C. Northcote Parkinson was an optimist.
Parkinson’s First Law, “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion,” was introduced in The Economist 1955 and later expanded into a book. At the time, it was hailed as a mercilessly accurate satire on the true nature of bureaucracies and their (in)ability to get things done.
Since then, we have expanded its application from large projects to small ones, from big government all the way to my chronic inability to organize my own desk. In every field we have tested it, it has stimulated a gut reaction of, “Yes! That is exactly how this place works!”
It is so successful that we have expanded Parkinson’s Law into dozens of parallel aphorisms: “Mess expands to fill the space available,” or, “The number of books will always expand to fill the shelves available.”
Why, then, do I say Parkinson was an optimist?
Consider. You have some plan or project that you are working on. You carefully analyze each person who will be involved, their personalities, idiosyncracies and the range of labor efficiencies they might deliver. You enumerate every possible problem you might encounter, and its impact on the labor required to finish the project. Being an experienced manager, after totaling the hours required for the worst case scenario, you add a pad of ten or twenty percent.
Do you find that all of your worst nightmares about material deliveries, labor unrest and natural disasters are fulfilled?
No, indeed. I’ll bet the odds are a thousand to one that you have been needlessly pessimistic and that your nightmares will not come true. If the world were a logical pace, each disaster that didn’t happen should contribute some slack to your schedule. On paper, your revised plan will have lots of extra time in it.
Do you, therefore, find that the project is finished ahead of schedule?
Okay, then. Do you verify Parkinson’s Law and find that your labor unreasonably expands to fill the space available? That the labor expands to fit the schedule?
That you see, would mean that you would actually finish On Time.
It is at this point that the fatal flaw of Parkinson’s Law reveals itself: If Parkinson were right, projects planned with a little slack time for labor would inevitably use up the slack time to finish exactly on time. That, our sad experience tells us, is just not how our world works.
Okay, but how about that universal gut feeling of recognition that we get when we see Parkinson’s Law? Is that wrong, too?
No. I think Parkinson grasped an essential truth. He was just, as I said, an optimist. Let me offer a reformulation I have been using for years:
“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion — plus 10%”
Well, 10% is not too bad. Problem is, “10%” is both too specific and too sanguine. The real percentage is some “X” value that is a function of the importance of the project, the tightness of the budget and the mood swings of some methane-breathing whale swimming on Jupiter.
The heuristic fact is that work expands well beyond the time available. That the mess never is satisfied to merely fill up the space available. And is there anyone who has ever had a stable match between the number of books and the amount of shelf space?
[While we are about it, Parkinson’s Second Law, published some years later, is that “Expenditure rises to meet income.” Okay, I’d like a show of hands. Who among us has found that our expenditure obeys some natural law that makes it rise to just meet our income — and then stop? As I said, the man was an optimist.]
The reason I have been driven to consider Parkinson’s Laws of late is that I have an antique car (an MG TD) undergoing restoration. That car seems determined to demonstrate every single formulation of them.
For the uninitiated, let me explain the subtleties of language. When your own car breaks, you take it to the shop (an old, reliable firm like Filth & Greed Automotive) to have it “repaired.” The nice man there analyzes the problem and gives you an estimate of the cost, including labor and material. The final cost generally bears some resemblance to the original estimate, plus (but never minus) some amount.
This is not true of an antique car. You do not “repair” an antique car. You “restore” it. “Restore” is the code word that means that, a) No one will ever give you a total project cost estimate and you won’t dare do it yourself, b) Labor guesstimates must include an unbelievable number of hours of your own time (and which will be wrong by some multiplying factor that will never be less than two) and, c) Parts costs are subject to instant and unpredictable upwards revision between order and receipt of parts.
And all that applies only to front end projections of the costs. The hopeful end. I don’t know of anyone who has “restored” a car and then afterwards figured out how much the whole job actually cost without having an urge to call Dr. Kevorkian.
So here are Parkinson’s Laws as they apply to “restoration”:
1) Time: Restoration of an antique car expands to fill the original time estimate plus some additional amount guaranteed to be greater than the entire original estimate.
2) Space: Given the fact that a disassembled car takes up lots more room than an assembled one, you might expect such a car to take up most of the garage. Piker! You have forgotten all of the new (and expensive) tools and equipment you will need. Plan on the job eating your entire garage (your other cars will be relegated to the street) and at least one spare bedroom.
3) Money: Do not even think about some fictional match between expenditure and income. I would also advise that the idea of your old jewel as an investment is a dangerous delusion. Once upon a time, in a noteworthy episode of masochism, I sat down with the parts catalogue for my old car and totaled the cost of all of the parts I thought I would need. It not only came to far more than the car would ever be worth in my lifetime, it came darned close to matching the equity in my house. This is not an investment. It is an exercise in insanity and addiction in approximately equal measures.
While other projects have come and gone over the years, the TD remains. There have been many times I have made resolutions to do something decisive about it. At first, they were phrased, “This is the year I restore the TD.” After a while, I moved on to, “This is the year I start to restore the TD.” I have finally reached something more like, “This is the year I work on the transmission.” (Actually, at the moment it is hubcaps. Mustn’t rush these things.)
Given my record on the TD, I am clearly not the sort of shining example who should be giving advice on New Year’s resolutions. However, I do have a wealth of painfully bought experience.
Given all of the above, it might surprise you that I suggest the following: Whatever else you do, whatever errors you commit, make your resolution about something you can put (hide) away if you fail.
You see, the galling fact is that, on top of everything else, that darned unfinished Parkinsonian car guilts me every time I walk into the garage. It whispers about how long it has been. How neglected it feels. How patiently it has been waiting.
So I have begun to believe in reincarnation. I think that car has a soul from someone’s Jewish mother.