Review – Parkinson: The Law

December 2, 2018

Review – Parkinson: The Law

Disclaimer: I have read the German version of this book, which states that the original was published in 1980 as Parkinson: The Law by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. There seem to be different versions around.

In the 1950s, C. Northcote Parkinson published his famous “law”, a half serious and half sarcastic description of the growth of bureaucracy. He found that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”, meaning that the amount of work to accomplish depends on the amount of time that can be spent to handle it, not on the complexity of that task. He explained this with human nature to preferably share work with two underlings instead of one equal partner. However, as administrators supposedly feel the need to double-check their employee’s work and have the last say, the work burden is not, in fact, reduced. That way the initial problem of work overload (due to incompetence, laziness or actual overload) is solved, but the solution creates an equal amount of new work.

Parkinson stated that an administration will show a steady growth of app. 5.5% per year, and that the number of yearly hires can be calculated using the following equation:

x: new hires per year
k: number of existing employees
m: hours used for non-productive work
L: age difference between hiring and retirement
n: hours used for productive work

Supposedly, this rate is observed regardless of the actual development of the administered object, as it happened in the British Admiralty and Colonial Office (in times where Britain was reducing naval forces and releasing colonies into independence).

Does this hold up? According to Parkinson, it absolutely does. He presents numbers from various British offices and takes two chapters to describe them in detail. I took the liberty to prepare a graphic representation of his data instead, and the actual development diverges significantly from his proposed rate:


So, in summary, it’s a bit meh.

In the remaining pages of Parkinson: The Law, we get more “laws” discovered by the author, about overburdening governmental regulation, taxation laws, indecisiveness of decision makers and corporate culture. We learn how war taxes never decreased in Britain, how office environments foster procrastination, get a typology of office workers and so on. These “laws” are are presented in a less serious manner (without any data or examples) and are clearly satire. Satire, that has not aged well, and is in many cases irrelevant to an era marked by globalization and digitalization.

The glaring indecisiveness of tone is the most annoying aspect of Parkinson: The Law. The first part about spending habits of the British government is mainly a description of spreadsheets, and so dry that it constitutes a fire hazard. In contrast, the chapters about management shenanigans in private corporations are a clumsy satire about killing your boss with stressful business trips. And the author’s blatant hubris really put me off. Noticed the dip in the graphs above between ca. 1950 and 1960, not predicted by “Parkinson’s Law”? Parkinson claims full responsibility for that. He says that he should really have known that the publication of his theory would influence the government in that way…

Some people might find the outdated satire amusing, other people might enjoy Parkinson: The Law as a document of early empirical social science. I find it boring and stupid.

Key points:

  • Parkinson’s Law!
  • Some attempted observational humor regarding office environments.

Author affiliations:

Cyril Northcote Parkinson was a British naval historian, social scientist and history lecturer at the University of Malaya. He wrote several fiction and non-fiction books and is mostly recognized for his observations of work and staff development in British administrations, culminating in “Parkinson’s Law”.

Review copy:

copy bought
ISBN-10: 3499178486
Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH, August 1984

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Parkinson, the law Book Cover Parkinson, the law
Cyril Northcote Parkinson
Business & Economics
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH)

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