The United States Congress averted a major tax hike and expenditure cut – the so-called “fiscal cliff” – by reaching a compromise deal just before the deadline of January 1, 2013. “Just before” practically was the start of January 1.
It was a tough milestone considering there was a divided Congress and political polarization on economic issues. However, the deadline was known for ever, practically built into the system and the backdoor negotiations for the compromise deal were in full swing for many weeks. Yet, the deal was reached at the eleventh hour – only when the hard deadline was at the door. Interestingly, there have been similar eleventh hour deals on fiscal deadlines over the last few years.
This is an example of Parkinson’s law in real life – famously known as Work Expands to Fill the Time Available. Everyone involved kept on negotiating and trying to get their way in the deal until they could do that no more. Usually, we expand the work required to achieve some goal based on how much time we have. We adjust our focus and plans accordingly. We define the complexity and scope of the task if we can based on how much time we have.
There are many other real-life examples. Cricket matches finish in the last over. Projects end at the last minute. All news in the world magically fits into the same 16 pages of a newspaper. Meetings consume all their allotted time. We reach office just in the nick of time. Deals are reached at the last minute. Storage requirements increase to fill the storage capacity. Our expenses adjust to fit our income. Given any deadline or constraint, we carve an execution path in such a way that we finish right at the end. Not before, not after.
There are two very interesting corollaries for Parkinson’s Law.
First, if there is no end time, the task can potentially go on for ever. Research with no milestone can go around in circles. Projects with no deadlines can potentially do everything but deliver. An analysis for an organizational change with no rollout plan can soon turn into an analysis-paralysis. Executive decisions with no execution plan are, as Drucker said, just good intentions. That is why all planned work is time boxed. It is constrained by some deadline or milestone. An execution with no mileposts is at best wandering.
Second, judiciously limiting the time allocated to a task can actually help it getting delivered – not only earlier but also better. Individuals, teams and organizations get into a rabbit trail and spend more time to accomplish the same tasks. Unnecessary bureaucratic requirements creep in, making everyone inefficient. Smartly reducing the allocated time for tasks, whether for individuals or teams, can actually make them be creative, weed out the irrelevant and become more effective. This is why the Google calendar suggests an end time of 5 or 10 minutes less than a full-hour (25 minutes rather than 30 minutes, 50 minutes rather than one hour). Any 30 minute meeting can potentially be finished in 25 minutes.
Now there is a caveat. Parkinson’s Law is not a scientific law. There is no data or mathematics to prove it. Mr. Parkinson was a bureaucrat, not a scientist or researcher. It was based on his observations of human behaviors in organizations. It may not even apply everywhere or to everyone. The worst lesson that can be derived is to expect people or teams to do more in half the time. It certainly does not mean enforcing unrealistic deadlines on knowledge workers. Peopleware, the classic about management of knowledge workers, has a complete chapter dedicated to wrong usage of Parkinson’s Law. All it entails is that there should be some realistic time box, some milepost, some deadline factored into our plans or else there will be increased risk of going astray and being ineffective. Good use of the law can keep us honest and effective.