Parkinson's Law and Other Studies in Administration

Every person is a philosopher by nature; however, we are quickly dissuaded from this delightful activity by those who call philosophy impractical. But there is nothing more practical than knowing who you are and what you think. Try it sometime.

Re: Parkinson's Law and Other Studies in Administration

Postby admin » Sun Nov 24, 2013 5:57 am


READERS WHO are all too familiar with popular works on anthropology may be interested to learn that some recent investigations have involved a completely novel approach. The ordinary anthropologist is one who spends six weeks or six months (or even sometimes six years) among, say, the Boreyu tribe at their settlement on the Upper Teedyas River, Darndreeryland. He then returns to civilization with his photographs, tape recorders, and notebooks, eager to write his book about sex life and superstition. For tribes such as the Boreyu, life is made intolerable by all this peering and prying. They often become converts to Presbyterianism in the belief that they will thereupon cease to be of interest to anthropologists; nor in fact has this device been known to fail. But enough primitive people remain for the purposes of science. Books continue to multiply, and when the last tribe has resorted to the singing of hymns in self-defense, there are still the poor of the backstreets. These are perpetually pursued by questionnaire, camera, and phonograph; and the written results are familiar to us all. What is new about the approach now being attempted is not the technique of investigation but the choice of a society 91 in which to work. Anthropologists of this latest school ignore the primitive and have no time for the poor. They prefer to do their fieldwork among the rich.

The team whose work we shall now describe, and to which the present author is attached, made certain preliminary studies among Greek Shipping Magnates and went on to deal in greater detail with the Arab Chieftains of the Pipeline. When this line of investigation had to be abandoned, for political and other reasons, the team went on to study the Chinese Millionaires of Singapore. It is there we encountered the Flunky Puzzle. It is there we first heard of the Chinese Hound Barrier. During the early stages of our inquiry we did not know the meaning of either term. We did not even know whether they were different names for the same thing. What we can claim now is that we at least followed up the first clue to present itself.

This clue we obtained in the course of a visit to the Singapore palace of Mr. Hu Got Dow. Turning to the equerry who had shown him round the millionaire's collection of jade, Dr. Meddleton exclaimed, "Gee, and they say he began life as a coolie!" To this the inscrutable Chinese replied, "Only coolie can become millionaire. Only coolie can look like coolie. Only velly lich man can afford to look lich." Upon these few and enigmatic words (of which no further explanation was offered) we based our whole scheme of research. The detailed results are comprised in the Meddleton-Snooperage Report (1956) but there is no reason why they should not be presented in a simplified form for the general reader. What follows is just such an outline, with technicalities mostly omitted.

Up to a point, as we recognized, the problem of the coolie-millionaire offers no real difficulty. The Chinese coolie lives in a palm-thatched hovel on a bowl of rice. When he has risen to a higher occupation -- hawking peanuts, for example, from a barrow--he still lives on rice and still lives in a hovel. When he has risen farther -- to the selling, say, of possibly stolen bicycle parts, he keeps to his hovel and his rice. The result is that he has money to invest. Of ten coolies in this situation, nine will lose their money by unwise speculation. The tenth will be clever or lucky. He will live, nevertheless, in his hovel. He will eat, as before, his rice. As a success technique this is well worthy of study.

In the American log cabin story the point is soon reached at which the future millionaire must wear a tie. He explains that he cannot otherwise inspire confidence. He must also acquire a better address, purely (he says) to gain prestige. In point of fact, the tie is to please his wife and the address to satisfy his daughter. The Chinese have their womenfolk under better control. So the prosperous coolie sticks to his hovel and his rice. This is a known fact and admits of two explanations. In the first place his home (whatever its other disadvantages) has undeniably brought him luck. In the second place, a better house would unquestionably attract the notice of the tax collector. So he wisely stays where he is. He will often keep the original hovel -- at any rate as an office -- for the rest of his life. He quits it so reluctantly that his decision to move marks a major crisis in his career.

