Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

This oldie but goodie has surely been shared many times, but it’s nice to see this particularly pithy formulation. C. Northcote Parkinson was a naval historian, who unintentionally became something of a management theorist through his trenchant observations of how large bureaucracies work.

In the third chapter [of the book Parkinson’s Law, and Other Studies in Administration], “High Finance, or the Point of Vanishing Interest”, Parkinson writes about a fictional finance committee meeting with a three-item agenda: The first is 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 proposes £21 a year to supply refreshments for the Joint Welfare Committee.

  1. The £10 million number is too big and too technical, and it passes in two and a half minutes. One committee member proposes a completely different plan, which nobody is willing to accept as planning is advanced, and another who understands the topic has concerns, but does not feel that he can explain his concerns to the others on the committee.
  2. The bicycle shed is a subject understood by the board, and the amount within their life experience, so committee member Mr Softleigh says that an aluminium roof is too expensive and they should use asbestos. Mr Holdfast wants galvanised iron. Mr Daring questions the need for the shed at all. Holdfast disagrees. Parkinson then writes: “The debate is fairly launched. A sum of £350 is well within everybody’s comprehension. Everyone can visualise a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some £50. Members at length sit back with a feeling of accomplishment.”
  3. Parkinson then described the third agenda item, writing: “There may be members of the committee who might fail to distinguish between asbestos and galvanised iron, but every man there knows about coffee – what it is, how it should be made, where it should be bought – and whether indeed it should be bought at all. This item on the agenda will occupy the members for an hour and a quarter, and they will end by asking the secretary to procure further information, leaving the matter to be decided at the next meeting.”

Parkinson, in the book, considers whether the discussion time will in fact keep going up as the amounts become even more trivial, reaching infinity for an amount of zero. He concludes that at some point, people will decide the sum is beneath their notice and tune out altogether.

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