Republished on VDARE.COM on March 28, 2003
(C. Northcote Parkinson, the father of Parkinson`s
Forbes, August 7, 1989 v144 n3 p42(3)
LIKE A SWARM of locusts in the desert sky, myriads of
management books are on the move, all heading
remorselessly for your free time. Some, polysyllabic and
obscure, are in essence the oversize business cards of
management consultants who nominally teach at Harvard
Business School. Others, slick and simple, are the
creations of hungry journalists.
(And then there`s mystical money management; see p. 52.[
Note:This was Crystal clear. (New Age financial
guides) Joe Queenan.])
Once upon a time, however, there was a very different
sort of management sage. He wrote not in jargon or
algebra but in a brilliantly readable English. He
published not in tomes but in terse essays, the most
famous less than nine pages long. He used historical and
military analogies, but then he had actually been a
historian and a soldier. He was scathingly witty, so
much so that some readers wrongly assumed that his
purpose was satirical.
And, wonder of wonders, when he had finished what he
had to say about management, he stopped writing about it
and went on to other things. Which may be why he is
almost forgotten, except for Parkinson`s Law.
C. (for Cyril) Northcote Parkinson, father of
Parkinson`s Law, turned 80 on July 30. He is a short,
stocky Englishman with a formal manner and a steady
gaze. he moves rather deliberately nowadays and,
although still answering questions with the academic
precision that befits a former Cambridge don, often
contents himself with a single word.
Recently, after many years in the British offshore
tax havens of Guernsey and the Isle of Man, he has
transplanted himself to the cathedral city of
Canterbury, home of his third wife, whom he married in
1985. And he is at work on his autobiography, writing,
as always, in longhand.
"I think Parkinson`s Law came to me, or is based
upon, experiencing the armed forces," Parkinson says. "I
was serving in a joint headquarters, that is to say army
and Royal Air Force [military intelligence, he
reluctantly admits], and the headquarters was headed by
an air vice marshal, who was assisted, or possibly
impeded, by a colonel in the army, who was impeded, or
possibly assisted, by a wing commander in the air force,
and then all three of them were assisted (but definitely
assisted!) by me. I was then a major in the army, and we
were all very busy winning the war.
"But the day came when the air vice marshal went on
leave. Shortly afterwards, as it happened, the colonel
fell sick. The wing commander was attending a course,
and I found I was the group. And I also found that,
while the work had lessened as each of my superiors had
disappeared, by the time it came to me, there was
nothing to do at all. There never had been anything to
do. We`d been making work for each other."
* PARKINSON`S LAW: Work
expands so as to fill the time available for its
In his great first essay, Parkinson displayed his
fundamental method: He reasoned from the behavior of
individuals–the different times a busy man and "an
elderly lady of leisure" might take to write a
postcard–to the behavior of organizations, in this
instance their inexorable tendency to grow regardless of
the amount of work to be done. Two axioms governed the
process, he noted: "(1) an official wants to multiply
subordinates, not rivals; and (2) officials make work
for each other"–supervising each other`s efforts,
holding meetings and so on.
Cynics were wrong, Parkinson pointed out, to suppose
that the expanding organization meant that its
individual members were getting lazy or more idle. The
awful truth was that they were honestly working harder
Then, incredibly, Parkinson proved his case. he
examined the British Admiralty, the civil service
department responsible for the Royal Navy. (This came
naturally to him: He was a naval historian who had
already published several books and who was ultimately
to teach at Harvard, Berkeley and the University of
The numbers were astonishing. In 1914 Britain had the
largest navy in the world, with 542 ships in commission,
and the Admiralty had a staff of 4,366. At various
points as the century wore on, the ships decreased in
number and the staff expanded. By 1967, he later found,
the Royal Navy had only 114 ships, most not truly
capital, and had ceased to be a world force. But
Admiralty staff had reached 33,574. This vast increase
in staff was not the product of more complex technology:
The technical staff had increased much more slowly than
the clerical staff.
Parkinson`s Law was first unveiled in the
Economist magazine in 1955, when Parkinson was
professor of history at the new University of Malaya in
Singapore. It caused a stir that attracted the American
publisher Houghton Mifflin, which published a collection
of the original and some other Parkinson essays under
the title Parkinson`s law: The Pursuit of Progress
The success of this book was so enormous that it
changed Parkinson`s life. For years he spent every
summer on the lecture circuit in the U.S. Eventually, he
abandoned academic life ("It can be a cutthroat kind of
a business") for independent writing. However, he still
retains a sentimental link with Alabama`s Troy State
University, which has been enterprising enough to make
him Honorary President.
