C. Northcote Parkinson, Lawrence J. Peter, and Scott Adams are for me the ‘holy trinity’ of philosophers of modern bureaucracy, within both the public service and the corporate structure. As philosophers, they are all keen observers and witty commentators on the human condition, with emphasis on the nature of organizations, leadership and management.
Not always in the lofty or strategically-focused terms of, say, Sun Tzu or Machiavelli; all three are more prosaic and more cynical. And funnier – an adjective seldom used with either classical writer.
These three pundits are, of course, well-known today: every CEO, corporate leader and ambitious manager worth their salt knows and has read their work. All are required reading in many business courses and workshops. Even dedicated, effective elected government officials and elected representatives have read them (Stop that guffawing, you local residents…)
Parkinson’s Law, first formulated in a magazine article in 1955, is that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Which might explain why putting together a shared services agreement between Collus Powerstream and the town has taken more than a year to do what most people could do in an afternoon over a beer.
Parkinson also created the idea of the “coefficient of inefficiency,” a parameter to describe how committees become increasingly less efficient as their size grows until they become completely and utterly inefficient.
Parkinson’s theory was based on quantity: the greater the size of the organization the lower its efficiency, pointing to trends based on English history. I, however, tend to measure quality over quantity in such situations. Five bobbleheads are, for example, more inefficient in a committee than, say, 50 independent-thinking geniuses. While the latter might accomplish something useful given enough time, the former merely bloviate.
Another contribution was Parkinson’s Law of Triviality which states that “members of an organisation give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.” Or as Parkinson phrased it, “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.” His example was a committee debating the development of an expensive, complex nuclear plant: it spent more time debating the construction of its bicycle shed than any major component.
Anyone who has followed council budget discussions recognizes this law in practice: significantly more time is spent on small amounts than on the big ticket items. Except of course this term, when staff told council what to think during the budget discussions, and refused to answer questions. The Bobbleheads accepted this process, thus quickening the timeline by skirting the messy business of democracy, and frank, open discussion.
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