Parkinson’s Law.

Work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about Parkinson’s Law, and how it applies to over-thinking and generally slow results in a team environment.

This is especially true when combined with the principal and agent problem. This is where the principal, someone who is truly vested in the results of the initiative, is not around. When you are surrounded by agents, which are those who are typically on a fixed salary regardless of the outcome.

I have seen this repeatedly happen in organizations where the people who are doing the work don’t have a stake in the outcomes. This can be incredibly frustrating, especially when you know that things could be moving faster — a lot faster.

With the type of work that I do, the difference can be huge. We are not cranking out widgets in a factory. The optimizations available are not in the range of 2-5% or even 20-50%. A well-aligned team with the correct incentives can have an output that is at least an order of magnitude greater. I’ve honestly seen cases where work that could take one day has grown into a six-week project with lots of meetings and discussions on pointless details.

This problem can be further compounded by the need to get layers of multiple approvals or when the approval or decision-making structure is unclear, so you don’t even know who has the final say to greenlight the initiative.

In my experience, the only way to effectively solve this is to have a clear and concise decision-making process in place. The decisions need to be made by those closest to the problem and who have the most skin in the game.

So, what’s the solution here? How do we get around the problems caused by Parkinson’s Law?

This is quite straightforward:

Build small teams that have a stake in outcome and are empowered to make decisions. Give them short deadlines, but the freedom to find creative and unusual solutions.

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