worse.


[2] Parkinson’s Law or The Pursuit of Progress, John Murry Paperbacks, 1958.



Author: johnwvincent

Our man in Southern England

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