Embrace Parkinson’s Law As A Constraint

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

Silicon Valley startup culture embraces hard work, but some entrepreneurs fall into the trap of working long hours as an end in itself. With no limits on the workday, Parkinson’s Law warns that work will simply take over your life.

Parkinson’s Law

It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.
C. Northcote ParkinsonParkinson’s Law” (Economist Nov-19-1955)

When I worked at MMI in the early 80’s the “no layoff” policy meant that we worked five days but got paid for four. But the leadership had banned mandatory meetings on Fridays so the net effect was the instead of working six days a week–Monday through Saturday–we worked five days where one day only had “small meetings” within our team. The surprising thing was that we got more done. Partly because management asked us to work on a best efforts basis and partly because a “Dunkirk spirit” infused the team. It became clear to me that morale and “peer pressure” did more to encourage excellence than any amount of management intervention.

Erik Spiekermann: Work is a Gas

Matt McCue: How do you work?

Erik Spiekermann: Work is gas. Work will fill any given volume. If you give me two hours, I will take two hours. If you give me 10 minutes, I will take 10 minutes. So if you give somebody two weeks to do a project, he’s going to start on day 12 and it will take him two days, but the two weeks will be filled because work expands like gas. Straightforward physics.

That’s why I don’t believe in time sheets, because you always happen to have eight hours at the end of the day. You make up stuff.

I felt that if our business model means that people have to work overtime or weekends, the business model sucks. So everybody is out by 7 p.m.–we literally close the doors at 7 p.m.–because if you have to work overtime, then your model sucks.

And if the clients require you to do weekends, then the clients aren’t right. They wouldn’t do it themselves. […]

I know a lot of advertising agencies that thrive on overtime because they have a dozen interns who work for free and they spend their weekends doing free pitches. We don’t do free pitches because we don’t have any free time. Our time is valuable, and I’m not giving away ideas to some prospective client. That’s giving away the most valuable resource you have.

Erik Spiekermann interviewed by Matt McCue in “Erik Spiekermann: No Free Pitches

I take six things away from this:

  1. Put time limits on your effort and for many small projects share intermediate work product and get feedback in preference to polishing it alone. Managing both a to do list and a calendar you can assign activities in five minute increments means that you can impose your own deadline discipline every day if you choose. Easy to say, hard to do.
  2. When delegating assignments set intermediate milestones and review draft and work in progress to allow for iteration and mid-course corrections.
  3. If you are going to track time for purposes of improving productivity or assigning costs appropriately then integrating the tracking into your work flow or work process: do not sit down at the end of the day or end of the week and attempt to recreate how you spent your time.
  4. If you are running a business that relies on knowledge work or creative output–and these days most businesses require both–then don’t bake long hours into your business model.
  5. However, when your customers are working nights and weekends because of deadlines or crises you should consider joining them for at least a short sprint.
  6. “No free pitches” mean you have confidence in your ability to deliver value. Elicit symptoms and diagnose, offer differentials and a prognosis for what happens if they don’t change, but don’t prescribe.

Scott Adams: Out at Five (OA5)

I developed a conceptual model for a perfect company. The primary objective of this company is to make employees as effective as possible. The best products usually come from the most effective employees, so employee effectiveness is the most fundamental of the fundamentals.

The goal of the hypothetical company is to get the best work out of the employees and make sure they leave work by five o’ clock. Finishing by five o’clock is so central to everything that follows that I named the company OA5 (Out at five) to reinforce the point. If you let this part of the concept slip, the rest of it falls apart.

The goal of OA5 is to guarantee that the employee who leaves at 5 PM has done a full share of work and everybody realizes it. For that to happen an OA5 company has to do things differently than an ordinary company.

Scott Adams in Chapter 26: New Company Model OA5 of “The Dilbert Principle

If you substitute 7pm for 5pm I think this is exactly what Spiekermann is talking about.  Scott Adams goes on to outline an extreme focus on creating customer value and improving employee productivity.

OA5: Key Assumptions

Companies use a lot of energy trying to increase the employee satisfaction. That’s nice of them, but let’s face it–work sucks. If people liked work they’d do it for free. We have to pay people to work because work is inherently unpleasant compared to the alternatives. An OA5 recognizes that the best way to make employees satisfied about their work is to help them get away from it as much as possible.

An OA5 company isn’t willing to settle for less productivity from the employees, just less time. The underlying assumptions for OA5 are:

  • Happy employees are more productive and creative than unhappy ones.
  • There’s a limit to how much happiness you can get while you’re at work. Big gains in happiness can only be made by spending more time away from work.
  • The average person is only mentally productive a few hours a day no matter how many hours are “worked.”
  • People know how to compress their activities to fit a reduced time. Doing so increases both their energy and their interests. The payoff is direct and personal –they go home early.
  • A Company can’t do much to stimulate happiness and creativity, but it can do a lot to kill them. The trick for the company is to stay out of the way. When companies try to encourage creativity it’s like a bear dancing with an ant. Sooner or later the ant will realize it’s a bad idea, although the bear might not.

