Thursday, February 22, 2007

Book Review: Parkinson's Law by C. Northcote Parkinson

Parkinson’s Law, written by C. Northcote Parkinson, is a wonderful book which explores the realities of human behavior within a bureaucracy. The author doesn’t pay attention to theories or the idealized world, but instead writes about how people really function in organizations.

The title of the book is from Parkinson’s statement that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” He explains that “an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis.” In contrast if all you have is five minutes to write a postcard, it takes just five minutes to write the postcard.

At a higher level this idea applies to many situations. For example people’s stuff expands to fill their house and use up their income. Or in the computer world: Data expands to fill the space available for storage

Parkinson writes that it takes great discipline to fight the tendency to use up all the time available to do some job. And likewise it takes great discipline to save some of your income, or to avoid buying stuff just because you have room for it.

Parkinson has a number of other interesting observations. For example in his Law of Triviality he explains how a group of managers might spend hours on selecting a coffeepot and minutes on deciding matters of much greater importance.

I also appreciated his explanation on the effective size of a governing group. He says that the right number of people to lead an organization, like a business or a country, is about five. As the group gets larger, it takes longer and longer to get together and to agree on matters.

There are many other insightful comments on a variety of topics related to organizations. This is a great book to have teenagers read, and then to be reread every couple years. Just over a hundred pages it is a quick read, as well as being enjoyable.

If you haven’t read Parkinson’s Law before, I encourage you to read it this week.

(A version of this was also posted on Amazon.)

Technorati tags:


Sunydazy said...

This sounds like a must read. Thanks for sharing.

I 'm here because of an email regarding the Carnival of Homeschooling. I think I participated in that once before. I'm planning to join in again as soon as I can. Thank you for the invitation.

Henry Cate said...

Yes, I think Parkinson's Law is a must read.

I look forward to reading your entry in a future Carnival of Homeschooling.