Dmitrii Ilenkov on The BEST Project Portfolio Management Show by Appfire

“What is Parkinson’s Law (and how can it derail my project plan)?” Find out in this episode of Appfire Presents: The Best Project Portfolio Management Show by Appfire.

Project management expert and PMCLUB founder Dmitrii Ilenkov joins Appfire’s Kerry O’Shea Gorgone to talk about “Parkinson’s Law.” We get into what “Parkinson’s Law” is, how it can derail your projects, and some tips for avoiding it altogether.

About the guest

Dmitrii Ilenkov is a project management practitioner with more than 10 years of  experience. 

He’s lectured about project management for Finance University and the Higher School of Economics, and founded PMCLUB to support young project management professionals.

About the show

The BEST Project Portfolio Management Show by Appfire covers everything you ever wanted to know about PPM by talking with project management experts who’ve seen it all. And every episode is 10 minutes or less, so you can get back to changing the world, one project at a time.


For your convenience, here is the transcript of this episode:

What is Parkinson’s Law (and how can it derail my project plan)?

Kerry:  Today we’re going to talk about Parkinson’s Law and how it can derail your project plan. Joining us is Dmitrii Ilenkov, PMP, PhD, managing partner of PM Club. Stick around for 10 minutes of awesome.

Dmitrii, what is Parkinson’s Law? I had never heard of it. 

Dmitrii:  Oh, really? It is a commonplace observation that work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

Kerry:  That makes sense.

Dmitrii:  Now it probably rings a bell. Many of us actually have heard of it. Some people use it as an excuse. What can I do? It’s a law. Others consider it a curse. Whatever I do, I will still miss the deadline.

The thing is it is not a law. This phrase is an old adage from a brilliant satire by Cyril Parkinson, a British naval historian. In this piece of satire, published in The Economist in 1955, he was actually poking at civil servants of his time.

Kerry:  So, it was a joke? It was supposed to be a joke. 

Dmitrii:  Exactly. It was supposed to be a joke, and it is a joke. It’s not about project management and it is not a law, so we have no need to stick to it.

Kerry:  We can do better.

Dmitrii:  We definitely can do better, absolutely.

Kerry:  Okay. So, Parkinson’s Law then, if we assume that the work we’re doing is going to expand to fill the available time, first of all, what are some examples of that? Just a couple. What does it look like in practice?

Dmitrii:  In practice, you have a job to do, you have to deliver, for example, a website. In the old days when agile was still new on the scene, we used to deliver the product in one piece. 

For example, 10 years ago, I had my own small business in textiles. The business was growing. I decided we needed to move from a SaaS platform to a standalone website. I found contractors, ordered the website, and they told me three months it’s done. I said that’s fine for me. I waited three months. Then I waited another three months. Then another three. Then they delivered me something that did not meet my requirements and which was not ready to use. 

How did it happen? The requirements were big. The developers and designers, everybody was too optimistic. That’s what happens when we are waiting for one big delivery. We consider that if we have three months, then probably we can wait for two months, and then we start doing something. The requirements are still too big because the customer doesn’t know their requirements in the beginning. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. They deliver something, it doesn’t fit the requirements again, and then they need extra time.

Kerry:  And then they take all of the available extra time, too. 

Dmitrii:  Exactly. So, you do not meet the deadline, you do not meet the red line, you do not meet anything. 

Kerry:  How do we do better? Tips for doing better. Let’s fix this problem.

Dmitrii:  In my example, there is a very easy tip. You should avoid the big bang. You do not have to deliver a product in one piece. Work incrementally. 

Another example of how you can do it better. Recently, we decided we needed another website for our online course on project management, so we ordered this website. What does the team do? They deliver it page by page, one page at a time. 

Not only one page at a time, furthermore, first they deliver a prototype, then they deliver design, and only then they deliver ready to use page. They deliver each page in three pieces. Every week they hand me over some deliverable, I give them feedback, they work on this feedback, they fix the bugs, they improve the deliverable, and I approve it. When I approve it, they send me an invoice. 

Sounds like a win-win, right? The faster they deliver, the faster I pay them. In the end, everybody is happy. Avoid the big bang and work incrementally. 

Kerry:  Break it into pieces and have milestones. 

Dmitrii:  Yes, exactly.

Kerry:  What else?

Dmitrii:  Another problem which leads to this Parkinson’s Law, gold plating. That’s an extremely bad practice. When we haven’t met the requirements, we still keep adding features and we keep polishing them so that the customer will be happy. Do we really know what the customer needs? No. I’m afraid we don’t. The customer does. To realize what the customer needs, to realize how to make them happy, we need to deliver first, have the feedback again, and then improve the product.

It’s not about making the perfect product. It’s about making a product that can receive the feedback from the customer and then we can improve it.

Kerry:  Just launch it and listen. 

Dmitrii:  Deliver faster, launch it, and listen. Exactly. But it’s not an easy thing to do. I can keep talking about avoiding gold plating, but… 

Kerry:  I think we get it. We’re overthinking it.

Dmitrii:  Yes. For example, six months ago, we were moving from one learning management system to another learning management system, much more powerful with a lot of features. What did we do? We tried to tune all of them. We were working on email chains, we trying to tune the program, enhance the design, and so we delayed, and delayed, we never actually launched, we never met the D-Day because we were trying to do better. Finally, we stopped, took a deep breath, and realized what’s going on. 

Kerry:  You caught yourself gold plating. 

Dmitrii:  Exactly. We just launched our free online course on that platform, enrolled the first 100 users, received feedback from them, and started working on the bugs. What about the features? We don’t use half of them. Actually, that feeds the data, most users, more than half of users, never use about 50% of the features we deliver. There is no need to add all of them, there is no need to polish all of them. Just launch and listen, as you said.

Kerry:  So, gold plating is out. Don’t do that. Another tip? 

Dmitrii:  This one sounds even easier, but it’s even harder to follow this advice. Avoid multitasking. Some people consider multitasking a good thing. People keep writing on their CVs, “I’m a great multitasker.” But there is research that shows only 2% to 5% of the world’s population are actually good at multitasking.

Kerry:  Right. It’s really task switching. 

Dmitrii:  Exactly. 

Kerry:  You have to ramp up and start the new task, and it’s inefficient. 

Dmitrii:  It is inefficient. It leads to procrastination, to less efficiency, to more mistakes, and in the end of the day, we have completed not more, but less. The best advice we can give to anybody is avoid multitasking yourself and help your team realize that multitasking is bad, how to improve, and stop switching from one task to the other all the time.

Kerry:  So, Parkinson’s Law is not actually a law. Now we know and we can do better. Dmitrii, thank you so much. This has been The Best Project Portfolio Management Show by Appfire. You can find more episodes at Hub.Appfire.com. We’ll see you next time.

Last updated: 2022-06-26

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