January 30, 2018

QotD: Worstall’s Law of Organizations

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Government, Humour, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

I would, and do, argue that this is, in fact, the inevitable fate of all and any organizations, so much so that we might call it Worstall’s Law of Organizations, perhaps a minor corollary to Parkinson’s Laws. All and any organizations will in the end be run by those who stay awake in committee. A brief survey of the world around us will show that this is a simple and obvious truth.

Tim Worstall, “‘Any Organization Will, In the End, Be Run By Those Who Stay Awake in Committee'”, Ideas in Action, 2005-06-23.

September 14, 2014

QotD: Chinese millionaires

Filed under: China, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

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 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 kidnapped 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.”

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Palm Thatch To Packard Or A Formula For Success”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

August 31, 2014

QotD: Organizational Paralysis

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:01

The first sign of danger is represented by the appearance in the organization’s hierarchy of an individual who combines in himself a high concentration of incompetence and jealousy. Neither quality is significant in itself and most people have a certain proportion of each. But when these two qualities reach a certain concentration — represented at present by the formula I3J5 — there is a chemical reaction. The two elements fuse, producing a new substance that we have termed “injelitance.” The presence of this substance can be safely inferred from the actions of any individual who, having failed to make anything of his own department, tries constantly to interfere with other departments and gain control of the central administration. The specialist who observes this particular mixture of failure and ambition will at once shake his head and murmur, “Primary or idiopathic injelitance”. The symptoms, as we shall see, are quite unmistakable.

The next or secondary stage in the progress of the disease is reached when the infected individual gains complete or partial control of the central organization. In many instances this stage is reached without any period of primary infection, the individual having actually entered the organization at that level. The injelitant individual is easily recognizable at this stage from the persistence with which he struggles to eject all those abler than himself, as also from his resistance to the appointment or promotion of anyone who might prove abler in course of time. He dare not say, “Mr. Asterisk is too able”, so he says, “Asterisk? Clever perhaps — but is he sound? I incline to prefer Mr. Cypher”. He dare not say, “Mr. Asterisk makes me feel small”, so he says, “Mr. Cypher appears to me to have the better judgment”. Judgment is an interesting word that signifies in this context the opposite of intelligence; it means, in fact, doing what was done last time. So Mr. Cypher is promoted and Mr. Asterisk goes elsewhere. The central administration gradually fills up with people stupider than the chairman, director, or manager. If the head of the organization is second-rate, he will see to it that his immediate staff are all third-rate; and they will, in turn, see to it that their subordinates are fourth-rate. There will soon be an actual competition in stupidity, people pretending to be even more brainless than they are.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Injelititis, Or Palsied Paralysis”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

August 23, 2014

QotD: Seating patterns, historically

Filed under: History, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

The second known fact is that people prefer the side of the room to the middle. This is obvious from the way a restaurant fills up. The tables along the left wall are occupied first, then those at the far end, then those along the right wall, and finally (and with reluctance) those in the middle. Such is the human revulsion to the central space that managements often despair of filling it and so create what is termed a dance floor. It will be realized that this behavior pattern could be upset by some extraneous factor, like a view of the waterfall from the end windows. If we exclude cathedrals and glaciers, the restaurant will fill up on the lines indicated, from left to right. Reluctance to occupy the central space derives from prehistoric instincts. The caveman who entered someone else’s cave was doubtful of his reception and wanted to be able to have his back to the wall and yet with some room to maneuver. In the center of the cave he felt too vulnerable. He therefore sidled round the walls of the cave, grunting and fingering his club. Modern man is seen to do much the same thing, muttering to himself and fingering his club tie. The basic trend of movement at a cocktail party is the same as in a restaurant. The tendency is toward the sides of the space, but not actually reaching the wall.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Personality Screen, Or The Cocktail Formula”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

August 17, 2014

QotD: Retirement age

Filed under: Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

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.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Pension Point, Or The Age Of Retirement”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

August 3, 2014

QotD: Committees

Filed under: Government, Humour, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 00:01

