Parkinson’s Law

Before returning to annual planning, let’s address Parkinson’s Law.

I wasn’t familiar with Parkinson’s Law formally until I began my graduate studies at George Washington University.  (By the way, don’t confuse Parkinson’s Law with Parkinson’s Disease; they are completely different!).  There, in one of my classes, I learned that there was an actual name for a phenomenon that intuitively and through experience I already knew:  that whatever the planning estimate is for a given task, there is very little chance in real-life execution of the project that the task will finish sooner than expected; instead, it most likely will finish on-time or late.

It doesn’t matter much how generously, how conservatively, how guardedly one estimates.  If I estimate a task with 80% reliability, then my estimate is on the right-side of the normal curve, somewhere on the downward slope.  The mean is somewhere at or very near the top of the normally distributed curve.  Theoretically, about one-half the time the task should finish sooner than the mean / most likely value.

But that never really happens!

What happens instead is that people tend to get lazy, people procrastinate, people code hours spent doing other tasks for other projects rather than properly coding time to the task that was planned with 80% reliability.  And for all these reasons and more, the task will finish on-time, in the nick of time — or it will finish late.

That’s the phenomenon encapsulated by Parkinson’s Law.  Simply stated, Parkinson’s Law  recognizes that work expands to fill the time allotted for it.  If I have an eight-hour task assigned to me, it will take me eight hours to complete.  If that task estimate is shaved to only seven or six hours, it will take me seven or six hours to complete.  If I’m given ten or twelve hours, it will take me ten or twelve hours to complete the task (on-time, of course, in each instance!).  What’s different?  The intensity of my effort, the methods and techniques and tools I use, the innovation I bring, the amount of distraction I allow.  Those things alter the way I work so I generally finish the task in whatever amount of time I’m allowed to complete the task.

As it pertains to annual planning, if planning estimates are all planned with 75% reliability, the whole portfolio ought to have a very high probability of success — much higher than 75%.  But projects are like tasks planned with 75% probability; Parkinson’s Law can affect them both.

Next week, we’ll continue our discussion on annual planning.

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