Parkinson’s Law – How Accurate Can Opinion Research Be?

How productive do you think you are at work? I’m not talking about very specific moments in the day – like just after you’ve had your first cup of coffee, or after a heavy lunch, (when you’re probably not as productive as you thought you were), but overall – after taking all these things into consideration. Whatever you think your answer is, say you think you’re at 70%, 80% (even higher?) efficiency, take it from me – you’re wrong.

Sure, productivity does oscillate. Everyone knows it has daily ups and downs. Around this time of year, I suspect many of you are highly productive – probably because you’ve got your two-week holiday booked, and there’s a ton of stuff to get finished, and get off your to-do list before you switch off your PC, walk out the building and forget your day-to-day worries for a fortnight. But it’s precisely this point that illustrates why you’re wrong. When we’re all more productive when we’re under pressure, but more slack when the pressure’s off, does the concept of true productivity actually exist at all?

Work takes as long as we have time to get it done

It’s not as out-there an idea as it seems. The notion time and work are not predictably linked was first written about in The Economist, by Cyril Northcote Parkinson. He identified how bureaucracy tended to grow by 5-7% a year irrespective of any variation of the amount of work that has to be done. Since then, this has morphed into Parkinson’s Law – the idea that work simply fills the time we get to do it. Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, it doesn’t just apply to work. We fill our plates the bigger they are; when we earn more, we spend more, and so on.

So why is this important? As I already indicated, the fact Parkinson’s Law exists at all must mean that no one knows what their true productivity is, because if they have less work, it still takes them all their time; and if they have more work, it still takes all their time. All of which then becomes interesting when organisations ask people – as they tend to do so in employee engagement surveys – how busy, or how stressed they are.

What does this mean for opinion research?

When people expand-out their work to fill their time; when people always think they have at least all they can handle, and possibly too much – then when you ask people about it, they too will probably give you the wrong answer. They probably won’t be working to the maximum capacity, but will likely say they are – which brings all sorts of dangers to those interpreting these responses. Because, let’s face it, no-one’s going to admit they haven’t got enough work to do.

So, the result is that most opinion research will – surprise, surprise – reveal that staff feel over-worked. So, if I were forming a plan on the back of this though, should I really take this data at face value?

What Parkinson’s Law really ought to tell us (and be a warning to us), is that asking such questions will not yield the sort of nuanced data that leaders will need to really understand how their people feel.

A CEO I recently spoke to recounted how employees can actually absorb much more, and do a lot more than people think. In fact, ‘stretching’ people (an organisation’s more politically-correct-term for giving people too much – just to see if they flourish), is often talked about as providing just the sort of stimulus, and challenge that many staff crave from their workplaces.

It’s arguably leaders’ jobs therefore, to better identify those who want to be stretched, and those for whom Parkinson’s Law is just something that means they always feel they have enough/too much work.

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