Gaming Parkinson’s law for good and evil

For those who aren’t familiar:

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

Parkinson’s law

I’ve written about it before, but I was reminded of it when re-reading Peopleware recently. The book has a gigantic rant about crappy managers using phony deadlines to game Parkinson’s law.

If a manager says a project must be done on August 15th, but that date is totally arbitrary, that’s a phony deadline. The goal of phony deadlines is to make people work harder (i.e., put in overtime) instead of slacking off (i.e., working at a sustainable pace).

Of course that’s bad. That’s gaming Parkinson’s law for evil. It’s a great way to burn people out and ship garbage quality. And since the two responsibilities of a manager are to retain people and achieve results, you’re in for a bad time.

But there’s a good version too. Do that but with flexible scope. Don’t set deadlines, set appetites. Tell your team how much time that problem is worth. Change it from “do exactly this by August 15th” (i.e., fixed scope) to “work on this problem until August 15th and see what you can come up with” (i.e., flexible scope). That’s gaming Parkinson’s law for good.

Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.

Horstman’s corollary to Parkinson’s law

Horstman’s corollary only works if you plan for flexible scope. If you keep a fixed scope, by definition the work can’t contract. So the only other variable is the amount of hours the team puts in.

Fixed time, flexible scope. That’s the sweet spot.

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