Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

C. Northcote Parkinson

C. Northcote Parkinson

Cyril Northcote Parkinson was a British naval historian, author, and satirist. While his 60 books ranged from dry history to historical fiction, to biographies of fictional characters, he is best known for a short book on government bureaucracy. Titled “Parkinson’s Law,” it is the source of the often-quoted, “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” One chapter, “High Finance, or The Point of Vanishing Interest,” explores the tendency for management to obsess on the trivial. As he put it, “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.” Given a choice between discussing something complicated and expensive, which they don’t understand, and something familiar, most folks will bypass the complicated topic.

The Bike Shed Effect

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality is known in some circles as “The bike shed effect,” derived from his example of a finance committee considering three agenda items: the signing of a £10 million contract to build a nuclear reactor, the second a proposal to build a £350 bicycle shed for the clerical staff, and the third a proposal for £21 a year to supply refreshments for the Joint Welfare Committee. The reactor is approved in less than three minutes; an argument over the color and construction of the bicycle shed goes on for 45 minutes, with a possible savings of £50; debate over the coffee takes up the remaining 75 minutes, closing with a request for additional information and the decision deferred to the next meeting. If these absurd minutes don’t seem painfully familiar, then you just haven’t attended enough meetings.

One of the corollaries to Parkinson’s Law is, “The amount of discussion and resistance generated by a change is inversely proportional to the complexity of the change.” Many of projects I’ve worked on over the years had the goal of transferring work from the sponsor’s staff to their customers, in the guise of self-service. When I’ve seen resistance to manager self-service, it is usually expressed in the form of anticipated response to complexity. “We should have the support staff handle these transactions. The managers won’t execute them more than once or twice a year, and they shouldn’t have to know how to do them. We should let them focus on the job we pay them for.” Never mind that the processing rules are imbedded in the work flow, and generally all the initiator has to do is make selections from a few pull-down menus; these highly-compensated folk aren’t perceived by the specialists to be competent to fill out electronic forms. Of course, I’ve never seen anyone object to a requirement for these same folks to select their own benefits during annual open enrollment, which has a lot more decision points. No, it’s actions like initiating a promotion, or the transfer of an employee to another supervisor that makes people dig in their heels. Not because the HR specialists are intimidated by these transactions, but because they understand them completely, and thus feel qualified to weigh in on them.

Applying Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law is not about the task, nor is it about the people performing it. It describes an entirely natural human response to agenda topics with a range of complexity. If you include a routine question on an otherwise challenging agenda, that routine matter will become the place where everyone can demonstrate their understanding. And they most certainly will do so.

Plainly, there are two ways to apply this understanding: you can get easy approval on a nuclear reactor by letting them dispute the color of the bicycle shed, or you can focus the discussion on the nuclear reactor by making it the only topic on the agenda. Either way, it is important to understand the degree to which the participants will feel qualified to participate in the discussion. And if you absolutely need their qualified opinion, you need to lay the groundwork for them to feel empowered to participate. Whether it’s by beginning with a demonstration, or spending time on the background material, you need to cultivate their level of understanding to match the complexity of the required decisions. Otherwise, you’ll end up scheduling a follow-up meeting, where you present additional information on something they do understand.

Customer Disservice

Tougher Than She Looks

Tougher Than She Looks

My wife has been up in the Pacific Northwest for a few weeks, renovating a house that we invested in about eight years ago.  We’ve had two long-term tenants in that time, and we decided to do some updates and maintenance before the next family moves in.  One of the bathrooms had an issue with a leaking tub, so she went to the local plumbing supplier for some recommendations.  They gave her several which didn’t pan out, but one of the neighbors suggested she call a Very Big Name company that made their reputation on the slogan, “The Customer is Always Right.”  So, she did.

A couple of days later, two sales people arrived and spread out a thick briefing book that explained their services.  But first, they spent about forty minutes warning her that she should not deal with small, independent local plumbers because, as a group, they are untrustworthy, unlicensed, uninsured, and ill-equipped to do any significant task.  My wife ran out of patience and asked, “Don’t you guys want to look at the bathroom?”  When she insisted, they looked, nodded, and went back to the table to write up their estimate: $7,900 for labor, plus the cost of the tub.  However, they offered a $500 discount, presumably because she was nice, and another $400 cash back if she signed a contract right then and there.  So she sent them packing.  She eventually found a local, independent plumber who will do the job for $1,300.

Moral of the story: your customer (or stakeholder) doesn’t care about your opinion of your competition.  They care about cost, quality, and being treated with respect.  They also care about their time – don’t waste it.

On the same trip, she rented a car from a national chain.  It was a good car, at a great price, and she was very happy.  Then she received a call early one morning, from someone conducting a customer satisfaction survey.  When the caller asked if she was happy with the car rental company, my lovely wife replied, “I was, until you woke me up.”

Moral of the story: if you want to get feedback from your customer (or stakeholder), let them choose the time.  Solicit via Email, post card, survey form attached to the receipt, or any number of other asynchronous techniques.  But remember that any response is a favor, for which you should be grateful.  Don’t antagonize the 10% to 15% who will be willing to take a few minutes to help you improve your service.

And yes, it’s good to have my occasional project manager home again!

Grandma’s iPhone: An Exercise in Managing Change

My wife and I are in Seattle for a few days, visiting our son and his family and celebrating Abby’s first birthday.  So Wayne and Nancy decided this was the perfect time to implement a change they had been advocating for over a year: replacing Grandma’s old cell phone with a new iPhone 4S.  Naturally, they enlisted my support and counsel before proceeding.  But first, let’s talk about our user community – my wife.

Lien isn’t a Luddite.  She actually gets a kick out of Skype, using her Netbook, my iPad, and various other gadgets.  She’s sophisticated about Email, texting, and apps, and she takes pictures with her old phone.  But she’s never wanted a smart phone.  She just wants to make phone calls, and she’s got her cost containment strategies down pat.  From international calling cards to night-time rates, she’s never once gone over on our monthly minutes.  So she sees a data plan as a frivolous waste of money, and dinking around with phone apps as silly and childish.  No matter what I’ve told her, she’s resisted smart phones for over three years.  But now her old phone battery simply won’t hold a charge for as long as it used to.  And Nancy has been enticing her with Facetime, the ability to check out the baby monitor from her phone, and using the GPS capability to find the nearest [insert specialty store name here].

Still, she’s resisted changing phones, and she’s starting to resent the gentle pressure.  So I suggested they focus on her interest in recycling.  Note that this is the woman who saves the water she washes her fruits and vegetables in, so she can water her garden.  She shreds junk mail for mulch, mends all tears in clothing, and re-uses every glass jar, from salsa to spaghetti sauce.  I told them to find the details of the available phone recycling programs, so she could feel like she wasn’t just adding to the land fill.  They also brought her to the AT&T sales office, so the staff there could automatically transfer her phone numbers and photos to the new phone.  And Wayne used his Best Buy bonus points to reduce the final cost of the phone.

As I write this, they are upstairs, configuring her account, exploring all of the camera features, introducing her to Siri, and admiring some of her old photos that are now easier to browse.  She’s bonding with her new phone, in a high-touch but necessary process.  And I’m patiently waiting for them to finish, so I can ask her to show it all to me.

Change management isn’t just a matter of taking away the old thing, handing someone a new thing, and saying it’s an improvement.  It’s about understanding the real concerns of the users, and addressing them in a way that is meaningful to them.  Because it’s only an improvement if the users use the new thing to do new things.  Or at least do the same old things better, faster, cheaper, or more reliably.  And that only happens if they accept the new thing, and act on those new capabilities.  Any other outcome really is a waste of scarce resources.