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Parkinson’s Law and friends

Thoughts on using it to our advantage.

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

Parkinson’s Law

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Parkinson’s Law runs the world.

There are lots of fun corollaries here, such as:

Work complicates to fill the available time.

Parkinson’s Law, but spicier

The work doesn’t just expand, it complicates. And remember that work doesn’t complicate itself, humans have to do that. We are our own worst enemy, as usual.

If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.

Stock–Sanford corollary

Said every student ever, amirite?

In ten hours a day you have time to fall twice as far behind your commitments as in five hours a day

Asimov corollary

That one reminds me of the quote “If you want a task done quickly, ask a busy person to do it.”

And as with all good things, Parkinson’s Law applies to computers:

Data expands to fill the space available for storage.

Peter Jansen

But my favorite is this one:

Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.

Horstman’s corollary

The book Critical Chain by Eliyahu Goldratt says we should estimate with 50% certainty instead of 90+%. Say there’s a 50% chance you can get something done in 1 week, and a 90% chance you can get it done in 2 weeks. Go with the 1 week estimate. That’ll prevent the work from expanding to fill the 2 weeks.

Goldratt calls it Student Syndrome. Students wait until the last minute because that triggers a feeling of urgency. They need that urgency to find the motivation to work on it.

When we estimate with 90% certainty, we’re expecting to finish early. But we never do, because of Parkinson’s Law/Student Syndrome. So the buffer we add onto each task gets eaten up, meaning the project doesn’t have any wiggle room. Then all it takes is a delay on a single task to push back the entire critical path, and the project is late.

Estimating with 50% certainty should fix that, according to Goldratt. Instead of adding a buffer to each task, combine all those per-task buffers and shove them at the end of the project. That way delays in tasks don’t push back the project, and Parkinson’s Law can help us instead of strangle us.

The Estimates vs. appetites chapter from the book Shape Up is a neato burrito implementation of this. They say how much time a feature is worth to them (i.e., their “appetite”). The feature expands or contracts to fit that time.

Then there’s Scrum, where Sprints are an answer to Parkinson’s Law. Each Sprint is a deadline, even if we call it a “forecast.” It’s a line in the sand that’s missing from Kanban’s focus on cycle time over velocity. That’s part of why Scrum has been so successful.

Think about the world through the lens of Parkinson’s Law. It’s everywhere.


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