The life cycle of the committee is so basic to our knowledge of current affairs that it is surprising more attention has not been paid to the science of comitology. The first and most elementary principle of this science is that a committee is organic rather than mechanical in its nature: it is not a structure but a plant. It takes root and grows, it flowers, wilts, and dies, scattering the seed from which other committees will bloom in their turn. Only those who bear this principle in mind can make real headway in understanding the structure and history of modern government. Committees, it is nowadays accepted, fall broadly into two categories, those (a) from which the individual member has something to gain; and those (b) to which the individual member merely has something to contribute. Examples of the B group, however, are relatively unimportant for our purpose; indeed some people doubt whether they are committees at all. It is from the more robust A group that we can learn most readily the principles which are common (with modifications) to all. Of the A group the most deeply rooted and luxuriant committees are those which confer the most power and prestige upon their members. In most parts of the world these committees are called “cabinets.” This chapter is based on an extensive study of national cabinets, over space and time.

When first examined under the microscope, the cabinet council usually appears — to comitologists, historians, and even to the people who appoint cabinets — to consist ideally of five. With that number the plant is viable, allowing for two members to be absent or sick at any one time. Five members are easy to collect and, when collected, can act with competence, secrecy, and speed. Of these original members four may well be versed, respectively, in finance, foreign policy, defense, and law. The fifth, who has failed to master any of these subjects, usually becomes the chairman or prime minister.

Whatever the apparent convenience might be of restricting the membership to five, however, we discover by observation that the total number soon rises to seven or nine. The usual excuse given for this increase, which is almost invariable (exceptions being found, however, in Luxembourg and Honduras), is the need for special knowledge on more than four topics. In fact, however, there is another and more potent reason for adding to the team. For in a cabinet of nine it will be found that policy is made by three, information supplied by two, and financial warning uttered by one. With the neutral chairman, that accounts for seven, the other two appearing at first glance to be merely ornamental. This allocation of duties was first noted in Britain in about 1639, but there can be no doubt that the folly of including more than three able and talkative men in one committee had been discovered long before then. We know little as yet about the function of the two silent members but we have good reason to believe that a cabinet, in this second stage of development, might be unworkable without them.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Directors And Councils, Or Coefficient Of Inefficiency”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

July 24, 2014

QotD: The Law of Triviality

Filed under: Economics, Government, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:01

People who understand high finance are of two kinds: those who have vast fortunes of their own and those who have nothing at all. To the actual millionaire a million dollars is something real and comprehensible. To the applied mathematician and the lecturer in economics (assuming both to be practically starving) a million dollars is at least as real as a thousand, they having never possessed either sum. But the world is full of people who fall between these two categories, knowing nothing of millions but well accustomed to think in thousands, and it is of these that finance committees are mostly comprised. The result is a phenomenon that has often been observed but never yet investigated. It might be termed the Law of Triviality. Briefly stated, it means that the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “High Finance, Or The Point Of Vanishing Interest”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

July 9, 2014

QotD: British nepotism, old style

Filed under: Britain, History, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

A problem constantly before the modern administration, whether in government or business, is that of personnel selection. The inexorable working of Parkinson’s Law ensures that appointments have constantly to be made and the question is always how to choose the right candidate from all who present themselves. In ascertaining the principles upon which the choice should be made, we may properly consider, under separate heads, the methods used in the past and the methods used at the present day.

Past methods, not entirely disused, fall into two main categories, the British and the Chinese. Both deserve careful consideration, if only for the reason that they were obviously more successful than any method now considered fashionable. The British method (old pattern) depended upon an interview in which the candidate had to establish his identity. He would be confronted by elderly gentlemen seated round a mahogany table who would presently ask him his name. Let us suppose that the candidate replied, “John Seymour.” One of the gentlemen would then say, “Any relation of the Duke of Somerset?” To this the candidate would say, quite possibly, “No, sir.” Then another gentleman would say, “Perhaps you are related, in that case, to the Bishop of Watminster?” If he said “No, sir” again, a third would ask in despair, “To whom then are you related?” In the event of the candidate’s saying, “Well, my father is a fishmonger in Cheapside,” the interview was virtually over. The members of the Board would exchange significant glances, one would press a bell and another tell the footman, “Throw this person out.” One name could be crossed off the list without further discussion. Supposing the next candidate was Henry Molyneux and a nephew of the Earl of Sefton, his chances remained fair up to the moment when George Howard arrived and proved to be a grandson of the Duke of Norfolk. The Board encountered no serious difficulty until they had to compare the claims of the third son of a baronet with the second but illegitimate son of a viscount. Even then they could refer to a Book of Precedence. So their choice was made and often with the best results.