Scott Adams in Chapter 26: New Company Model OA5 of “The Dilbert Principle

I like this focus on helping people being productive and the recognition of Parkinson’s Law–restated as “People know how to compress their activities to fit a reduced time.” I am reminded of a rule my father had secretaries in his law office: if they got the work done they could leave and get paid for the day. He and his partner realized that the alternative was to have them work more slowly or make them sit at their desk with nothing to do just to get paid.

One of my early bosses only accepted work that was a little overdue. I would bring him results early that I thought were good, they met what I had understood the goals were for my work, and he would ask when we needed to deliver them to the client and ask for tweaks. I would make his tweaks and still have a few days until the deadline and he would offer more tweaks, some that undid the ones he had asked for earlier.  It took me a while to realize he was psychologically unable to deliver work to a client early and I should only bring him work early when I had real questions as to direction or problems. I suspect someone had trained him to be late in the way that he had unconsciously attempted to train me to be late.

OA5: Staying out of the way

“Most people are creative by nature and happy by default. It doesn’t seem that way because modern management is designed to squash those impulses. […] It’s better to get out of the way and reinforce the message that you expect people to focus on what’s important. [..] If you have a good e-mail system, a stable organization chart, and an unstressed workplace the good ideas will get to the right people without any help. The main thing is to let people know that creativity is okay and get out of the way.”

Scott Adams in Chapter 26: New Company Model OA5 of “The Dilbert Principle

The trick is to tolerate mistakes as long as people are trying to make a contribution. There can be an impulse to encourage conformity that does not add value vs. standards that enable productivity. I think you have to make it clear you are “out of the way” but available if needed.

What does an OA5 manager do?

“Staying out of the way” isn’t much of a job description for a manger. So if you want to be a manager in an OA5 company you’ll need to do actual work too. Here are the most useful activities I can think of for the manager:

  1. Eliminate the assholes. Nothing can drain the life force out of your employees as much as a few sadistic assholes who seem to exist for the sole purpose of making life hard for others.
  2. Make sure your employees are learning something every day. Ideally they should lean things that directly help on the job, but learning anything at all should be encouraged. The more you know, the more connections form in your brain and the easier every task becomes. Learning creates job satisfaction and supports a person’s ego and energy level. As an OA5 manager you need to make sure every person is learning something every day. Here are some ways:
    • Support requests for training even when not directly job related.
    • Share your own knowledge freely and ask others to do the same, ideally in small digestible chunks.
    • Support experimentation sometimes even when you know it’s doomed (if the cost is low).
    • Make teaching a part of everybody’s job description. Reward employees who do a good job of communicating useful information to co-workers.
  3. Collectively all these little things create an environment that supports curiosity and learning. Imagine a job when after you’ve screwed up your boss says, “What did you learn?” instead of “What the hell were you thinking?”

Rule #1 anticipates Robert Sutton’s “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace” by a decade and is a lesson that has yet to be learned at firms like Uber–Susan Fowler’s “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber” offers evidence of allowing assholes to flourish.

Rule #2 encourages you to place a high value on learning and Rule #3 reminds you to do so even if things have gone wrong.

Encouraging experimentation, especially where you allow others to prove your wrong (e.g. “where you know it’s doomed”), allows your firm to create it’s own hard won knowledge.

I also like the fact that the a culture committed to learning also encourages employee to teach each other.

Will Wright: Will You Be Solvent or Glue

“There is the matter of, how good is this person, times their teamwork factor. You can have a great person who doesn’t really work well on the team, and they’re a net loss. You can have somebody who is not that great, but they are really very good glue, so that could be a net gain.

A lot of team members I consider glue within the team in that they disseminate things effectively, they motivate and improve the morale of people around them. They basically bring the team tighter and tighter.

Other ones are solvents and, it’s just their kind of personal nature that they might be disagreeable. They rub people the wrong way. They’re always caught in conflicts. But, for the most part, that is as least as important as their competence in their role.

Occasionally I will get somebody who is more of a prima donna, who is just incredibly good, but not great on the team and so, in some ways you can find a role where you can kind of isolate and quarantine them and allow them to go off and do their great work without having to interact with the rest of the team a lot. Those people are fairly few and far between.”

Will Wright in “On Will Wright’s Team, Would You Be a Solvent, or the Glue?

The glue people act as force multipliers, enabling a team to get more done in less time. I think schooling trains people to focus too much on individual effort and outcomes. Most projects are relay races where it’s not just about how fast you ran your leg but how smoothly the handoffs went.

OA5: Let Fresh, Happy, and Efficient People Make Art Happen

Finally–and this is the last time I’m going to say it–we’re all idiots and we’re going to make mistakes. That’s not necessarily bad. I have a saying ” Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

Keep your people fresh, happy and efficient. Set a target and get out of their way. Let art happen. Some times idiots can accomplish wonderful things.

I think it’s more than “set a target” it’s offer suggest targets in a the context of a larger purpose or the “Why.” But I agree with everything else and a willingness to admit your own mistakes and use everyone’s mistakes as an opportunity for learning is not a bad place to start.

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