Parkinson's Law and Project Scheduling

Parkinson's Law can have a negative effect on our projects if we're not careful.

photo of Barry Hendrick
Barry Hendrick

Senior Program Manager


Have you ever worked on a project whereby you were given a generous amount of time to complete a task? Instead of using this time efficiently did you do any of the following:

  • Overthink the task and not make progress?

  • Procrastinate and not make progress?

  • Work on peripheral tasks not really associated with the original task and hence, not make progress?

Finally, with the deadline looming, did you find yourself rushing to complete the task on time?

This behaviour is associated with Parkinson's Law. When it comes to project management we need to be aware of it as it can negatively influence project performance. In this article I want to discuss what are the implications of Parkinson's Law on project scheduling and what techniques do/don't work when it comes to mitigating its influence.

What exactly is Parkinson's Law?

Parkinson's Law is the old adage that work expands to fill the time allotted. Put simply, the amount of work required adjusts to the time available for its completion [1]. The tendency of people to use all of the available time to complete work regardless of the workload size leads to inefficient use of time and resources within a project.

What are the implications on Project Management scheduling?

Project management scheduling is the listing of tasks, deliverables, and milestones within any given project. A schedule usually includes a planned start and finish date, duration, and resources assigned to each task. Effective project scheduling is a critical component of successful time management.

However, the following scheduling techniques can be subject to Parkinson's Law if not properly managed:

  • Estimating by Analogy is based on the assumption that we have the details of the actual effort of past projects and are similar in implementation detail and objectives.

Caveat: Did the past projects used for comparison extend past their original deadline? If so there is an inherent risk that task durations used were ones affected by Parkinson's Law i.e. they're not accurate.

  • The Critical Path Method (CPM) is the longest sequence of tasks that must be completed to successfully conclude a project, from start to finish. The tasks on the critical path are known as critical tasks because if they're delayed, the whole project will be delayed.

Caveat: Variance analysis will need to be performed consistently by the project manager if using the CPM. This analysis can help expose if the project teams are starting on the late start date and consuming large amounts of float (built in flexibility per project/task) due to Parkinson's Law.

What techniques will not help minimise the implications of Parkinson's Law in project scheduling?

Crashing is a common technique used when a task or project is behind schedule. More resources are added to ideally shorten the time to completion. Unbeknownst to those assigning these resources, the project may be delayed due to the implications of Parkinson's Law already. Additional resources can lead to an increase in both bureaucracy and on-boarding effort which leads to further inefficiency along with increased risk and cost.

Multitasking is unavoidable in most projects as tasks often are related. However if one resource has 4 tasks, and each task will take 4 full days of work to complete, then it's 16 full days in total. A resource who chooses to multitask and work on all 4 tasks at the same time does not become more productive than the person who works on the tasks one by one, because the same amount of work has to happen in the same period of time. The resource who did multitask has instead prioritised urgency over importance and impact and the context switching will most likely have led to a decrease in productivity.

So what technique can help minimise the implications of Parkinson's Law in project scheduling?

Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM) is a resource-oriented method and represents the longest chain of tasks, taking into account limited resources. It differs from the CPM as multitasking is not allowed and there are no task floats.

No multitasking allowed: The number of projects is limited and only approved if the resource capacity allows it. Each resource always only works on one task at a time, preventing them from switching between several tasks and resulting in long processing times. Resources can be allocated more effectively and efficiently when there is a clear prioritisation of the projects and tasks. Resources working on a critical project element receive the support they need from the team and the organisation to get their tasks done as quickly as possible. This includes, for example, minimising or postponing daily business tasks.

No task floats: CCPM seeks to eliminate the implications of Parkinson's Law by removing task floats. Instead, the project team members estimate the duration and 50% of this duration is used by the critical chain method as optimistic or minimum duration in the planning. The difference between these two durations is added as a time buffer across all activities and inserted at the end of the project.

To conclude, the advantage of using CCPM is that you can shorten the project time significantly (by about 25%) and increase the adherence to the project schedule by 100%!

The disadvantage to using CCPM is the quality improvement of the project result - as resources concentrate on only one task in isolation, there can often be oversights. Also bottlenecks are not caught as quickly as CPM i.e. this is possibly a technique suited to small or less complex projects.

References and further reading:

  1. The law that explains why you can't get anything done

  2. How to overcome Parkinson's Law - Atlassian

  3. Critical Path Method: The Ultimate Guide to Critical Path

Related posts