The Admiralty version of this British method (old pattern) was different only in its more restricted scope. The Board of Admirals were unimpressed by titled relatives as such. What they sought to establish was a service connection. The ideal candidate would reply to the second question, “Yes, Admiral Parker is my uncle. My father is Captain Foley, my grandfather Commodore Foley. My mother’s father was Admiral Hardy. Commander Hardy is my uncle. My eldest brother is a Lieutenant in the Royal Marines, my next brother is a cadet at Dartmouth and my younger brother wears a sailor suit.” “Ah!” the senior Admiral would say. “And what made you think of joining the Navy?” The answer to this question, however, would scarcely matter, the clerk present having already noted the candidate as acceptable. Given a choice between two candidates, both equally acceptable by birth, a member of the Board would ask suddenly, “What was the number of the taxi you came in?” The candidate who said “I came by bus” was then thrown out. The candidate who said, truthfully, “I don’t know,” was rejected, and the candidate who said “Number 2351” (lying) was promptly admitted to the service as a boy with initiative. This method often produced excellent results.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “The Short List, Or Principles Of Selection”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

June 19, 2014

QotD: You (probably) drive on the wrong side of the road

Filed under: History, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:29

The heart is (or to be exact, appears to be) on the left side of the body. In the more primitive form of warfare some form of shield is therefore used to protect the left side, leaving the offensive weapon to be held in the right hand. The normal offensive weapon was the sword, worn in a scabbard or sheath. If the sword was to be wielded in the right hand, the scabbard would have to be worn on the left side. With a scabbard worn on the left, it became physically impossible to mount a horse on the off side unless intending to face the tail — which was not the normal practice. But if you mount on the near side, you will want to have your horse on the left of the road, so that you are clear of the traffic while mounting. It therefore becomes natural and proper to keep to the left, the contrary practice (as adopted in some backward countries) being totally opposed to all the deepest historical instincts. Free of arbitrary traffic rules the normal human being swings to the left.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Personality Screen, Or The Cocktail Formula”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

June 13, 2014

QotD: Mathematical formula describing bureaucratic growth

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Dealing with the problem of pure staff accumulation, all our researches so far completed point to an average increase of 5.75 per cent per year. This fact established, it now becomes possible to state Parkinson’s Law in mathematical form: In any public administrative department not actually at war, the staff increase may be expected to follow this formula —

x=(2km + l) / n

k is the number of staff seeking promotion through the appointment of subordinates; l represents the difference between the ages of appointment and retirement; m is the number of man-hours devoted to answering minutes within the department; and n is the number of effective units being administered. x will be the number of new staff required each year. Mathematicians will realize, of course, that to find the percentage increase they must multiply x by 100 and divide by the total of the previous year, thus:

100 (2km + l) / y n %

where y represents the total original staff. This figure will invariably prove to be between 5.17 per cent and 6.56 per cent, irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.

The discovery of this formula and of the general principles upon which it is based has, of course, no political value. No attempt has been made to inquire whether departments ought to grow in size. Those who hold that this growth is essential to gain full employment are fully entitled to their opinion. Those who doubt the stability of an economy based upon reading each other’s minutes are equally entitled to theirs. It would probably be premature to attempt at this stage any inquiry into the quantitative ratio that should exist between the administrators and the administered. Granted, however, that a maximum ratio exists, it should soon be possible to ascertain by formula how many years will elapse before that ratio, in any given community, will be reached. The forecasting of such a result will again have no political value. Nor can it be sufficiently emphasized that Parkinson’s Law is a purely scientific discovery, inapplicable except in theory to the politics of the day. It is not the business of the botanist to eradicate the weeds. Enough for him if he can tell us just how fast they grow.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Parkinson’s Law, or the rising pyramid”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