When he moves it is primarily to evade the exactions of secret societies, blackmailers, and gangs. To conceal his growing wealth from the tax collector is a relatively easy 93 matter; but to conceal it from his business associates is practically impossible. Once the word goes round that he is prospering, accurate guesses will be made as to the sum for which he can be "touched." All this is admittedly well known, but previous investigators have jumped too readily to the conclusion that there is only one sum involved. In point of fact there are three: the sum the victim would pay if kidnaped and held to ransom; the sum he would pay to keep a defamatory article out of a Chinese newspaper; the sum he would subscribe to charity rather than lose face.

Our task was to ascertain the figure the first sum will have reached (on an average) at the moment when migration takes place from the original hovel to a well-fenced house guarded by an Alsatian hound. It is this move that has been termed "Breaking the Hound Barrier." Social scientists believe that it will tend to occur as soon as the ransom to be exacted comes to exceed the overhead costs of the "snatch."

At about the time a prosperous Chinese changes house he has also to acquire a Chevrolet or Packard. Such a purchase often, however, antedates the change of address. So the spectacle of the expensive car outside the dingy office is too familiar to arouse much comment. No complete explanation has so far been offered. Conceding, as we may, the need for a car, we should rather expect it to share the squalor of its surroundings. For reasons not yet apparent, however, Chinese prosperity is first and fairly measured in terms of chromium, upholstery, make, and year. And the Packard will involve, very soon, a wire fence, barred windows, padlocked garage, and hound. A revolutionary change has occurred. If the Alsatian-owner does not go so far as to pay his taxes, he must at least know how to explain why no taxable income has so far come his way. And supposing he can avoid paying $100,000 to gangsters, he can hardly avoid payment of blackmail in some form. He must expect to receive obsequious journalists who claim credit for refusing to publish hostile articles about him in dubious journals. He must expect to see the same journalists a week later, this time collecting funds for some vaguely described orphanage. He must accustom himself to the visits of trade union officials offering for a consideration to discourage the industrial unrest that will otherwise affect his interests. He must resign himself, in fact, to the loss of a percentage.

One of our objects was to compile some detailed information about the Alsatian-owning phase of a Chinese businessman's career. This was, in some ways, the most difficult part of the whole investigation. There are types of knowledge only to be gained at the price of torn trousers and bandaged ankles. We are proud to think, in retrospect, that where risks were inevitable they were taken unflinchingly. No fieldwork was needed, however, to discover what actual amounts are paid in ransom. These figures are in fact generally known and often quoted in the local press with some pretense at accuracy. What is significant about these figures is the range between the smallest and the largest figures quoted. Sums appear to vary from $5000 to $200,000--never as little as $2000 nor as much as $500,000. Nor can there be any doubt that the majority of extortions fall within a narrower range than that. Further research will, no doubt, establish what the average amount can be taken to be.

If we suppose that the minimum extortion represents a figure just high enough to yield a marginal profit, we shall as readily conclude that the maximum extortion represents all that can be extracted from the richest men that are ever kidnaped. It is manifest, however, that the very wealthiest men are never kidnaped at all. There would seem to be a point beyond which the Chinese gains immunity from blackmail. In this last phase, moreover, the millionaire seeks to emphasize rather than conceal his wealth, demonstrating publicly that the point of immunity has been reached. So far, no social scientist of our team has been able to discover how this final immunity is achieved. Several have been thrown out of the Millionaires' Club when trying to collect evidence on this point. Concluding that it has something to do with the number of equerries, aides-de-camp, personal assistants, secretaries, and valets (all much in evidence at this stage) they have termed the problem "The Flunky Puzzle" and left it at that.

It is not to be supposed however that this problem will baffle us for long. Indeed, we know already that our choice lies, broadly speaking, between two alternative explanations, with the proviso that we may possibly end by accepting both. One guess has been that the flunkies are really gunmen forming an impenetrable bodyguard. The other guess is that the millionaire has bought up an entire secret society and one against which no other gang dare act. To test the former theory -- by a carefully staged holdup -- would be relatively simple. At the cost of a life or two the fact could be established beyond all reasonable doubt. To test the latter theory would need more brains and possibly more courage. With several casualties already among the brave dog-bitten members of our team, we did not feel justified in pursuing this line of research. We concluded that we had neither the men nor the funds to complete the investigation. Having since received timely aid from the Miss Plaste Trust (Far East branch) we hope to know the answer fairly soon.

