Work Expands to Fill the Time Available for Completion…

An interesting axiom which is heard a lot especially in beginning management course’s as it is typically meant to drive the distrust of the workforce in a new manager’s mind.  As by common nature all people are lazy (save for management of course) and therefore if you’re not on them every lick of the way, watching prodding and pushing.  They will surely take advantage of your good nature and trust.

Yes this was actually part of my rote introduction to the world of “management” that people were lazy and unless a stern eye is held on them at all times, you will find them at the water cooler or coffee house while their assigned tasks go undone.  So who came up with this phrase anyway, as are people really like this?

Well the overall concept of a “lazy” workforce harkens back to the start of the industrialized era, however the quote “work expands to fill the time available for completion” was coined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson a British civil servant as part of a humorous interjection in an Economist article published around 1955.  While this was a statement of the “obvious” it is yet profound in importance and has since become known as “Parkinson’s Law” after Cyril and was based upon his observations of the British Civil Service workforce.

Another interesting fact is Parkinson making these inferences was not speaking of the “working” or “blue-collar” class as alluded to in my first paragraph and in popular myth.  Instead he refers to management, yes you read that correctly, management as being the culprits as he goes on further to define two sub rules of the law, being:

(1) Officials want to multiply subordinates, not rivals

(2) Officials make work for each other

In short, Cyril put forward that another concept in that “bureaucracy is governor of business” in that the role of management (unchecked) is to create busy work.  How much busy work do you do in a day, that’s what I figured a lot and this becomes the “true” issue.

As once upon the time while working for a subsidiary of a very large company there was an economic down-turn and it was decided that unless you faced the customer you where gone.  So in short all support roles ended and guess what?  The business kept running and in fact without the busy work it ran better than before.  This was an eye opening experience for me as this was a clear example of what Cyril was getting at.  As bureaucracies had put in place bureaucracies of their own expanding the foot-print of the work without the corresponding added value.

As how many times in your day is it said “if we just had that report or filled this role to create that report our life would be better”?  Well I’m betting quite a bit because it’s a common fallacy in business today, as instead of pushing accountability.  We in turn are pushing excuses and deferral of problems rather than taking ownership and commanding control of the issues…

About Joseph Campbell

As a strong believer in the fact that "people work for people", it has been a life driver to better to understand the complexities of the various aspects which drive efficiency within this axiom, especially the concepts of leadership. Supporting this, I have been fortunate enough to having experienced this as leader on a global basis over the last decade and half. During this time it has been clear there are three core drivers being Life, Leadership and Economics.
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