It`s common to depreciate Parkinson`s later essays in
comparison with his first. A rereading suggests this is
a mistake. For example:
* PARKINSON`S SECOND LAW:
Expenditure rises to meet income.
Parkinson`s discussion of the dynamics underlying the
historic expansionary tendencies of government budgets,
reasoning as always from the stoutly self-interested
behavior of individuals, concluded that programs cannot
be reduced piecemeal. Only across-the-board cuts will
work. This was in 1960–almost 25 years before
* PARKINSON`S THIRD LAW:
Expansion means complexity, and complexity decay.
Formulated in 1962, this law defied the consensus of
the day to an extent that is easily forgotten.
Economists believed in economies of scale. Capitalists
believed in conglomeration, synergy (remember synergy?)
and General Motors. Politicians believed in planning and
large units–bigger school districts and "multiversities"
in the U.S., more nationalization in Britain.
Today the advantages of restructuring,
entrepreneurship and decentralization are generally
acknowledged, even if not always applied. But
Parkinson`s attitude still places him athwart the tide.
He is opposed, for example, to Britain`s membership in
the European Community, very much an article of faith
with Britain`s political establishment. "It`s basically
my preference for the smaller unit rather than the
larger one," he says.
* THE LAW OF DELAY: Delay
is the deadliest form of denial.
Parkinson`s analysis of the incentives that inspire
negativism in officials ("abominable no-men")
anticipated the Public Choice school`s "economic theory
of politics" (see FORBES, Nov. 17, 1986).
* THE LAW OF TRIVIALITY:
The time spent on any item of a committee`s agenda will
be in inverse proportion to the sum of money involved.
Parkinson was deeply interested in committee behavior
("comitology"). Citing the history of the British
Cabinet and its predecessors back to the Middle Ages, he
argued the most effective size for any meeting is five.
But interest groups pressing for representation
inevitably expand a committee in stages to 20, at which
point ("the Coefficient of Inefficiency") conversation
will break out at either end of the table, members will
stand to make themselves heard and then start giving
speeches, and the useful members will be making plans to
settle outstanding issues later on over lunch.
The Law of Triviality focused on another consequence
of individuals` self-regard: Expensive decisions are
reviewed less thoroughly than small ones because they
tend to be embarrassingly technical.
* INJELITANCE: A vital
Parkinson contribution was his diagnosis of why certain
organizations suddenly deteriorate: the rise to
authority of individuals with unusually high
combinations of incompetence and jealousy ("injelitance").
"The injelitant individual is easily recognizable
from the persistence with which he struggles to eject
all those abler than himself. He dare not say, `Mr.
Asterisk is too able,` so he says, `Asterisk? Clever
perhaps–but is he sound?` … The [organization]
gradually fills up with people more stupid than the
Organizations can be cured of injelititis
spontaneously, when an individual conditioned to hide
his intelligence penetrates to the top post and
"suddenly throws off the mask and appears like the demon
king among a crowd of pantomime fairies." Or sometimes a
massive amputation and simultaneous transfusion of new
blood will work–but not always. Ultimately, however,
the only course is to eliminate the organization
completely. "Infected personnel should be dispatched
with a warm testimonial to such rival institutions as
are regarded with particular hostility…. As for the
[office] buildings, the best plan is to insure them
heavily and then set them alight."
Among other Parkinson gems: essays (understandably
heartfelt) on the disincentive effects of taxation,
anticipating supply-side economics; and on the peculiar
tendency (with historical examples] of organizations to
build perfect headquarters for themselves just as they
go into decline.
"When I`d said my say, I`d said it … I moved on to
study other things," says Parkinson. In the late 1960s
and 1970s he increasingly turned away from business,
writing plays, political essays, mock biographies of P.G.
Wodehouse`s Jeeves and C.S. Forester`s Horatio
Hornblower, popular histories and eventually a series of
novels about the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic era. He
says casually that he has produced "about 60 books" in
Parkinson is not a complete guide to management. His
primary focus was bureaucratic rather than commercial.
But what he has to say is applicable to any business, in
fact any kind of organization. So forget about Attila
the One Minute Manager. Go to your bookshop and order a
copy of one of the remaining Parkinson books still in
print, Parkinson: The Law Complete (from