A problem that remains, even after the publication of our interim report, is the enigma of Chinese tax evasion. All that we could discover about this was that Western methods are not widely used. As is well known, the Western technique depends on discovering the standard delay (or S.D., as we call it among ourselves) in the department with which we have to deal. That is, of course, the normal lapse of time between the receipt of a letter and its being dealt with. It is, to be more exact, the time it takes for a file to rise from the bottom of the in-tray to the top of the pile. Supposing this to be twenty-seven days, the Western tax evader begins his campaign by writing to ask why he has received no notice of assessment. It does not matter, actually, what he says in the letter. All he wants is to ensure that his file, with its new enclosure, will be at the bottom of the heap. Twenty-five days later he will write again, asking why his first letter has not been answered. This sends his file back to the bottom again just when it was almost reaching the top. Twenty-five days later he writes again. ... So his file is never dealt with at all and never in fact comes into view. This being the method known to us all, and known to be successful, we naturally concluded that it was known also to the Chinese. We found, however, that these is no S.D. in the East. Owing to variations in climate and sobriety, the government departments lack that ordered rhythm which would make them predictable. Whatever method the Chinese use, it cannot depend upon a known S.D.

To this problem we have, it should be emphasized, no final solution. All we have is a theory upon the validity of which it would be premature to comment. It was put forward by one of our most brilliant investigators and can be described as no more than an inspired guess. According 99 to this supposition the Chinese millionaire does not wait for his assessment, but prefers to send the tax collector a check in advance for, say, $329.83. A covering note refers briefly to earlier correspondence and a previous sum paid in cash. The effect of this maneuver is to throw the whole tax-collecting machine out of gear. Disorganization turns to chaos when a further letter arrives, apologizing for the error and asking for twenty-three cents back. Officials are so perturbed and mystified that they produce no response of any kind for about eighteen months--and another check reaches them before that period has elapsed, this time for $167.42. In this way, the theory goes, the millionaire pays virtually nothing and the inspector of taxes ends in a padded cell. Unproved as this theory may be, it seems worthy of careful investigation. We might at least give it a trial.
Site Admin
Posts: 32989
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Parkinson's Law and Other Studies in Administration

Postby admin » Sun Nov 24, 2013 5:57 am


OF THE MANY problems discussed and solved in this work, it is proper that the question of retirement should be left to the last. It has been the subject of many commissions of inquiry but the evidence heard has always been hopelessly conflicting and the final recommendations muddled, inconclusive, and vague. Ages of compulsory retirement are fixed at points varying from 55 to 75, all being equally arbitrary and unscientific. Whatever age has been decreed by accident and custom can be defended by the same argument. Where the retirement age is fixed at 65 the defenders of this system will always have found, by experience, that the mental powers and energy show signs of flagging at the age of 62. This would be a most useful conclusion to have reached had not a different phenomenon been observed in organizations where the age of retirement has been fixed at 60. There, we are told, people are found to lose their grip, in some degree, at the age of 57. As against that, men whose retiring age is 55 are known to be past their best at 52. It would seem, in short, that efficiency declines at the age of R minus 3, irrespective of the age at which R has been fixed. This is an interesting fact in itself but not directly helpful when it comes to deciding what the R age is to be.

But while the R--3 age is not directly useful to us, it may serve to suggest that the investigations hitherto pursued have been on the wrong lines. The observation often made that men vary, some being old at 50, others still energetic at 80 or 90, may well be true, but here again the fact leads us nowhere. The truth is that the age of retirement should not be related in any way to the man whose retirement we are considering. It is his successor we have to watch: the man (Y) destined to replace the other man (X) when the latter retires. He will pass, as is well known, the following stages in his successful career:

1. Age of Qualification == Q

2. Age of Discretion = D (Q + 3)

3. Age of Promotion = P (D + 7)

4. Age of Responsibility = R (P + 5)

5. Age of Authority = A (R + 3)

6. Age of Achievement = AA (A + 7)

7. Age of Distinction = DD (AA + 9)

8. Age of Dignity = DDD (DD + 6)

9. Age of Wisdom = W (DDD + 3)

10. Age of Obstruction = OO (W + 7)

The above scale is governed by the numerical value of Q. Now, Q is to be understood as a technical term. It does not mean that a man at Q knows anything of the business he will have to transact. Architects, for example, pass some form of examination but are seldom found to know anything useful at that point (or indeed any other point) in their career. The term Q means the age at which a professional or business career begins, usually after an elaborate training that has proved profitable only to those paid for organizing it. It will be seen that if Q = 22, X will not reach OO (the Age of Obstruction) until he is 72. So far as his own efficiency is concerned, there is no valid reason for replacing him until he is 71. But our problem centers not on him but on Y, his destined successor. How are the ages of X and Y likely to compare? To be more exact, how old will X have been when Y first entered the department or firm?

This problem has been the subject of prolonged investigation. Our inquiries have tended to prove that the age gap between X and Y is exactly fifteen years. (It is not, we find, the normal practice for the son to succeed the father directly.) Taking this average of fifteen years, and assuming that Q = 22, we find that Y will have reached AA (the Age of Achievement) at 47, when X is only 62. And that, clearly, is where the crisis occurs. For Y, if thwarted in his ambition through X's still retaining control, enters, it has been proved, a different series of stages in his career. These stages are as follows:

6. Age of Frustration (F) = A + 7

7. Age of Jealousy (J) = F + 9

8. Age of Resignation (R) = J + 4

9. Age of Oblivion (O) = R + 5

When X, therefore, is 72, Y is 57, just entering on the Age of Resignation. Should X at last retire at that age, Y is quite unfit to take his place, being now resigned (after a decade of frustration and jealousy) to a career of mediocrity. For Y, opportunity will have come just ten years too late.

The age of Frustration will not always be the same in years, depending as it does on the factor Q, but its symptoms are easy to recognize. The man who is denied the opportunity of taking decisions of importance begins to regard as important the decisions he is allowed to take. He becomes fussy about filing, keen on seeing that pencils are sharpened, eager to ensure that the windows are open (or shut), and apt to use two or three different-colored inks. The Age of Jealousy reveals itself in an emphasis upon seniority. "After all, I am still somebody." "I was never consulted." "Z has very little experience." But that period gives place to the Age of Resignation. "I am not one of these ambitious types." "Z is welcome to a seat on the Board--more trouble than it is worth, I should say." "Promotion would only have interfered with my golf." The theory has been advanced that the Age of Frustration is also marked by an interest in local politics. It is now known, however, that men enter local politics solely as a result of being unhappily married. It will be apparent, however, from the other symptoms described, that the man still in a subordinate position at 47 (or equivalent) will never be fit for anything else.

The problem, it is now clear, is to make X retire at the age of 60, while still able to do the work better than anyone else. The immediate change may be for the worse but the alternative is to have no possible successor at hand when X finally goes. And the more outstanding X has proved to be, and the longer his period of office, the more hopeless is the task of replacing him. Those nearest him in the seniority are already too old and have been subordinate for too long. All they can do is to block the way for anyone junior to them; a task in which they will certainly not fail. No competent successor will appear for years, nor at all until some crisis has brought a new leader to the fore. So the hard decision has to be taken. Unless X goes in good time, the whole organization will eventually suffer. But how is X to be moved?

In this, as in so many other matters, modern science is not at a loss. The crude methods of the past have been superseded. In days gone by it was usual, no doubt, for the other directors to talk inaudibly at board meetings, one merely opening and shutting his mouth and another nodding in apparent comprehension, thus convincing the chairman that he was actually going deaf. But there is a modern technique that is far more effective and certain. The method depends essentially on air travel and the filling in of forms. Research has shown that complete exhaustion in modern life results from a combination of these two activities. The high official who is given enough of each will very soon begin to talk of retirement. It used to be the custom in primitive African tribes to liquidate the king or chief at a certain point in his career, either after a period of years or at the moment when his vital powers appeared to have gone. Nowadays the technique is to lay before the great man the program of a conference at Helsinki in June, a congress at Adelaide in July, and a convention at Ottawa in August, each lasting about three weeks. He is assured that the prestige of the department or firm will depend on his presence and that the delegation of this duty to anyone else would be regarded as an insult by all others taking part. The program of travel will allow of his return to the office for about three or four days between one conference and the next. He will find his in-tray piled high on each occasion with forms to fill in, some relating to his travels, some to do with applications for permits or quota allocations, and the rest headed "Income Tax." On his completion of the forms awaiting his signature after the Ottawa convention, he will be given the program for a new series of conferences; one at Manila in September, the second at Mexico City in October, and the third at Quebec in November. By December he will admit that he is feeling his age. In January he will announce his intention to retire.