June 3, 2014

QotD: Parkinson’s Law

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 19:32

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. General recognition of this fact is shown in the proverbial phrase “It is the busiest man who has time to spare.” Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half an hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the mailbox in the next street. The total effort that would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety, and toil.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Parkinson’s Law, or the rising pyramid”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

May 29, 2014

QotD: Formula for measuring the importance of managers

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Every student of human institutions is familiar with the standard test by which the importance of the individual may be assessed. The number of doors to be passed, the number of his personal assistants, the number of his telephone receivers — these three figures, taken with the depth of his carpet in centimeters, have given us a simple formula that is reliable for most parts of the world.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Plans And Plants, or the Administration Block”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

February 14, 2014

QotD: Anthropology

Filed under: Humour, Quotations, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 08:30

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.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Palm Thatch To Packard Or A Formula For Success”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

January 6, 2014

QotD: The illusion of a rational world

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Government, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 17:28

To the very young, to schoolteachers, as also to those who compile textbooks about constitutional history, politics, and current affairs, the world is a more or less rational place. They visualize the election of representatives, freely chosen from among those the people trust. They picture the process by which the wisest and best of these become ministers of state. They imagine how captains of industry, freely elected by shareholders, choose for managerial responsibility those who have proved their ability in a humbler role. Books exist in which assumptions such as these are boldly stated or tacitly implied. To those, on the other hand, with any experience of affairs, these assumptions are merely ludicrous. Solemn conclaves of the wise and good are mere figments of the teacher’s mind. It is salutary, therefore, if an occasional warning is uttered on this subject. Heaven forbid that students should cease to read books on the science of public or business administration — provided only that these works are classified as fiction. Placed between the novels of Rider Haggard and H.G. Wells, intermingled with volumes about ape men and space ships, these textbooks could harm no one. Placed elsewhere, among works of reference, they can do more damage than might at first sight seem possible.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Preface”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

January 5, 2014

QotD: The Law of the Custom-Built Headquarters Building

Filed under: Business, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 14:32

Publishers have a strong tendency, as we know, to live in a state of chaotic squalor. The visitor who applies at the obvious entrance is led outside and around the block, down an alley and up three flights of stairs. A research establishment is similarly housed, as a rule, on the ground floor of what was once a private house, a crazy wooden corridor leading thence to a corrugated iron hut in what was once the garden. Are we not all familiar, moreover, with the layout of an international airport? As we emerge from the aircraft, we see (over to our right or left) a lofty structure wrapped in scaffolding. Then the air hostess leads us into a hut with an asbestos roof. Nor do we suppose for a moment that it will ever be otherwise. By the time the permanent building is complete the airfield will have been moved to another site.

The institutions already mentioned — lively and productive as they may be — flourish in such shabby and makeshift surroundings that we might turn with relief to an institution clothed from the outset with convenience and dignity. The outer door, in bronze and glass, is placed centrally in a symmetrical facade. Polished shoes glide quietly over shining rubber to the glittering and silent elevator. The overpoweringly cultured receptionist will murmur with carmine lips into an ice-blue receiver. She will wave you into a chromium armchair, consoling you with a dazzling smile for any slight but inevitable delay. Looking up from a glossy magazine, you will observe how the wide corridors radiate toward departments A, B, and C. From behind closed doors will come the subdued noise of an ordered activity. A minute later and you are ankle deep in the director’s carpet, plodding sturdily toward his distant, tidy desk. Hypnotized by the chief’s unwavering stare, cowed by the Matisse hung upon his wall, you will feel that you have found real efficiency at last.

In point of fact you will have discovered nothing of the kind. It is now known that a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse. This apparently paradoxical conclusion is based upon a wealth of archaeological and historical research, with the more esoteric details of which we need not concern ourselves. In general principle, however, the method pursued has been to select and date the buildings which appear to have been perfectly designed for their purpose. A study and comparison of these has tended to prove that perfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Plans And Plants, or the Administration Block”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

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