Parkinson’s Law of Perfection
C. Northcote Parkinson is best known for, not surprisingly, Parkinson’s Law:
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
But there are many more gems in “Parkinson’s Law and Other Studies in Administration.” On a re-read this past week, I discovered this:
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 60 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.
The value of re-reading classics is that what was missed on a prior read becomes apparent given the current context. My focus for much of 2013 was on mapping out software design process for a group of largely non-technical instructional designers. If managing software developers is akin to herding cats, finding a way to shepherd non-technical creative types such as instructional designers (particularly old school designers) can be likened to herding a flock of canaries – all over the place in three dimensions.
What made this effort successful was framing the design process as a set of guidelines that were easy to track and monitor. The design standards and best practices, for example, consist of five bullet points. These are far from perfect, but they allow for the dynamic vitality suggested by Parkinson. If the design standards and best practices document ever grew past something that could fit on one page, it would suggest the company is overly specialized and providing services to a narrow slice of the potential client pie. In the rapidly changing world of adult eduction, this level of perfection would most certainly suggest decay and risk collapse as client needs change.