The essence of this technique is so to arrange matters 1that the conferences are held at places the maximum distance apart and in climates offering the sharpest contrast in heat and cold. There should be no possibility whatever of a restful sea voyage in any part of the schedule. It must be air travel all the way. No particular care need be taken in the choice between one route and another. All are alike in being planned for the convenience of the mails rather than the passengers. It can safely be assumed, almost without inquiry, that most flights will involve takeoff at 2.50 A.M., reporting at the airfield at 1.30 and weighing baggage at the terminal at 12.45. Arrival will be scheduled for 3.10 A.M. on the next day but one. The aircraft will invariably, however, be somewhat overdue, touching down in fact at 3.57 A.M., so that passengers will be clear of customs and immigration by about 4.35. Going one way around the world, it is possible and indeed customary to have breakfast about three times. In the opposite direction the passengers will have nothing to eat for hours at a stretch, being finally offered a glass of sherry when on the point of collapse from malnutrition. Most of the flight time will of course be spent in filling in various declarations about currency and health. How much have you in dollars (U.S.), pounds (sterling), francs, marks, guilders, yen, lire, and pounds (Australian); how much in letters of credit, travelers checks, postage stamps, and postal orders? Where did you sleep last night and the night before that? (This last is an easy question, for the air traveler is usually able to declare, in good faith, that he has not slept at all for the past week.) When were you born and what was your grandmother's maiden name? How many children have you and why? What will be the length of your stay and where? What is 108 the object of your visit, if any? (As if by now you could even remember.) Have you had chicken pox and why not? Have you a visa for Patagonia and a re-entry permit for Hongkong? The penalty for making a false declaration is life imprisonment. Fasten your seat belts, please. We are about to land at Rangoon. Local time is 2.47 A.M. Outside temperature is 110° F. We shall stop here for approximately one hour. Breakfast will be served on the aircraft five hours after takeoff. Thank you. (For what, in heaven's name?) No smoking, please.

It will be observed that air travel, considered as a retirement-accelerator, has the advantage of including a fair amount of form-filling. But form-filling proper is a separate ordeal, not necessarily connected with travel. The art of devising forms to be filled in depends on three elements: obscurity, lack of space, and the heaviest penalties for failure. In a form-compiling department, obscurity is ensured by various branches dealing respectively with ambiguity, irrelevance, and jargon. But some of the simpler devices have now become automatic. Thus, a favorite opening gambit is a section, usually in the top right-hand corner, worded thus:

Return rendered in respect of the month of

As you have been sent the form on February 16, you have no idea whether it relates to last month, this month or next. Only the sender knows that, but he is asking you. At this point the ambiguity expert takes over, collaborating closely with a space consultant, and this is the result:


Such a form as this is especially designed, of course, for a Colonel, Lord, Professor, or Doctor called Alexander Winthrop Percival Blenkinsop-Fotheringay of Battleaxe Towers, Layer-de-la-Haye, near Newcastle-under-Lyme, Lincolnshire-parts-of-Kesteven (whatever that may mean). Follows the word "Domicile," which is practically meaningless except to an international lawyer, and after that a mysterious reference to naturalization. Lastly, we have the word "Status," which leaves the filler-in wondering whether to put "Admiral (Ret'd)," "Married," "American Citizen" or "Managing Director."

Now the ambiguity expert hands over the task to a specialist in irrelevance, who calls in a new space allocator to advise on layout:


Number of your identity card or passport Your grandfather's full name Your grandmother's maiden name Have you been vaccinated, inoculated; when & why Give full details

Note: The penalty for furnishing incorrect information may be a fine of &sterling;5000 or a year's penal servitude, or quite possibly both.

Then the half-completed work of art is sent to the jargon specialist, who produces something on these lines:

What special circumstances [283] are alleged to justify the adjusted allocation for which request is made in respect of the quota period to which the former application [143] relates, whether or not the former level had been revised and in what sense and for what purpose and whether this or any previous application made by any other party or parties has been rejected by any other planning authority under subsection VII [36] or for any other reason, and whether this or the latter decision was made the subject of an appeal and with what result and why.

Finally, the form goes to the technician, who adds the space-for-signature section, the finish that crowns the whole.


This is quite straightforward except for the final touch of confusion as to whose photograph or thumb print is wanted, the I/we person or the witness. It probably does not matter, anyway.

Experiment has shown that an elderly man in a responsible position will soon be forced to retire if given sufficient air travel and sufficient forms. Instances are frequent, moreover, of such elderly men deciding to retire before the treatment has even begun. At the first mention of a conference at Stockholm or Vancouver, they often realize that their time has arrived. Very rarely nowadays is it necessary to adopt methods of a severe character. The last recorded resort to these was in a period soon after the conclusion of World War II. The high official concerned was particularly tough and the only remedy found was to send him on a tour of tin mines and rubber estates in Malaya. This method is best tried in January, and with jet aircraft to make the climatic transition more abrupt. On landing at 5.52 P.M. (Malayan time) this official was rushed off at once to a cocktail party, from that to another cocktail party (held at a house fifteen miles from the hotel where the first took place), and from that to a dinner party (eleven miles in the opposite direction). He was in bed by about 2.30 A.M. and on board an aircraft at seven the next morning. Landing at Ipoh in time for a belated breakfast, he was then taken to visit two rubber estates, a tin mine, an oil-palm plantation, and a factory for canning pineapples. After lunch, given by the Rotary Club, he was taken to a school, a clinic, and a community center. There followed two cocktail parties and a Chinese banquet of twenty courses, the numerous toasts being drunk in neat brandy served in tumblers. The formal discussion on policy began next morning and lasted for three days, the meetings interspersed with formal receptions and nightly banquets in Sumatran or Indian style. That the treatment was too severe was 112 fairly apparent by the fifth day, during the afternoon of which the distinguished visitor could walk only when supported by a secretary on one side, a personal assistant on the other. On the sixth day he died, thus confirming the general impression that he must have been tired or unwell. Such methods as these are now discountenanced, and have since indeed proved needless. People are learning to retire in time.

But a serious problem remains. What are we ourselves to do when nearing the retirement age we have fixed for others? It will be obvious at once that our own case is entirely different from any other case we have so far considered. We do not claim to be outstanding in any way, but it just so happens that there is no possible successor in sight. It is with genuine reluctance that we agree to postpone our retirement for a few years, purely in the public interest. And when a senior member of staff approaches us with details of a conference at Teheran or Hobart, we promptly wave it aside, announcing that all conferences are a waste of time. "Besides," we continue blandly, "my arrangements are already made. I shall be salmon fishing for the next two months and will return to this office at the end of October, by which date I shall expect all the forms to have been filled in. Goodbye until then." We knew how to make our predecessors retire. When it comes to forcing our own retirement, our successors must find some method of their own.


This ponderous gentleman, Mr. Cypher, whose stirring story may be found in the chapter on Injelititis, is pictured at the moment of his preferment for his "better judgment." C. Northcote Parkinson does not claim, by Cypher's standards, to have any judgment at all. Nonetheless, he is the Raffles Professor of History at the University of Malaya and the author of some seventeen scholarly publications. Born at Barnard Castle, County Durham, in 1909, he was educated at St. Peter's School, York, and at the Universities of Cambridge and London. In turn, he has taught at several academic, naval, and military institutions. Perhaps his most valuable education, however, dates from his work in the War Office and the RAF during World War II, for it is known that from this experience Parkinson's great Law came into being.
Site Admin
Posts: 32989
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am


Return to Philosophy

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 2 guests